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Authors: Frances Brody

Death of an Avid Reader

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Dedicated to Geoffrey Forster, for many years librarian of the Leeds Library.

 

 

‘A circulating library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge'

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

One

The newspaper item had been clipped, framed, and now held pride of place on the library's landing.

June 21, 1923,
Leeds Herald

In a momentous discovery, the Leeds Library on Commercial Street has added the finest of jewels to its crown. Founded in 1768, this venerable institution already houses Selby's Ornithology, rare and magnificent coloured plates of birds; the works of St Thomas Aquinas; an enviable collection of Reformation and Civil War pamphlets and two hundred and one volumes of the
Encyclopédia Méthodique.
Scholars and visitors will now flock to our fair city from London, Edinburgh, from across Europe and beyond for a mere glimpse of its latest treasures.

A bequest was made to the library by a local gentleman, recently deceased and whose family remain anonymous. A tea chest of books was unpacked. Among the volumes lay the rare 1825 reprint of the first edition (1603) of
Hamlet.
The astonished and delighted librarian, Mr Samuel Lennox, reports that he has already dusted off several other much-prized volumes, including Captain William Bligh's
Narrative of the Mutiny on the Bounty
(1790), and Richard Sheridan's
A Trip to Scarborough,
both beautifully bound by Edwards of Halifax.

“We are privileged to have such a cherished and priceless collection in our midst,” said Mr Lennox. “Researchers and scholars will be assured of the warmest welcome.”

Dr Potter stood at the top of the library stairs. He read the article and scratched his head. ‘What will Lennox do next? Send a personal invitation to every book thief in the country?'

Two

The letter came by first delivery, along with the usual bills and charitable requests. The envelope was of good quality, neatly addressed and with a London postmark. I resisted until I had eaten a slice of toast, and then slit it open with my
Present from Robin Hood's Bay
paper knife. Embossed paper bore the Coulton coat of arms.

22 October, 1925

Cavendish Square

London

Dear Mrs Shackleton

On a matter of delicacy, I pray you will meet me on Tuesday next. Knowing you are a member of the Cavendish Square Ladies' Club, I suggest we meet there.

Yours sincerely

Jane Coulton

Folded inside the note was a cheque, drawn on Coutts Bank. One hundred guineas! This must be serious.

My Aunt Berta once pointed out Lady Coulton when we were at some long ago charity auction, an evening do at Claridge's. ‘She turns heads, Kate. Study her.'

Study her I did. She was beautiful, with an air of dignity and slight reserve; tall, with a good figure, graceful neck, regular features, and something I described to myself as brilliance, crowned by abundant coppery golden hair decorated with diamond-studded combs that sparkled under the glow of the chandelier. Cousin James was there that evening. He turned unusually poetic. ‘Her eyes, such a greenish-blue, as of the sea and sky on a grey day.'

It was his period for falling in love with figures from paintings. He had waxed lyrical over Elizabeth Siddal as Ophelia and so I could see why Lady Coulton enchanted him.

That must have been thirteen years ago. I was twenty-one, and nothing bad had ever happened.

Lady Coulton must be fifty years old now.

I pushed away my breakfast plate, reached for the writing case and replied to her letter, agreeing to meet on the day she suggested.

My house is of a modest size being the old coach house that once formed part of a grand estate in Headingley, North Leeds. The whole dwelling would fit easily into Lady Coulton's entrance hall, leaving a ballroom-size space for dancing.

I keep newspapers and magazines for far too long, according to my housekeeper. They are in a pile on the piano. Lifting down back copies of
The Times,
I turned the pages, looking for a mention of Lord or Lady Coulton; he speaking in the House of Lords, she at some social event. Nothing.

I would have liked one clue, however tiny.

Why is it that useless snippets of information lodge in the brain? It did not help to remember that, when in the country, Lady Coulton bred Beagles. Did she now prefer the country and her dogs, I wondered. Perhaps some squire or gamekeeper had caught her eye. I could not imagine Lady Coulton allowing herself to be blackmailed. Had the staid Lord Coulton taken up with a Gaiety girl? They had sons. Perhaps one of them had turned to gambling, or espionage for a foreign power.

*   *   *

When I bought the railway tickets, deciding to go to London and back in one day made me feel important, adventurous, and superbly discreet. I would lessen the chance of bumping into friends, arousing curiosity and having to come up with an explanation for my visit.

Now the day arrived. I dragged myself out of bed before daylight, recognising my plan as the worst idea since going to the fancy dress party as Vladimir Lenin, just because I had that false beard.

What if Lady Coulton's task required me to stay in London? I would need to shop for underwear, and arrange to have a trunk sent.

I dressed and stumbled downstairs. Fortunately, my trusty housekeeper, Mrs Sugden, was already up and about. An early riser, she was thoroughly dressed in her dark serge skirt, hand-knitted twinset and tightly-laced shoes, her grey hair done up in plaits.

Standing at the kitchen table, I drank tea while Mrs Sugden wrapped slices of bread and butter and a piece of a cheese and packed them with an apple in a brown paper bag.

Although her hair has turned grey and her bossy fussing would win her a gold medal, she is not yet forty.

‘Ladyship or not, she has a cheek, asking you to rush off to London. If it's so important, why doesn't she come here?'

‘Because she is paying, and paying well. And thank you but I don't need to take a snack. You have it. I'll eat breakfast on the train.'

‘I can't imagine a breakfast on the train will be worth eating. How can it be?'

‘I'll let you know.'

‘I'll put this food in your satchel.'

‘I was going to take my black bag.'

‘It's elegant but it holds nowt. You don't have to impress them London types.' She picked up
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
‘Is this little book going in?'

‘Yes, just for amusement. I'm going to Cavendish Square, and it features in the story. Dr Lanyon, Dr Jekyll's former best friend lives there.'

‘Then let's hope you don't bump into him.' She pulled on her coat.

‘Are you going out, at this hour?'

‘I'm walking up the road with you, Mrs Shackleton, to see you off safely and shut the garage door behind you.'

It was very kind of her. Such thoughtful gestures remind me that I made a fortunate choice when I engaged her all those years ago, at the end of the war.

Sookie the cat looked up from her spot on the hearth, opening a sleepy eye as we left the kitchen.

As she closed the door behind us, Mrs Sugden gave a hearty sigh. ‘It's a pity I can't drive. You should have asked Mr Sykes.'

‘No need. I can park by the railway station and then drive myself home.'

In early morning darkness, we walked in silence to my garage. There was a sharp chill in the air. Spectral grey mist curled through hedges, as though some celestial giant had blown ghostly smoke rings. It gave me a strange feeling to witness this gossamer vapour that in another hour would be gone. A small mound of dead leaves had gathered where the cobbles dipped. The leaves scattered when a sudden breeze whooshed them to nooks and crannies new.

My sage green autumn suit with its warmly lined three-quarter jacket has deep pockets. I touched my train ticket with gloved fingers, to make sure it was still there.

I house my car in a former stable, rented from the owners of the mansion at the top of my road. I opened the double doors and handed the keys to Mrs Sugden. The motor started without complaint. I edged forward, turning onto the narrow road.

Mrs Sugden closed the garage door. ‘Have a good journey.'

‘I'll try.'

‘Be careful of them Londoners, Mrs Shackleton. If this business was straightforward, her ladyship wouldn't be sending two hundred and more miles for you.'

I waved goodbye, and drove away. On Woodhouse Lane, the pavements were busy with men and women walking to work. The lucky ones wore winter coats and the unlucky, or hardy, huddled in their jackets and home-knitted scarves. They wore caps, trilbies, berets or headscarves. One jaunty young woman sported a fine tam o' shanter with a big red pom-pom.

Carefully, I waited to proceed as a blinkered horse patiently drew its cart into Cardigan Road.

A tram rattled by, both decks packed, standing room only. Cyclists dodged daringly across the tracks.

It took me another fifteen minutes to reach the station. As I drew into the yard, an elderly porter came to the car.

‘Luggage, madam?'

‘No. I'll be returning this evening.'

He stared. ‘Is that so, madam?'

This would be a tale for the supper table when he arrived home. ‘You'll never guess what happened to me today. I parked a motorcar for a mad woman, off to London and back in a day.'

I slipped him a florin.

The Ladies' Waiting Room was empty. A small fire gave out very little heat. Sitting on the bench did not melt the ice in my veins. I fetched a chair and placed it almost on the hearth. I was early for the 7.50 a.m. train which would arrive at King's Cross at 11.30 a.m. Since Lady Coulton had failed to state a time, I had telegraphed the club to say that I would be arriving at noon. I settled down to read my book, and wait for the train.

Of course, I could not settle. I bought a newspaper, and went to the platform far too soon. The train was still being cleaned, but since the first class carriages were swept and dusted first, a porter opened the door and directed me to my seat.

BOOK: Death of an Avid Reader
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