Part One; In Which A Mystery Is Introduced
Original characters and situations are copyright © Ceres Wunderkind 2006
I heard the odd little tale that I'm going to pass on to you today at one of Lady Clifton's salons. No, not the present Lady Clifton; her mother Lady Mabel, the sometime Dowager. You might not remember her.
It was one of those literary society affairs that were so popular a few years ago. They're rather out of fashion now, but, putting it briefly, if you were in Town for the Season and you were mixed up in some way with the world of books, and you could be relied upon not to insult the guest of honour or attempt to seduce one of the footmen, you were sure to be invited to one of Lady Mabel's bunfights. Everybody went to one sooner or later, it was said.
They were held in her family's London house in Upper Grosvenor Street, just off the old May Fair which used to run next to Jekyll Park. Their pattern rarely changed, which was a good thing, I think. We needed some stability in those unstable times, did we not? Anyway, there was always a good spread in the ballroom with a string quartet or small Ladies' Orchestra tucked away in a corner playing something unobtrusive. Lady Mabel would circulate busily among her guests, doing her social duty, and so would I.
The crowd on this occasion comprised the usual admixture; rich publishers, poor writers (often in both senses of the word) their eager girl- or boy-friends in tow and wearing the most horrible clothes – all grubby old tweed and vilely-coloured coal-silk – one or two plump politicians and, to make up the numbers, a few members of that general Society whose job it is to support the party-giver; keeping the wheels oiled and the festivities humming along nicely, in which category I suppose I must include myself. I was pretty good at it and never lacked for invitations, either to parties in London or to country house weekends. If at any time you have an hour or two free, my dear, I could show you my old everyday books. I'm quite certain you'd find them absolutely fascinating. Their greatest value to me – apart from the photograms and drawings they contain – lies in the guest lists and other personal information I record after every function I attend. I have settled more than one heated argument by reference to my old books and diaries. But wait; I'm being forgetful – I've showed them to you dozens of times, haven't I?
So; my records inform me that my daemon Sandy and I were at Lady Mabel's on one particular evening in November 20—. I shall be no more specific than that. It was about ten o'clock, more or less, and I was giving myself a brief respite from the hard work of social lubrication with a spot of the personal variety. In other words I had acquired a glass of Lady Mabel's champagne and was standing by to the buffet table loading my plate with canapés. You may have noticed that I'm a dab hand with buffets, especially the delicate art of stacking as many comestibles as possible onto the dinky little plates you tend to find at these functions. If I may pass on an avuncular hint, it's a good idea to begin with lettuce leaves as they have the useful property of overlapping the sides of the plate and providing a support for whatever gourmet superstructure you may feel like erecting on top. I was turning from the salads and heading in the general direction of the cold meats when I saw a lady with a plate which, I thought at first, she must have smuggled out of the kitchen, it was so large. I sidled up to her, absolutely oozing curiosity.
'I say,' said I, 'where did you get that splendid great cartwheel?'
'Do you mean this?' she replied, holding up her plate.
'From the end of the table, of course,' she said, pointing to the same stack of plates from which I had taken mine. I looked again. And then I realised what she had done. Rather than simply allowing her radicchio leaves to extend from the side of the plate, she had first built a foundation of celery sticks; cantilevered out and held in place by a pile of potato salad in the middle. She had then overlaid an interlocking round of lettuce on top of it, like the roof over the vaulting arches in a great Oratory. On top of that she was piling a heap of caviar, chicken legs, rollmop herrings, Doytch sausage and all the other good things that Lady Mabel's expert kitchen was accustomed to providing. Her daemon assisted her from time to time with a dainty paw.
'I'm most impressed,' I said, and I meant it.
You may be forming a mental picture of this lady. She must have been, you may think, one of those ill-dressed, starving-in-a-garret, writers I mentioned earlier or, perhaps, the overstuffed wife of some captain of industry. But no, she appeared to be neither of those things. For a start, despite her evidently healthy appetite, she was tall and gracefully slim, positively svelte, in fact. And to disprove any idea you may have that she was indeed starving and this was likely her only square meal of the week, she was dressed in a long, beautifully cut evening gown in fuchsia satin. I spotted her wedding ring straight away, of course. It is my job to notice such things.
I was wondering what she was doing at Lady Mabel's scribblers' shindig. She seemed not to fit into any of the general categories that I have described. However, it would have been a dreadful faux pas to have shown any sign of my inner uncertainty, so I extended my right hand to her.
'Julian Hastings,' I said. 'I'm very pleased to meet you.'
'Honor Breight,' she replied and we shook hands. Our daemons did whatever it is that daemons do when their humans are introduced.
'Shall we…?' I asked, and indicated an empty table. She nodded and allowed me to shepherd her to a chair. We narrowly beat that old bore Theodore Huwes to the spot. I dashed back to the buffet table, fetched some knives and forks and, acting on a hunch, brought us both large glasses of lemonade rather than wine.
I sat down and Miss Breight picked up her lemonade with evident relief. She took a long draught. 'What a clever man you are, Mister Hastings' she said, putting down her half-empty glass. 'How did you know I would prefer a long drink?'
I pointed to her plate. 'You have a lot to get through there, Miss Breight, and the room is quite warm. Now then, tuck in!'
She ate with a refined ferocity which quite took me aback. Without breaching the rules of good manners at any point she… demolished is the only word, the contents of her plate. I did my best to keep up with her. And while we ate, we talked.
I have said that I had spotted her wedding ring, and yet I still addressed her as "Miss". Why was that? The answer is simple. Although I had never met the lady before, I had most certainly heard of her as, of course, have you. For professional purposes she had remained unmarried and no older than twenty-two, even though in real life, and despite the artful use of cosmetic preparations, I doubted she would see forty again.
'I'm sure you're tired of being told this,' I said, taking a bite of some excellent white pudding, 'but I'm a great admirer of your work.'
'Oh, I never tire of being flattered, Mister Hastings.'
'Stuff and nonsense! I never flatter.'
Miss Breight narrowed her eyes. Her daemon stared at my Sandy, whose wings flapped in slight agitation. 'What, never?'
'Hardly ever.' I smiled my best get-out-of-gaol smile. 'My nieces simply adore your stories.'
'I'm so glad. And you? Do you simply adore them too? Have you read them?'
The lady's directness was a trifle disconcerting. Really, writers are more egotistical even than actors, and that is saying a bundle, is it not?
'Yes, as a matter of fact, I have. Uncle Julian is often asked to read bedtime stories to his sister's little girls. And, I have to say, your tales are their favourites.'
'That is pleasant to hear, Mister Hastings. But I'd like to know what you think of the stories, not whether darling Gwendoline and Cicely find them appropriately soporific.'
'Their names are Fay and Louise and they are always completely enthralled by the Comrades' exploits. But, as for myself…' I paused for thought. 'I would say that, while at no time containing material unsuitable for young members of the fairer sex your stories contain something more… a resonance, perhaps, of adult concerns. Or to put it another way, I never grow tired of reading them because, while the adventures of the Three are frequently dashing and exciting, the emotions involved go beyond mere thrills into something deeper… and more rewarding than one expects… something spiritual…' My voice trailed away. It was unusual for me, though admittedly I'm not a professional critic, to face up to a piece of work which I was able to analyse at first glance. Most writing, I find, is either ridiculously trite or gratuitously unintelligible. The Comrades Three books, it seemed, were neither facile, despite their wide readership, nor wilfully obscure, notwithstanding the respectful reviews they received in literary journals. To find myself unable to put a finger on the secret of the success of Miss Breight's books was bad enough, but it was doubly embarrassing to be lost for words in front of their author. I must have blushed.
'Mister Hastings,' said Miss Breight, 'You're not just a clever man, are you? I think that, despite appearances, you're rather a nice one too.' She smiled broadly and rested her hand on mine for a moment. I blushed again, for I had had a kind of small epiphany. I suddenly felt, as we all feel sometimes, that I was in the presence of someone who was my superior in every way; in beauty, wit and charm. That she had the grace not to take advantage of that superiority only contributed to it, to my chagrin.
Julian, said Sandy in my inner ear, don't worry. She's used to situations like this. Just treat her normally. It's what she wants.
So: 'Will you be going into the country for the Twelfth?' I asked, and she said that she would if the pressure of work permitted and told me about her friend who lived near Oban and owned his own sea-loch and we spoke of fishing and deer-stalking and ghillies and their faults, and whether the Purdey or the Sheringham was the better gun. And just as I was thinking that it was about time I got back to work in the greater throng and was wondering to whom I could hand Miss Breight we were interrupted by a large, loud, middle-aged lady with bright red hair.
'Julian, darling! Do you think you could possibly see to that young man by the piano? I think he wants to play for us and I'm most dreadfully afraid it's going to be some frightful thing he's written himself, all F sharp minors, thirteenths and funny time signatures. Please prevent him, for the sake of all our sanities.'
Naturally, I had stood up immediately the lady had spoken. 'But of course, my dear Mabel. What would you prefer him to do?'
'Why, make him go away, you silly man! Or at least not play his beastly sonata or whatever it is in my ballroom.'
'Certainly, old chum of mine.'
Lady Mabel sat in the chair I had just vacated. 'Go on, then. Shoo!'
I shooed as I was told, but as I made my way through the crowd I overheard Mabel say to Miss Breight, 'What ho, Sunny, old thing! And what have you been up to lately?'
- 0 -
As I have already suggested, I had known from the first that "Honor Breight" was a nom-de-plume. One can't hang around the fringes of the publishing world for long without becoming aware that writers are – for the most part – strange solitary creatures who prefer to hide behind pseudonyms, either because they are too shy or, in some cases, downright ashamed of the work they produce. But why would this lady, who was clearly not at all shy and whose books were read and admired all around the globe, need to disguise her identity? It was a mystery that I very much wanted to solve. But not now, perhaps. I had work to do for Lady Mabel.
I persuaded the young pianist that his masterpiece deserved no less an auditorium than the Queen's Hall for its first performance and promised to see if I couldn't put in a word for him with the impresario Sir Henry Butterworth, who had been a close friend of mine since we had both been at Ercall College together. He believed me, and returned to his friends waving his manuscript score in great excitement. I sighed and promised myself never to run into him again.
Round the – I suppose the Chronicle newspaper would call it "glittering" – ballroom I circulated for the next hour or two, bringing people together, encouraging new authors by reminding them that that even the most famous writers still receive rejection slips, recommending agents, breaking up scholarly disagreements before they could become too serious, making sure that the waiting staff did their jobs properly, helping ladies with their dropped gloves and gentlemen with their slipping cravats until, as midnight approached, the party began to wind down. I always made a point of not leaving Lady Mabel's soirées until it was certain that my assistance was no longer needed, except for those rare occasions when I hit it off especially well with a guest and we retired early to continue the revels on more intimate terms in my set of rooms in Albany.
That had not happened this time and so, with the number of guests reduced to single figures, I set out to hunt down Lady Mabel to make my au revoirs. However she was neither in the ballroom nor the entrance hall and I had to consult Bedford, the head footman, who informed me that Lady Mabel had left instructions that I was to be shown to the library. This was not altogether unusual as Mabel and I were, as you must have gathered by now, old friends and she would quite often ask me to chat with her privately after an evening, swapping gossip and any little nuggets of useful information I might have picked up in the course of my rounds. As I was at my hostess's complete disposal I permitted the man to lead me through the hall, past the drawing room and dining room and into a large and comfortably appointed library at the rear of the house. He knocked on the open door, announced me and closed it silently behind himself.
Despite its considerable size the library was warm and welcoming, with a low fire burning in the grate and close-shaded lights fixed to sconces on the panelled walls. Many of the books, I noticed, were new – no doubt presents from Mabel's guests – and I found myself wondering how many of them would, one day, be rare and priceless first editions. Many authors had gone on to win fame and great fortune as a direct or indirect result of the acquaintances they had struck up at Lady Mabel's.
I had little time to ponder the success of others, for Mabel waved me in and pointed to an armchair opposite the fire from the sofa where she and Honor Breight were sitting together. 'Sit down, old chap,' she said and I did, noting that a fat balloon of brandtwijn was waiting for me on a reading table next to the chair.
'Ladies,' I said, 'I am greatly honoured. Your health.' And I took a generous nip of the brandy. As a rule I drink very little alcohol at parties, although nobody has ever known me to decline the offer of a glass. It helps me circulate more effectively. 'But,' I said, replacing the brandy on the table, 'this little gathering, while most charming, is also somewhat unexpected. May I take it that you and Miss Breight already know one another?'
'Oh yes,' said Honor Breight. 'We have been friends for many years.'
'More years than you can count,' added Lady Mabel with a chuckle. Her Hal chirruped and his eyes sparkled in the firelight. 'Let's stop fooling about, shall we? This is my old chum Lady Pangborne, Sonya Moon as was.'
I rose to my feet, crossed the hearth and kissed the lady's extended hand. 'Delighted, Lady Pangborne.'
'Call me Sonya, please,' she replied, somehow managing to drop me a courtesy while remaining seated.
'Very well, Lady Sonya. But see; I detect a mystery. I've have been attending dear Mabel's little get-togethers for a number of years now and yet I've never before had the pleasure of making your acquaintance. How can this be?' I sat back and took another sip of brandy.
'Oh, I'm rather busy. This and that, don't you know?'
'What Sunny isn't telling you is that she's doing lots of terrible important work for the Foreign Office and the League of Nations.'
'Which is all most terribly hush-hush and you'd have to shoot me if you told me about it?'
'Something like that,' said Lady Sonya and smiled darkly.
'And yet you can still find the time to write your children's books?'
The smile turned to a frown. 'I do hope you don't think of them as being only for children?'
'Oh dash it, no.' This was the second time she had caught me on the hop. 'Of course not. I told you that already.'
She inclined her head.' I find the writing of stories – fiction – to be a very welcome respite from the difficulties of my work. The problems of story construction and the creation of believable characters and situations can be very trying, certainly, but they pale in comparison with the intractabilities of the real world.'
'I can see how that could be the case. My own life is somewhat detached from everyday concerns, I'm sorry to say.'
'You're an old fraud, you mean.' Mabel was characteristically robust. 'But come on, Julian. Sunny's told me, and so have you, that you admire her work and you read her books to your nieces. But which of her stories do they like the most? Or are little Fay and Louise as undiscriminating as most children of their age?'
I thought for a moment. 'The last one I read to them was one of the early ones – Three and the Precipice of Doom, I think it was. They absolutely loved it.'
Lady Sonya and Lady Mabel burst into howls of laughter. I was nonplussed yet again. 'I'm sorry. What have I said now?'
'You silly goose!' said Mabel between guffaws. 'Sunny didn't write that one!'
'No,' said Lady Sonya, regaining control of herself. 'That was a different "Honor Breight". It's ages old! It was one of the ones I read when I was a little girl. I loved it, too. Now shut up, Mabel. It's not fair to make fun of Mister Hastings like this.'
'Oh Jools doesn't mind. He's used to it – he's like a horse. Needs a touch of the riding crop from time to time, else he goes astray, eh what?'
Naughty, naughty, said Sandy.
It was too late, and it would have been rather feeble, for me to point out that children's books only rarely carry publishing dates. So instead I took a slow, appreciative draught of brandy. 'All right,' I said at last. 'So you've only written the more recent Comrades Three stories. Well, of those I think the one I liked the most was Three and the Skies of Hindustan. It was so… curious and exotic. But especially, it was the witches. Hardly anybody writes books about witches, and of those very few are done well. I'm not talking about Les Livres Jaunes, of course. But this was tremendously realistic and convincing. It was as if a witch was narrating the story herself. Tell me, have you actually met a witch? I've never met anyone who has. I've always been fascinated by them.'
'Yes, there's something about them – the romance of their flight, supported by nothing but a sliver of cloud-pine, set against the starlit skies of the North. Their supernal beauty, their long lives, their strange and extraordinary daemons… I was struck by them, that's all. Always have been, since I was a boy and Nurse told me fairy-stories to send me to sleep. They never did, of course. I used to lie awake and dream of tatterdemalion black silk, and ice-spears flashing in the dark, and clan-feuds fought to the death over the desolate Tartar wastes.' I leaned back and sighed.
'I take it that you have never encountered a witch?' asked Lady Sonya.
'No, more's the pity.'
'So you'd like to meet one?'
'Of course, my lady. More than anything.'
'But what would you do if you did?' said Lady Mabel.
'And how would you know she really was a witch?' said Lady Sonya.
'Oh, I don't think I could possibly mistake a real witch if I saw one.'
Lady Mabel and Lady Sonya exchanged long glances. Then: 'Do you promise that you'll keep what I'm about to tell you under your hat?' said Lady Sonya.
'Because if you don't I'll have to shoot you,' said Mabel. She looked as if she meant it.
'Well then, I'll let Sunny do the talking. She's the bestselling author around here.'
Lady Sonya Pangborne leaned forward in her chair and as she spoke the room shrank around us, as if we, and only we, were the sole inhabitants of the Universe. Her face was golden in the firelight, her long dark hair a nebula of ebony enfolding it. She held her daemon close in her arms and let his head rest upon her bosom, comfortable and familiar as only a person and her heart's companion can be. Sandy nestled in the crook of my elbow. And we listened.
To be continued…