Part 2; In Which The Mystery is Expounded
'The first time I came across a witch,' said Lady Sonya, 'was during the Holy War. It was on the day of the Catastrophe and I don't especially want to talk about it. Mabel and I both served during the War, you know, in the Ambulance Brigade.'
'I never knew that. Did you really? How astonishing!'
'But nevertheless true, Mister Hastings. That witch – her name was Pluvia Vega – saved my life. But…' Lady Pangborne looked down. She didn't want me to see her eyes. 'But, to carry on…'
'Yes, shut up Jools. Don't interrupt.' I bowed in my seat, rather less gracefully than Lady Sonya had curtsied.
'It happened not long after the War had ended. It was a strange and dangerous time all over Europe, but very little of that strangeness and danger affected me directly, safe at home as I was. Daddy spent nearly all his time in London and only rarely came home at weekends, but there was nothing new about that.'
I remembered that Sonya's father, Admiral Sir Ronald Moon, had become Prime Minister of Brytain following the post-war General Election.
'He had always been away, either at sea or at the Great Parliament. When he did come back home I only got to see him at mealtimes, and not always then. But he was kind and loving and although I resented his absence, I never resented him, if you see what I mean.
'Most of the time – I was still under twenty-one – I was in the care of my Aunt Sybil. We were constantly at odds with each other, I'm sorry to say. She wanted to look after me the way Mummy would have done if she hadn't died but the poor thing was hopelessly ill equipped to do so. For one thing, she was unmarried, and for another she had been terribly poor when she was my age. Even though she was a granddaughter of the seventeenth Lord Oakdale, she had no personal fortune at all, and neither had Mummy. So half the time she was saving money in silly, petty ways, like insisting on the servants making their uniforms last until they literally fell apart or re-using writing paper, and the other half she was going on shopping sprees and spending enormous amounts at places likes Dollingford and Peal, or Liberty's. We Moons always had oodles of money but at least we knew how to use it sensibly.
'Anyway, on the day I'm going to tell you about my aunt was in one of her spending moods. I was due to go up to Cantabriensis that autumn and Aunt Sybil was determined that I should have the best tables and chairs that money could buy to furnish my rooms, and the most hard-wearing and sturdy clothes obtainable to withstand the icy Fenland gales. "Dear Sonya," she said, "you will have Standards to maintain. You are a Gresham; never forget that. You must justify the respect that is due to your fine old ancestry. No penny-pinching or shoddiness, if you please!" To tell the truth I always felt that I was much more of a Moon than a Gresham, but I wasn't about to stop Aunt Sybil letting me spend some money on myself. And you can stop giggling, too!'
Mabel covered her mouth with her hand. I could tell she was laughing at some private joke.
'So Aunt Sybil and I got on the Paddington train one fine morning in early September and went up to Town. She grabbed a taxi at the station and put the driver on a retainer to carry us about all day. I had just as soon have taken the Chthonic but I knew that that would be perfectly impossible. My aunt would never have allowed herself to be seen using such a proletarian mode of transport. Instead, we had to spend hours stuck in traffic jams.
'Even though we had taken the early train it was mid-afternoon before we reached Harvey's department store. I knew they had the most beautiful bodices you ever saw in the underwear department and I couldn't wait to try them on. Have you ever been there, Mister Hastings?'
'No, Lady Sonya. I find the arcades of Piccadilly and the gentlemen's shops of Jermyn Street are sufficient to meet my simple needs.'
'So like a man,' said Mabel. I bowed once more.
'We were both ready to flop, so I suggested we headed straight to the Bamboo Room for a refreshing cup of tea. Aunt Sybil agreed – I'd noticed she was getting better at agreeing with me – and we found a table by the window, overlooking the roof garden. They were very popular back then, you know. I ordered tea and cakes while my aunt visited the powder room and tucked in immediately they arrived. I knew I'd be told off, and it was pretty poor manners not to wait for her, but I was absolutely starving. It had been nearly two hours since lunch. Then a very strange thing happened. Just as I was scoffing my third Marlborough bun a movement caught the corner of my eye. It was only a brief flash, but the odd thing about it was that it wasn't inside the restaurant, where people were coming and going all the time, but outside. In fact it was in the roof garden. My head turned to see, but whatever it was had vanished. Nothing there, my Alfie said. He was probably right, I thought, or else it had been a bird landing in one of the bushes. But then it happened again, and this time I didn't miss it. There was someone standing on the edge of the roof, with her toes hanging over the coping. I stood up; throwing crumbs everywhere and knocking my teacup over.
'I immediately realised that the person was not one of the waiting staff, for she wasn't wearing a uniform. Nor could she have been a gardener, for more or less the same reason. I could only see her back, not her face, but I recognised her straight away. Nobody else I knew had hair quite that colour.
'"Mabel!" I shouted, like an idiot. "Mabel!" But of course the person, whoever she was, couldn't hear me through the plate-glass. I banged on the window. "Mabel!" But she was gone. My heart froze. Had I startled her? Had she slipped and fallen from the roof? What had I done?
'I dashed out of the restaurant, leaving everything behind except my handbag and nearly felling Aunt Sybil who was returning from the powder room. "Sorry!" I cried after her. I didn't wait to hear her response.
'I'd better say at this point that I hadn't seen Mabel for well over a year, since we served in Frankland. We'd had a… falling out…'
'You damn near killed me with that sword of yours,' said Lady Mabel.
'And you got me into serious trouble with the authorities,' said Lady Sonya.
'You deserved it.'
'I was only doing what I thought was right.'
'Ladies!' I interjected. 'Please!'
'Sorry.' Lady Sonya shook her head. 'It doesn't matter now. But what mattered to me then was that I'd seen someone who looked a lot like one of my old comrades and that she'd disappeared and, for all I knew, just got herself killed. And that it might be my fault.
'I was frantic. I shoved my way down the stairs and out of a side door into Knight's Bridge, which is where Harvey's store is situated. As you probably know, that's half a mile or so to the south of Jekyll Park. I never saw a knight or a bridge there, though.
'Of course, the street was seething with autobuses, taxis and delivery vans; and the pavements were chocker too. I had about as much chance of finding Mabel – if it were Mabel – as a straw in a bale. One thing was certain, though, and that was that nobody had actually thrown themselves off the roof. Everything was quite normal and there was none of the commotion you might have expected if a hundred and thirty pounds of solidly built girl had suddenly landed on top of some perfectly innocent passers-by. (Lady Mabel grinned at this.) Alfie suggested it would be a good idea to return to the Bamboo Room and apologise to Aunt Sybil and that I could always send a 'gram to Mabel's parents when I got back home.
'He's always right – or so he says – so I turned to go back into Harvey's. I re-entered the shop by the main revolving door, noticing that people were looking at me strangely and giving me a fair amount of elbow-room, and I was about to make my way back up to the top floor when, just as before, a quick movement caught my eye. I turned and – yes – there was that mop of curly red hair again, leaving the shop by the other side of the revolving door.
'I let the door carry me round and back into Knight's Bridge. Mabel would only be few yards away, I thought. But no. She had already crossed the road and was going north, towards the park.
'I grabbed my skirts and dashed after her, upsetting Alfie, several cabbies and a lorry driver, not to mention the shoppers who were crowding the pavement. "Mabel!" I called out as I ran, and once I thought I saw her head turn in recognition. "Stop! It's me! Sunny!" I was positive now that she really was Mabel but I hadn't remembered her being quite so athletic as this girl seemed to be. I could run pretty fast when I wanted to, but my quarry, without even breaking her stride, was keeping a constant gap between us of about fifty yards. Her bird-daemon kept station above her head while Alfie sank his claws deep into the shoulder of my coat. He knew that if he fell off I'd have to stop and that would be the end of the chase.
'Despite my pleas she didn't stop, and soon we came to the junction with Jekyll Park Road. There she turned left and so did I. That was where I finally began to catch up with her. The pavement was comparatively clear and I was really able to get into my stride. We pelted westwards along the road and I was almost in a position to put on a final burst of speed and grab hold of her when suddenly she turned sharp left, vaulted over a set of railings and ran down a flight of steps into a basement area. I stopped and leaned against the wall. A door opened and closed below me. Someone had let the girl into the house. I had lost her.
'I was gasping for air, so I stood for a minute or two until my breathing returned to normal. Then I stepped back on the pavement and looked up at the building. It was one of those large stucco-fronted houses of which there are so many next to the park. The front door was set at the top of three or four tiled steps and the house rose up another two stories from the ground floor, with an attic perched on top. The basement, where the kitchens and laundries were located, was underneath. Heavens! It wasn't so very different from Mabel's house, or our own place in Leinster Square for all that. Just a typical big London house, sitting in the middle of a row of others just like it and facing the trees which run along the south side of the park.
'"Now then," said Alfie, climbing down into the crook of my elbow, "let's have a think. You're quite sure that was Mabel?"
'"Silly daemon! Of course it was!"
'"It looked like her, yes. But why did she run away from us? Isn't it more likely that it was some other girl? Suppose she's a downstairs maid who works here. She might have been absent without leave from her work. Perhaps she thought you were her mistress or one of the family. Perhaps her name also happens to be Mabel."
'"Is that probable?" I asked him.
'"Not very, no. But not impossible, either. Suppose she thought you'd seen her stealing from the shop?"
'"Mabel steal? Come on!"
'"Not our Mabel. This other Mabel."
'"Alfie," I said, "Put a sock in it. You're talking rubbish." And without listening to him any further I walked up the steps to the front door of the house and rang the bell.
'After a short wait a footman – a perfectly ordinary footman – came to the door. I reached into my handbag and took out one of my cartes de visite. "Miss Patterson is expecting me," I said, handing it to him. The man didn't blink, but stepped aside and admitted me into a wide deep hallway, with one of those round marble staircases at the back, rather grand. I sat in a comfortable armchair while he disappeared through a doorway to the right. There was a short muffled conversation and then he came back and ushered me through the door.
'It led into a well-appointed drawing room, furnished in a slightly out-of-date style – cotton chintz and roses and that sort of thing. There was only one occupant, a lady who stood as I entered. "Good afternoon, Miss Moon," she said and offered me her hand. I shook it and took a seat opposite her. There was an ormolu table between us, with some tea things on it. We waited in silence while the footman withdrew, returning shortly with a fresh pot of tea and an extra teacup. My hostess poured for herself and me.
'"Now then," she said, sitting back, "You told Gregson that Miss Patterson was expecting you." She waited.
'"Yes, dearest Mabel. She is at home, isn't she?"
'"Ah yes, Mabel Patterson. Her first name is Mabel, is it not?"
'"Yes, it is."
'"And you are Miss Sonya Moon?" She was holding my carte in her left hand. What did she think my name was? Careful, said Alfie.
'"Yes, Madame," I replied. She had not told me her own name. I looked at her more closely. She was, I noticed, very good-looking. Some men would have called her handsome, I think, as she was striking but no longer young. ('Which of us is?' said Lady Mabel, and smiled.) She had a magnificent bird-daemon in the form of a red kite and was wearing an elegant tea-gown of grey silk edged in black. I supposed her to be a fairly recent widow.
'"Quite so." The lady looked directly into my eyes. I was beginning to feel more than a little disconcerted. I had bluffed my way into this house on what were not exactly false pretences, but not quite the whole truth either. "Well, Miss Moon, I am sorry to have to tell you that Mabel Patterson is not at home."
'"But your man let me in when I asked to see her."
'"As he has been instructed, yes."
'I stood up. "I am very sorry to have wasted your time, Mrs…" I was hoping to point up her discourtesy in not giving me her name.
'"Please sit down, Miss Moon." I hesitated. This was becoming sinister. Should I make a run for the door? "Sit down!"
'"Now would you please tell me why you have lied your way into this house."
'"It's not a lie!" I said. "Mabel's here!"
'"You were not invited to see her."
'"But she's here! I saw her!" My voice had risen well beyond its normal pitch. "Doesn't she live here?"
'Can we please make our excuses and leave now? said Alfie.
'"I do not think you saw any such person." The lady smiled. She was making fun of me. That was what she had been doing all along.
'At that point I lost my temper completely. "Look here," I said. "Your man let me in when I gave him Mabel's name. He wouldn't have done that if she weren't here at least some of the time. He would just have told me that there was no such person living at this address. So she is here, I did see her go into the basement and I am going to go to the Constabulary right now and tell them that you've kidnapped my friend and are holding her captive against her will. They will believe me, not you. Have you any idea who my father is?" I stood up and marched over to the door, intending to storm out and call a constable. But I never reached it.
'"Come back here please, Sonya," the lady said. I turned – I couldn't help myself. There was something in the way she spoke that made her impossible to disobey, even though her face still wore a broad smile.
'Do as she says, said Alfie. I slowly returned to my seat. The kite-daemon followed my progress from his perch by the lady's left shoulder.
'"What extraordinary things you do say!" the lady declared, offering me a piece of Madeira cake. She laughed. "Most peculiar. Now do sit by me, my dear." She patted the cushion next to her. "Of course I know who your father is. He's a very important man."
'"Yes, he is."
'"Much too important to be bothered with silly made-up stories about kidnapped girls, wouldn't you say? You do enjoy making up stories, don't you Sonya?"
'"And writing them down, I expect. Have you got a special book you write them in? At home, I mean, in Goring?"
'"Yes, I have." I took another piece of cake.
'"Well, there you are! You can put it all down in your book when you get home, can't you, my dear?" The lady's voice was honey-sweet and irresistible in my ears. And so very reasonable! She wasn't trying to hide anything or stop me from telling anyone about Mabel's disappearance – if it had been Mabel, which I was now beginning to doubt. I had already forgotten her hostility to me and the way she had prevented me from leaving the room only a few minutes earlier.
'We chatted inconsequentially about things like school and university and the London Season for another ten minutes or so and then the lady reminded me that I ought to be getting back to my Aunt Sybil. Funny – she had completely slipped my mind. I stood up and held out my hand.
'"Thank you, Madame. I must be getting along now. My aunt will be missing me." I said this as if I had only just thought of it.
'"What will you say to your duenna?"
'"Oh, I'll think of something." I was already concocting a story in my head – one that had nothing to do with Mabel or Jekyll Park.
'The lady rang a small hand bell and the footman appeared at the door. "Gregson will see you out. It has been quite a treat to have met you, Miss Moon," she said. I was dismissed.
'The footman saw me to the door. "Turn right here, Miss," he said. "The next road on the right will get you back to Knight's Bridge in no time."
'I thanked him, and turned right as he had told me. And that would have been that – in fact I would not be telling you this story – if I hadn't, befuddled as I was, been struck by the thought that I might have left some of my shopping behind. I turned round to go back to the house and then realised that everything except my handbag, which I was carrying, was still in Harvey's where my aunt was waiting for me. Silly! I thought and turned back. But – something caught the corner of my eye. A glint, a brief flash, almost invisible but nevertheless there. I turned again.
'There was a bird in one of the trees on the other side of the road. It was the flicker of reflected sunlight in its eye that had caught my attention. I recognised it instantly. It was a red kite and it was watching me.
'Instantly everything the lady's lulling voice had tried to make me forget came back to me with full force. A red kite is a Cambrian bird. It is not found in London.
'Alfie! I said. She was a…
'Yes, my daemon replied. I think she was. But don't say it, not even to me. Don't ever say it.
'I wanted to go back and hammer on the door of the house and demand to be told the truth. But Alfie said no, and he was right. Instead I walked slowly back along the pavement to Knight's Bridge, repeating my discovery over and over in my mind in case I fell under the lady's enchantment once more and forgot it. I never have.'
Lady Pangborne sat back in her seat and was silent. The firelight had grown dimmer as she had told her story, so that we sat even more ensorcelled in darkness than before. I was tempted to stir it with the poker, but the spell that had been cast over us persisted and I relented. I took a last sip of brandtwijn.
'And was it true?' I asked. 'Had Mabel been in that house? And was she also…?'
Lady Pangborne put a finger to her lips. 'You know the answers to those questions, do you not?'
Yes, we do, said Sandy.
'Yes, I do,' said I.
'Then I will say no more. As I've already said, you're a very clever man, Mister Hastings, as well as being a very nice one. A dolly omie, even. I'm sure I need say no more. It has been a pleasure to grant you your little wish.'
I laughed out loud. 'How bright you are, Lady Sonya!' She smiled at my little joke. 'Perhaps I should be making my way home now, before your cleverness becomes altogether too much for me to deal with.'
I rose to my feet and shook Lady Sonya Pangborne's hand. Then I kissed Lady Mabel Clifton on the right cheek, as I was accustomed to do. Her chaffinch-daemon Hal chirped his approval from the darkness by the library window, a full thirty feet from where I stood. His eyes caught the red glow of the firelight and cast it defiantly back to me.
- 0 -
So that's the story. I attended many more of Mabel's little gatherings thereafter but I never again found myself on terms of such close intimacy with either her or Lady Sonya. It was no longer necessary. We understood one another perfectly well.
And now, my dearest Fay, I am getting old and it's time for me to pass on the things I have learned in this life to a new generation. It can do little harm. I have never discovered the precise number of the house, though I have walked up and down Jekyll Park Road many times and looked curiously, but discreetly, in at the windows there. Its secret remains safe from me. I think there are many secrets – some virtuous, some less so – concealed behind windows and curtains, front doors and footmen, and some people who choose to remain hidden for reasons both good and bad. Nobody is all they appear, after all. But this secret is one I have kept and one I wish you to keep in your turn. It matters less now than it once did. Lady Sonya Pangborne died last year in circumstances with which we are all familiar, and Mabel Clifton is no longer known by that name. But as for what name she goes by now, I really mustn't say. For, after all, if I did I would most assuredly have to shoot you.