Authors: Andrew Taylor
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Historical, #General
Saturday, 22 February 1930
My hand is shaking so much I can hardly hold a pen. Major Serridge--he says I must call him Joseph now--called at two o'clock in a taxi. First he took me to see dear little Jacko, who was so pleased to see his mistress. He put his muddy paws all over my skirt, not that I minded, and tried to jump up into my arms. I truly believe he wanted me to carry him away.
I met Mr. Howlett, who is the Chief Beadle at Rosington Place. He is looking after Jacko for the time being. Jacko seems quite at home in Mr. Howlett's little lodge. Joseph says that he has taken care of everything, but I gave Mr. Howlett an extra ten shillings just to make sure that Jacko has all he needs. The little darling looked so sorrowful as we were leaving him that I had to keep turning back to pat him.
Afterward, Joseph asked if I should like to see inside the chapel in Rosington Place. We strolled up the cul-desac, and it seemed deliciously natural for me to take his arm. He gave my hand a tiny squeeze.
We went through a door and walked along part of the lovely old cloister. Joseph pointed out the remains of the staircase that must once have led up to other apartments in the Bishop's Palace. The chapel itself is on the first floor. It is surprisingly large, much bigger than it seems from the outside, with a great deal of interesting stained glass, old statues of saints, etc., etc. We had the place quite to ourselves.
After we had looked around the chapel, Joseph showed me the crypt. This runs the whole length of the building and is very plain and simple. A room to one side is called the Ossuary, but the door was locked. He said that he always thought this to be a particularly holy spot. I told him I felt its aura of sanctity as well.
He smiled sadly. "As God is my witness in this sacred place," he said, "I meant every word I said the other day."
My eyes filled with tears. He said he didn't want to offend me but he thought of me as his very own darling. Would I make him the happiest man in the world by agreeing at least to consider his proposal of a private marriage? He went on to say that of course as soon as he was a free man, we could be married in the eyes of the world as well as of God.
"I'm not as young as I was," he said in a voice that shook with emotion. "I feel I must take my happiness when I can. It won't wait for me." He looked meaningfully at me and said that of course we had both learned that from experience.
I knew that he was referring to Vernon, my lost love. Isn't it odd? I hardly think of him now. At the back of my mind was the thought that, as I'm older than Joseph, I have even less time than he does.
There and then, in this sacred and beautiful place, he went down on one knee and took from his pocket a small maroon box. He held it out and opened it. Three diamonds sparkled on a gold hoop. It was the most beautiful ring I had ever seen.
He spoke these very words: "Will you--dare I hope that you will consent one day to be my wife?"
I could hardly breathe. I let him take my hand, my left hand, and gently remove the glove. He slipped the ring onto my finger. It fit perfectly. He bent his great, grizzled head and kissed the hand. I was trembling violently. With my right hand, I stroked his hair, so surprisingly vigorous for a man of his age. I heard him give a sob.
I can write no more this evening. My heart is too full. Joseph, my own dear one.
The ring and the chapel, that beastly little dog and all those sickly sweet nothings--didn't she understand what was happening? Joseph Serridge was asking a respectable spinster several years his senior to come and live in sin with him. Did she really think he loved her? Did she really think that her money had nothing to do with it?
On Thursday morning Rory went to the library in Charleston Street to fight his way through the crowd and consult the Situations Vacant columns on the noticeboards. Living at Bleeding Heart Square was more expensive than boarding at Mrs. Rutter's, mainly because he had to find all his own meals. I must economize, he thought, perhaps learn to cook. It can't be that difficult.
Hopelessness threatened to overwhelm him. Employers wanted reliable gardeners and experienced parlormen, not reporters or copywriters. In any case, you probably needed to buy the newspapers when they reached the streets at six in the morning, rather than wait until the library opened. Even if he found a suitable job advertised, it might well be gone by now.
His eyes strayed toward the shelves of reference books in search of distraction. He caught sight of a familiar red spine:
. He fetched the portly red volume and turned to the letter C.
leaped out at him, giving him a jolt of recognition tinged with dismay.
George Rupert Cassington, second Baron Cassington of Flaxern, born 1874, educated Rugby and St. John's College, Oxford. And so on. He had two sons by his first wife, who had died in 1904, and a daughter, Pamela, by his second wife, Elinor, whom he had married in 1908. There were three addresses--21 Upper Mount Street in Mayfair, Monkshill Park near Lydmouth, and Drumloch Lodge, Inverness-shire.
Rory closed the book. He had learned a little but not enough. The fever was upon him. Not a fever, exactly--more a malign hunger: as a child he had stolen a box of chocolates from his eldest sister, carried it to a hiding place at the bottom of the garden and gobbled the contents in a furtive haste that had little to do with pleasure; even as he ate, he knew he would soon be sick, he knew his theft would lead to punishment.
He took down
Debrett's Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage and Companionage
. There were the Cassingtons again, and this time there was more information about the peer's second wife. She had previously married Captain William Ingleby-Lewis, whom she had divorced in 1907 and by whom she had had a daughter, Lydia Elizabeth. He looked up the Langstones, and there she was again, wife of Marcus John Scott Langstone. She had been born in 1905. So she was twenty-nine; she looked younger. Marcus was older. No children, as yet. They lived at 9 Frogmore Place, Lancaster Gate, when they were in London--not as grand an address as the Cassingtons, Rory thought--and at Longhope House in Gloucestershire. Langstone had been at Marlborough.
Rory swore under his breath, and a slumbering tramp sitting across the table from him opened one eye. He and Lydia Langstone might at present live under the same roof but they belonged to different worlds. Not that it mattered, since she was married and besides he still considered himself engaged to Fenella, whatever Fenella might say. What galled him was the disparity between them. He was forced to live somewhere like Bleeding Heart Square because he was poor and getting poorer. But, given her background, Lydia must be playing with poverty. The French had a phrase for it as they had a phrase for everything: she was living
en bon socialiste
, toying with being poor, being ordinary, and it was a damned patronizing insult to those who were really poor and really ordinary.
Just like that fellow Dawlish that Fenella is so fond of.
Was that the real reason he was angry--simple, unjustifiable jealousy? Rory closed the book with a bang. The tramp opened both eyes.
As Rory stood up, Lydia Langstone herself came into the reference room. For an instant he felt like a guilty schoolboy caught in the act of something dreadful and clutched the book to his chest as if to hide it from her. She caught his eye, nodded to him and turned away to select a magazine,
, from a rack by the window. He put the book back on the shelf, seized his hat and went out. She didn't look up.
A gray pall of rain hung over the city. It suited his mood. He walked aimlessly down to Holborn and allowed the flow of pedestrians to draw him steadily westward. So why the devil was Lydia Langstone living in Bleeding Heart Square when she could have been living in comfort in Bayswater? It was quite a puzzle, and if nothing else a distraction from his inability to work out what to do with his own life.
By the time he reached Regent Street, the rain was petering out. He crossed the road and drifted into Mayfair. A taxi jolted in and out of a pothole, spraying water that soaked the bottoms of his only respectable trousers. He swore aloud. The spurt of anger shifted the direction of his thoughts. Suddenly he was curious to see where Lydia Langstone had lived, to glimpse the sort of world she had turned her back on.
Upper Mount Street was lined with Georgian houses that might have started life looking more or less the same as each other but had long since diversified according to the wealth and whims of individual proprietors. Number twenty-one had a bow window on the first floor, a Daimler parked outside and a purple door whose brass furniture gave off a soft, moneyed gleam. Tubbed and perfectly symmetrical bay trees stood like sentries on either side of the doorway. The Daimler had pale blue curtains on the rear windows. A uniformed chauffeur was buffing the windscreen.
Rory strolled along the opposite pavement to the end of the street. Like a character in a detective story, he pretended to post a letter in the pillar box to disarm the suspicions of anyone who might be watching. He crossed over the road and paused to light a cigarette. As he was flicking the match into the gutter, the door of number twenty-one opened and two men came out.
The first was small and elderly, with a deeply lined face. He was wearing a top hat and a dark overcoat. The second was taller and much younger--blond-haired, with broad shoulders, a florid complexion and large blue eyes that glanced carelessly at Rory and away.
The chauffeur opened the rear door. There was a delay as a maid rushed out of the house, holding an attache case which she gave to the younger man.
"You're always forgetting something," his companion said to him with a bray of laughter. "I tell Ellie that your memory is worse than mine."
Rory turned the corner. Lord Cassington, he thought, and Marcus John Scott Langstone, the husband of Lydia? How odd to be able to put probable faces on names that an hour or so ago had been no more than words in a reference book, abstractions and nothing more. Ellie must be Elinor, Lady Cassington. He had heard of none of them a few days ago--none of them knew him, none of them had harmed him--but still he felt a blind aggression that made him clench his fists inside his coat pockets.
Perhaps Sergeant Narton and Fenella's Bolshie friends had the right idea after all. Hang the bastards from the lampposts. But perhaps spare a few of those already living
en bon socialiste
Lydia drank her tea, which was sweet, strong and apparently flavored with boot polish, smoked a cigarette and then continued with the task that Mr. Shires had given her that morning. Her job was to work her way down a list of unpaid accounts, telephoning each client to inquire whether they had received Shires and Trimble's invoice. Whether or not they claimed they hadn't, Lydia was to tell them that another was on its way and that Shires and Trimble would be obliged to have the matter settled without delay.
"Then we give them another fortnight to stew in their own juice before we threaten legal proceedings," Mr. Shires had told her, a peppermint bulging like an unpleasant swelling in his left cheek. "It's a tiresome business, Mrs. Langstone, I don't mind telling you. It's not the law that's the problem. It's the damned clients, excuse my French. Off you go now, and I want the list back at lunchtime. Mark on it how you get on with each one. Half of them will say the check's in the post. Must think we were born yesterday, eh?"
Lydia stubbed out her cigarette and picked up the telephone. It was connected to the little switchboard in the outer office, which also served the partners' line from the private office. The connections were erratic and she heard Mr. Shires' voice in her ear. There was a crossed line.
"...one can't rule out the possibility," Mr. Shires was saying.
"Why not?" Lydia recognized the voice as Serridge's.
"Sorry," Lydia said and put the receiver down.
The door of the private office opened.
"Mrs. Langstone? In here a moment, please."
She followed Mr. Shires into the room.
"Close the door." He sat down at his desk and waited until she had obeyed. "How are you settling in?"
"All right, I think." Lydia tried a smile. "I'm probably not the best judge."
"So far so good on that front, I understand. Early days yet, of course." He looked at her and blinked his watery eyes. "I assume it was you on the telephone then."
"Yes." She paused, and added, "Sir."
"We must get an engineer to deal with it. Ask Mr. Smethwick to get on to it right away." Shires gave her a wintry smile. "By the way, I was having a confidential conversation. Did you overhear anything?"
"No, sir. As soon as I realized you were on the phone, I broke the connection."
His eyes held hers. She fought the temptation to shift guiltily from one foot to another and stared back at him. He seemed to approve of what he saw because he nodded and gave her a smile.
"Very well, Mrs. Langstone. You had better get back to your work. Be sure to pass on my message to Mr. Smethwick."
She left the room, wondering whether he had believed her. She relayed the instruction to Mr. Smethwick.
"Righty ho." He looked at her not unkindly and said, "Did he tear a strip off you? He nearly murdered Lorna here when she had a crossed line."
Miss Tuffley simpered with quiet pride.
"It could have been worse," Lydia said.
"Old Shires can be perfectly foul when he wants to," Miss Tuffley whispered. "You wouldn't think of it to look at him but he's got a mean streak a mile wide."
"Hush," commanded Mr. Reynolds, the chief clerk, peering down at them over his tortoiseshell spectacles.
Miss Tuffley actually winked at Lydia before bending her shining head over her machine.
At half past twelve Mr. Shires went out to lunch, carefully locking the door of the private office. Lydia was left in solitary charge of the general office between one o'clock and one thirty, which was, she supposed, a mark of approval.
Mr. Reynolds had been working on the accounts, and he had left the clients' ledger on his high desk. Mainly to relieve her boredom, Lydia opened the heavy book. Mr. Serridge must have talked to Mr. Shires about employing her. This morning she had overheard the two men talking on the phone. Presumably Serridge was a client of the firm, perhaps in connection with his purchase of 7 Bleeding Heart Square. It should be easy enough to find out.
Over three quarters of the pages had been used, and the invoices went back to the end of 1927. The chief clerk wrote a beautiful hand, upright, elegant and easy to read. Lydia skimmed through the pages, working backward. Her eyes ran up and down the column that contained the clients' names. She moved through the years, faster and faster as she grew more accustomed to the task, until she reached the first entry in December 1927.
Afterward she closed the heavy book with a sigh and stretched to relieve her aching shoulders. There had been no mention of Mr. Serridge. Nor, come to that, of Miss Penhow, the lady who had owned the house, the lady who had gone away.
When Rory arrived, he found Fenella washing up in the kitchen. She wore an overlarge pinafore apron and looked like a child playing at being grown-up. He took a tea towel and dried a knife.
"Have you eaten yet?" he asked.
"There hasn't been time."
"Perhaps we can have something together, later."
She put a saucepan down on the wooden draining board with unnecessary violence and didn't reply.
"What's up?" Rory said.
"Just a gas bill. It's rather more than I'd budgeted for."
"If you let me, I'll help."
She threw him a smile. "I knew you'd say that. You're very kind."
"That sounds like an epitaph," Rory said. "May I?"
He knew she was refusing more than money. "Where does the cutlery go?"
"Still the same place. Left-hand drawer of the dresser. What have you been up to?"
Rory ignored the fact that he had spent the morning traipsing across London, looking at the former home of Lydia Langstone and feeling angry with wealthy people flirting with poverty. "Looking for a job. Nothing new's come up but I've got a couple of irons in the fire."
"It's not much fun, is it?"
"All this grubbing for money." Fenella threw the mop into the sudsy water. "I hate being poor. I need a fairy godmother."
As though in an answer to prayer, there came the ring of a bell.
"Perhaps that's her," Rory said. "I'll go." He gave her a wry smile, trying to turn the whole thing into a joke. "Are you at home?"
"I'm always at home," she said.
Rory went into the hall and opened the door. A man was standing on the doorstep with his hat in his hand. He smiled at Rory with the easy charm of someone used to being liked. It was that fellow Dawlish. Rory pretended not to recognize him.
"Good evening. Is Miss Kensley in?"
"Yes. Would you like to come in? I'll fetch her. Who shall I say it is?"
"Julian Dawlish. Thanks."
Rory showed him into the drawing room and left him standing on the hearthrug in front of the dying fire. He was not the sort of chap you would take into the kitchen.
Fenella blushed when he told her who was waiting for her. She pulled off the apron and asked Rory to tell Dawlish that she would be with them in a moment.
In the drawing room he and Dawlish talked about the weather and skirted rather uneasily around the subject of the Spanish strikes and Catalonia's abortive attempt to declare its independence from the rest of the country. Fenella's footsteps hurried to and fro across her bedroom overhead. At last she came in and the men sprang to their feet. She had changed her dress and combed her hair. Rory thought she had probably done something to her face as well.
Dawlish loped toward her, flannel trousers flapping around his legs. "I hope I haven't called at an inconvenient time, Miss Kensley," he said in his soft, expensive drawl. "You were kind enough to say I could drop in if I were passing but casual callers can be a frightful nuisance, can't they?"
She gave him her hand and smiled. "Not in this case. I hope Mr. Wentwood's been looking after you."
Dawlish smiled benevolently at the space between Fenella and Rory. "Absolutely," he murmured.
They sat down and lit cigarettes from Mr. Dawlish's case.
"What have you been up to?" he asked Fenella.
"I re-papered most of the lodger's bedroom today."
"I just don't know how you do it all." Dawlish looked admiringly at her. "Running this place and so on. She's never idle, is she, Wentwood?"
Rory muttered in agreement.
"Have you eaten, by the way?" Dawlish went on, his eyes on Fenella. "I haven't had anything since breakfast in fact, and I'm starving. I wonder whether you'd like a bite to eat. There's quite a pleasant little Italian place in Hampstead." He hesitated, only for a fraction of a second but it was enough. "We could all go, of course," he added, turning to Rory.
"I've eaten already, thanks," Rory said.
"Oh. Never mind."
"It would be lovely," Fenella said. "But are you sure that--"
"Of course I'm sure. I wanted to ask your advice in any case, so we can mix business with pleasure."
"Advice?" Fenella asked. "What about?"
"I'm writing a pamphlet. Actually, it might even be a talk on the wireless. I know a chap at the BBC. It's about the role of women--how they can make a difference in the class struggle and so on. Whether women are naturally against Fascism."
"Are they?" Rory said, determined to be contrary.
Dawlish grinned at him, refusing to take umbrage. "That's what we want to find out. But I'm sure Miss Kensley has a better idea of how to do it than I do."
It had been neatly contrived, Rory thought bitterly, as he walked back to Bleeding Heart Square. There had been no reason for him to stay, since he claimed to have eaten already, which he hadn't. Dawlish, ever the perfect little gent, had offered him a lift to the nearest Tube station, which Rory equally politely had declined. He walked partly to save money and partly because it fed a masochistic appetite within himself to feel even more miserable than he already was.
There was, he accepted, no one he could reasonably blame for this state of affairs except himself. Fenella had given him fair warning that their engagement was suspended, probably over: she was quite within her rights to change her mind and prefer someone else to him. He himself was hardly much of a catch. But Fenella had been a central feature of his emotional landscape for so long that her absence from it was hard to envisage.
He plodded home. In a side street off the Clerkenwell Road he stopped for a pint in a pub that sold only beer. The place chimed perfectly with his mood. It had grimy sawdust on the floor and smelled of cats' urine. Surly men played shove-ha'penny and dominoes, and stared at him with surreptitious hostility until he left.
The shops of Hatton Garden were dark and shuttered. In Charleston Street the windows of the Crozier were blazing with light. Someone was thumping the keys of a piano inside the saloon bar and producing a sound that was just recognizable as "The Teddy Bears' Picnic." He turned into the alley leading to the square and hesitated. He wanted whisky, he thought, he wanted a whole bloody bottle of the stuff.
The music from the pub was gathering in volume, and people were singing. He didn't want to get drunk among all that cheerfulness. Besides, Ingleby-Lewis would probably be there, and perhaps Fimberry or even Serridge. He still had nearly half a bottle of gin in his flat. Drinking alone was far more appealing than that dreadful jollity inside the pub. It would be cheaper too.
He left the alley and passed into the relative gloom of Bleeding Heart Square. It was very quiet after the din of the pub. Suddenly the silence was broken by running footsteps. He had time to register that they were behind him, that they belonged to more than one person, and that they were coming toward him. He turned toward the sound.
But he was much too late. A heavy blow landed on his upper left arm, just below the shoulder. In a tiny instant of lucidity he realized that if he hadn't started to turn, it would have been his collarbone. Someone cannoned into him, sending him sprawling across wet cobbles, jarring his body with the violence of the fall.
He writhed on the ground, struggling to get up, and grabbed a man's arm, as unyielding as an iron bar. Heavy breathing filled his ears. He sensed shadowy figures surrounding him.
A boot hammered into his ribs. He cried out. He grabbed the man's wrist and pulled, trying to haul himself up. His nose exploded in pain and his head jerked back. He fell back on the cobbles. The boot went into his ribs again. He was lying on his back now with someone holding his shoulders down and somebody else trying to pull apart his legs. He twisted away but they were too strong for him.
Someone punched the inside of his thigh.
Christ, they're going for my balls
. He lost his grip on the wrist. His hands curled into fists. He lashed out and was rewarded with a grunt. Then a blow--a kick?--landed in his crotch and he screamed, a high, inhuman sound.
"Listen to me, you bastard," a voice snarled very close to his ear, penetrating the white curtain of pain. "I'll say this only once. And if you don't take notice I'm going to cut your prick off and shove it down your mouth."
A door opened somewhere. The music was suddenly louder as if the teddy bears were pouring into Bleeding Heart Square itself. Rory's shoulders and legs were free. He rolled onto his side, curling into a protective huddle. He heard voices and running footsteps.
"Hey, I say!" a slurred male voice said. "Mind where you're going, old man. What's the rush?"
The footsteps receded. Now there were other footsteps, much slower and less regular.
"I say," the voice said again. "You all right, old chap? Bit squiffy, eh?"
Another door opened, and another wedge of light spilled into the square. Rory forced open his eyes but the pain made it hard to focus. He recognized the voice rather than the dark shape looming over him. He tried to speak but there was blood on his face and some of it had got inside his mouth and made him cough.
"I don't think those fellows liked the cut of your jib," Captain Ingleby-Lewis continued.
There were more footsteps, lighter and faster than the others.
"Father, what's happening?"
"Hello, my dear. I think someone's had a bit of an accident."
Rory struggled into a sitting position. Lydia Langstone was on one side of him and her father was on the other.
"Mr. Wentwood--what on earth is going on?"
"Someone..." He stopped trying to get up as a twinge of pain made him groan. "Someone attacked me."
"Can you stand?" Lydia asked.
"It's a damned disgrace," Captain Ingleby-Lewis said. "This wouldn't have happened before the war, you know."
"What--what wouldn't?" Rory asked.
"This sort of barefaced robbery. What can you expect with these Bolsheviks everywhere? It makes Jack think he's as good as his master. I'd hang the lot of them if I had my way. It's the only answer."
Rory groggily maneuvered himself onto his hands and knees.
"Father," Lydia said, "help Mr. Wentwood up."
"Eh? Oh yes. Of course."
Ingleby-Lewis hooked an arm under Rory's, the one that had taken the blow, and pulled. Rory squealed with pain. Ingleby-Lewis started back and nearly sat down.
"Let me help," Lydia said.
Together they pulled Rory to his feet. He stood swaying for a moment, supported by Lydia and Ingleby-Lewis on either side. "The Teddy Bears' Picnic" tinkled and thumped across the square. He had not realized before how damned sinister the tune was.
"Damn," he said. "I hope I'm not bleeding on you."
"Don't worry," Lydia said. "We'd better get you back to the house. Can you walk?"
"I think so."
"We need to find a policeman. What did they steal?"
"I don't think they stole anything."
"I arrived just in time," said Ingleby-Lewis with a note of congratulation in his voice. "They're yellow at heart, you know, scum like that."
"How many were there?"
"Two," Ingleby-Lewis said. "Or was it three? Great big chaps, in any case. Cowardly devils. As soon as they saw me, they--"
"Let's take Mr. Wentwood back to the house. Then perhaps you could find a police officer."
"Not much point, my dear."
"But Mr. Wentwood has been attacked."
"It does happen, I'm afraid. Especially around here. Friday night and all that. Nothing was stolen. I'm not sure the police would be very sympathetic and frankly it's a waste of time. They're not going to catch the blackguards, after all. Much better to get Mr. Wentwood cleaned up."
Lydia stooped and picked up something that glinted in the light. "Is this yours?"
Rory blinked at her.
"This cufflink," she said with a touch of impatience.
"I don't know." It was hard enough to stand, let alone talk. "Probably."
She held it out to him. Rory swayed, wondering if he would be sick. She pushed the cufflink into the pocket of his raincoat and took his arm. "Hold up," she said. "We'll get you inside."
The first step made him howl with agony, but as the three of them moved slowly toward the door of the house, the pain receded a little. Captain Ingleby-Lewis was less than steady on his feet. Rory wasn't sure who was supporting whom. Once they reached the hallway, Rory let go of Lydia's arm and took firm hold of the newel post.
"Can you manage the stairs?" she asked.
"I think so. I'm sorry to be such a bore."
"It's not your fault. Come up to our flat and I'll get some hot water."
"Brandy," Ingleby-Lewis said behind them with the air of a man who says
"That's what one needs in a situation like this. I'll see if the Crozier can provide some, shall I?"
Lydia took Rory into the sitting room she shared with her father, and made him sit down at the table. Ingleby-Lewis set off to the Crozier on his errand of mercy. Lydia went away for a moment.
Rory thought that the room seemed tidier and cleaner than before. Indeed, it looked almost cheerful. There was a book lying open with its spine upward, as though Lydia had put it down in a hurry on the table when she heard the commotion outside. He craned to see the title, and the movement made him wince. Virginia Woolf's
A Room of One's Own
. How odd. He would have expected an Agatha Christie novel or even a well-thumbed copy of
Horse & Hound
. A snapshot protruded from the pages, a marker no doubt. He made out the top half of a rather pretty girl in a bathing costume, surrounded by several grinning young men with little moustaches. He heard footsteps and turned away.
Lydia came into the room with a basin of hot water, a towel and a cloth. She soaked the cloth in the water, wrung it out and advised him to wipe his face. He obeyed her. Afterward he looked up at her.
"How do I look?"
"Not too bad. The nosebleed's stopped. Are your teeth all right?"
He ran his tongue over them. "I think they're all there. One of them's chipped."