11. Polly, suspecting Joe of offering gratuitous assistance, makes her feelings plain - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Polly had never seen so many people together in daytime during the whole of the time she had been staying with Mosley as were assembled for pre-lunch sherry that day. Of course, when the maid had come in to draw back her curtains that morning she had muttered something almost incomprehensible about a hard overnight frost, and its likely impact on the day’s sport, which Polly, still sleep-bemused, had made little of. Its significance now sunk in upon her. Obviously the weather was, for some obscure reason, unsuited for the slaughter of foxes.
The hunters might be baulked of their prey, but it didn’t seem to have dampened their spirits. There was a good deal of chaff floating about, and Polly came in for her fair share of it. Since the Daily Mail article had been published her relations with the rest of the house-party had changed; subtly but profoundly. She fancied she was now able to identify who was a member of the Inner Circle; they were less wary than before about letting their allegiances show. Conversations were not cut off quite so abruptly when she entered the room, and sometimes they would flash her a sly, sidelong smile, as though she was on the edge of being allowed to share a very private joke. But her instincts told her that the pace of events was beginning to increase, too; there was a sense of suppressed excitement in the air. So time was running out; she needed to get that lucky break soon, that would take her from simply floundering around in a morass of half-guesses, hunches and blind instinct to being able to pull the clues and hints she’d picked up on into a coherent whole, to be able to understand what the International Order of New Jacobite Brethren was really playing for.
Not that she doubted for a minute that the break would come. It was only a matter of time; time and trusting her honed reporter’s instincts.
So while she dreaded the interview she would have with her editor about unsanctioned articles for rival proprietors when she finally got back to New York, Polly was hopeful that she would be able to mollify him - eventually - by being able to present him with the scoop of the century.
And save the world along the way, naturally.
Even the delicately feline gossip of the older women had been blunted over the last few days, as Polly had demonstrated she was able to give quite as good as she got, and as fresher prey had joined the party. She’d even grown quite fond of some of them; to prove it she crossed to exchange a few civilities with her hostess who had just come in, a little late and flustered, a rueful, half-amused, half-exasperated look on her face.
“Trouble?” Polly enquired lightly. While she’d always assumed that her hostess was in blissful ignorance of the darker undercurrents of the houseparty she must be someone Mosley trusted implicitly to have been given that role in the first place, and in the current state of affairs any little thread which might unravel the mystery was worth pulling on.
Her hostess laughed.
“Trouble for Cook, certainly. And so for me. Fortunately, she takes a pride in coping. But really!”
Her voice tailed off into a mutter, out of which Polly thought she could distinguish the words “So inconsiderate!”
Polly raised an inquisitive eyebrow. Her hostess shrugged.
“Oh, an elderly relative-by-marriage rang Oswald less than half an hour ago to inform him that she’s going to descend on us all for lunch. With her “secretrix”, too, whatever that’s supposed to mean, if anything more than that Lady Georgiana’s vocabulary is hopelessly stuck in the 90’s.”
Her hostess drew an evidently much needed breath, and added, in an acid purr, “Where, doubtless, she’d like us all to believe her complexion remains, too. Really! Two extra women, and the table hard enough to place as it is. And maybe her secretary would be happier lunching in the housekeeper’s room, after all? Oh, it’s so difficult with these working women, to guess whether she’s a real lady or not. And all Oswald will say is that his cousin is far too well-connected for anyone with political ambitions to dream of offending her, and that he’s sure I’ll cope admirably. As you’ll find when you have a household of your own to manage, my dear, men have absolutely no notion of the quandaries we women have to surmount daily.”
Polly blinked, trying to visualise a future in which the greatest peril facing her was organising dinner parties for Joe, and risking his springing two extra guests on her at the last minute. Somehow, however her imagination tried to spice up the prospect, it seemed to lack interest and excitement.
There was the noise of a car pulling up outside, and her hostess moved unobtrusively to the window. Polly drifted in her wake, noting from behind her hostess’s shoulder the ill-assorted couple descending from the back of the pre-Great War Rolls. The smaller figure, looking like a demented macaw in her feathered toque, bugle-beaded velvet opera jacket, and numerous wispy and vivid scarves deployed about her person, was shaking off, impatiently, the efforts of the taller figure in a tweed coat and skirt to assist her from the car. The hostess broke into a satisfied smile.
“I’ll just go and reassure Nellie. The dining room was absolutely right. I suppose I could have relied on Lady Georgiana. I should have had confidence that her - um - secretrix would be a lady, not just a young person.”
And with that she fussed out of the room, leaving Polly staring in bafflement through the window, wondering what about the tall and bony outline, clad in dowdy tweeds, of Lady Georgiana’s “secretrix” could possibly have allowed her hostess to “place” her with such relentless accuracy. She shook her head, slowly. She would never, if she lived a million years, understand the British.
And then she smiled. The vast majority of them, certainly, were a mystery to her. But at least there was one of them she was quite sure about. Whatever surprises his countrymen might spring on her, Polly remained quietly confidently that she could read Joe like an open book written in the largest of large type.
The grin was still hovering about her lips when the pounding gong summoned her in to lunch.
It lasted approximately 30 seconds. The secretrix turned her head to look up the table - mechanically Polly took in and inwardly shuddered at the horrors of her unquestionably home-coiffed bob - and then she recognised exactly where she had seen that prominent nose and those widely spaced eyes before.
It was an effort to make small talk to her neighbour as they were all seated and the staff began to dispense soup, she was so shaken with inner fury.
At least, she thought savagely, it conclusively proved what - after a minute or so’s gut-wrenching fear in the dark, while eavesdropping upon Mosley, Fischer and Hanrahan from the broom closet - she had never really doubted. Joe was alive.
Alive and - typically - interfering with her scoop. And - she almost choked on the clear, sherry-flavoured consommé - having the godawful, insensitive, crass, unspeakable cheek to drag that horse-faced, snooty bean-pole of an English typist into it for good measure. What could he possibly see in her?
“’That heart of fire the canopic alabaster shades, not quenches’.” The harsh caw, cutting across the light babble of lunch-time conversation, turned heads. “His pet name for me was Lady Salamander, you know. Dear Oscar! Such a tragedy!”
A lace-mittened hand was clasped, theatrically to the macaw’s bosom. Polly’s lunch companion - an affable, apparently ineffectual Captain in some regiment or other, who had been introduced under the name of Rothermere but who insisted on being addressed as “Bunny” - leaned over her, and hissed in an audible stage whisper, “After Oscar Wilde, was she? Explains a lot. Pity they didn’t bring her in as a witness at the trial. Cast iron plea in mitigation right there, what?”
Polly giggled dutifully, black murder in her heart.
“Now, going as Wilde, there’s a notion,” he continued conversationally. “Bound to be someone here with an astrakhan coat in mothballs - Lord Piddletrenthide looks the type don’tcha think? - add just a green carnation and - Voilà!”
He put his head on one side meditatively. “Green carnations rare as hen’s teeth in November, though there’s always crepe paper, I suppose. Maybe a hot-house lily? Or Cook might dig me out something suitable from the kitchen-garden - A passion à la Plato/For a bashful young potato -. What do you think?”
He looked across at her, with an absurdly puppyish air of unfettered enthusiasm, and (notwithstanding her unquenched fury at the outrage being perpetrated on her from the far end of the table) she almost laughed out loud.
“I think I don’t have a clue what on earth you’re talking about,” she said. Bunny’s forehead crinkled, and then cleared as light dawned.
“You don’t? Oh, first visit, isn’t it? And until Mosley tipped us the wink in the billiard-room this morning, most of us thought it wasn’t happening either, this year - more Diana’s thing, you know, and with her being away - Pretty sporting of Mosley to carry on in the circs, what?”
“Carry on what?” Polly enquired, her curiosity now thoroughly engaged. Bunny looked rather like a magician producing his namesake from a silk hat.
“Grand Fancy Dress ball on Saturday. Masked affair; we unveil at midnight. Invitations going out this afternoon. Half the County’s invited.”
Polly’s jaw dropped. If she had thought the lunch had begun badly, it had suddenly got a whole lot worse. A full dress Ball? With half “the County” invited? That meant people like the Viscount and his sardonic uncle - not that his uncle would be likely to attend any such function, of course - he was hardly likely to give Mosley that sort of satisfaction, but the nephew - that was an entirely different kettle of fish, and he was bound to be somewhere in the neighborhood, being at loose ends after his unceremonious divorce from his college, and anyway, he had hinted as much and more at the Hunt Ball -
She started scrabbling at her napkin.
“I have to go and phone - I literally do not have a single thing I can possibly wear - “
Bunny caught her forearm and firmly, but not ungently, forced her back down in her seat.
“Nor does anyone. Half the fun. Improvise costumes from whatever you can beg, borrow or steal. Unwritten rule. More ingenuity, better everyone likes it.”
He gestured extravagantly.
“Last year we had this fearfully stuffy German - thought he’d never get into it - but Diana just said leave it to her, and right in the middle of the dance she rode in to the ballroom on his shoulders - wearing a tunic she’d knotted together from a couple of sheets - classical, you know -and with one of those kids’ toy bows slung across her back, and announced that they’d come as “Virgin on the Ridiculous”. Brought the house down.”
Polly wondered, privately, how the “fearfully stuffy” German had taken the reaction, but Bunny was chuntering blithely on.
“Anyway, on past years’ form Mosley will give house-guests the run of the dressing-up box soon enough. Bound to find something to suit you there. Amazing collection. Ought to be in the V&A by rights. Enough false beards and wigs in there to disguise an army, what?”
And it was in that second, as his words sunk in, that Polly realised that she had put her hand upon the end of the thread that could lead her to the very heart of the labyrinth.
For what better way to arrange a gathering of those who had best not be seen talking together than at an event where everyone would be masked, and no-one would question why?
Her heart started to beat faster. It took no duplicity at all for her to assure Bunny that the Fancy Dress Ball sounded as though it would be the highlight of her stay, and that she could hardly wait until Friday.
Polly looked down the table and, recollecting, gritted her teeth. Always presuming, that was, that her cover hadn’t been irretrievably blown by Joe’s meddling by then, of course.
She bent her thoughts towards how she could give his accomplice her marching orders, pronto.
After lunch gave her a chance. Her hostess caught her with an imploring glance, just as lunch was finishing, and she made her way over to find out what was up.
“My dear,” her hostess murmured rapidly, “might I ask you an enormous favour?”
She nodded, wordlessly. Her hostess gestured.
“This is quite absurd, but Lady Georgiana has insisted on being taken round the picture collection - she says she knew the father of the current owner of the house well before the Great War, and apparently inspecting the portrait collection is essential ‘local colour’ for her memoirs - but from what Oswald says, I’m not sure I ought to let her -“
The older woman’s face, fascinatingly, was betraying a mix of emotions; rather like someone who was dying to share a particularly juicy piece of gossip, but who had a strong sense that she really mustn’t. Then, regrettably, it was evident that discretion had just triumphed. She coughed.
“That is; the maids are always so enthusiastic with the polishing of the floors, and Lady Georgiana’s so frail, I’d never forgive myself if she slipped, and broke something, and me not there to watch over her - Could you possibly bear to come along with me? You could keep her secretary occupied, while I devote myself to her -I’ll be eternally in your debt - and the pictures are well worth seeing, and you haven’t had the full guided tour yet, have you -?”
There was, as Polly cynically acknowledged to herself, nothing a complaisant guest could possibly say but a polite acceptance, but equally fortunately there was nothing she could at that moment have wanted more than a chance to occupy Lady Georgiana’s secretary.
With a few thoughts on exactly what’s likely to happen to her if she crosses my path again, for one thing.
It was merely a case of finding the right opportunity.
As they trailed through the upper rooms and corridors of the great house, the dowdy secretary dutifully making shorthand notes in her spiral-bound notepad of the ever more implausible anecdotes spinning off from Lady Georgiana’s reaction to the various age-darkened oils, and responding uncomplainingly to increasingly demanding orders barked out at erratic intervals by the eccentric macaw, the only question Polly had was; how best to do it?
And suddenly, abruptly, the decision was taken out of her hands. The secretary, summoned forward to assist with unlocking a cabinet of miniatures which Lady Georgiana (to her hostess’s evident, if unvoiced, concern) had demanded that she take a closer look at, put her notebook down on the Hepplewhite chair nearby. There was something a little too deliberate about her gesture as she did so. Under cover of moving forward to inspect more closely yet another “Horse, with Man” by Munnings, which hung above the chair, she glanced casually down at the pad.
Polly stiffened. The first half of the page lying open to her view was covered in a rapid, casual shorthand; the work of someone who wrote it day in, day out, expecting that no-one would ever have to decipher it but her.
The lower half was - to the trained eye - entirely different. The gruff-voiced, mustachioed woman under whose nightly verbal flayings Polly had managed to learn enough of the tools of her trade to win her escape from the stifling mid-Western town of her birth (funny she’d not thought of her for years, when she owed her so much) would have put it up on the board in a heart-beat as a textbook example of how Gregg outlines ought to be formed.
And the message was, accordingly, perfectly legible. To the trained eye.
“Beware ambushes. Don’t believe anything they tell you. Is there anything you need to tell us now? Can I carry any messages for you? Do you need help to escape?”
Polly snarled, inwardly. But the dowdy secretary had turned away. She looked up and down the Long Gallery for inspiration. And then - with a nod to Bunny’s lunchtime chatter - she found an inspiration, and ran with it.
“You couldn’t possibly lend me a pencil and a sheet of paper, could you?” she said, turning to Joe’s typist with an air of bonhomie that almost stuck in her throat. “I’ve seen a picture up there -“
She gestured in the direction of a massive oil in the high Victorian “history painting” tradition, which some long-dead RA had titled “Unloading the Wounded from the Bosphorus Lighters at Scutari”, and felt accordingly entitled to populate his multiple square feet of canvas with an Orientalist riot of fakirs, dervishes, beggars, lepers, eunuchs, spies for and against the Sublime Porte, and numerous other picturesque and exotic hangers-on, forming a vivid tapestry against which the corpse-pale skin, and solidly prosaic red white and blues of the soldiers’ uniforms showed as a banal island of primary colours, and against them in yet further contrast -
A precise, slight figure in a prim, dark front-buttoning dress half-covered by a starched apron, the white veil covering all of her hair except for the one, carefully controlled dark curl that escaped across her temple, stood an asymmetric three inches away from the dead centre of the canvas, drawing all eyes merely because of her stillness.
“I mean she’s the - Lady with the Lamp. So - um - special. And - well - I have to get a costume for a - um - fancy-dress party.” The macaw turned towards them; engaged; fully alive. Abruptly, she was conscious of her hostess flashing alarmed glances at her. Presumably Lady Georgiana was not numbered in the half of the County who’d been invited. With barely a beat, she added,
“When I get back to NYC this winter. My Editor’s brother’s wife gives these parties, you know.”
The macaw looked at her with faint regret. Her hostess looked at her - with infinite gratitude. The dowdy secretary - averted her gaze, but nonetheless held out a virgin sheet of paper and a pencil. Still looking up at the exuberant canvas, Polly scribbled. It would be nothing like the elegance of the outlines she had just seen, but it would, she trusted, be unequivocal.
“Thank you. No problems. About to make breakthrough. No intervention required. Tell him: contact next week.”
As they were going down the stairs from the Long Gallery she almost slipped; let her purse and its contents spill across the stairs. The dowdy companion scurried to pick them up, handing them back to her, sliding her folded sheet of paper with its shorthand jotting among a wad of other papers. Polly felt no doubt at all that she had got the message.
It had been a jagged-edged, unpleasant day, Polly concluded as she finally slid between the fine-drawn linen sheets of her four-poster bed close on midnight that night. Apart from the other annoyances, she seemed to have lost her dragon brooch some time that afternoon. She could almost have cried, though doubtless one of the maids would pick it up in the morning; it must have dropped off her coat somewhere today.
It was not that it was intrinsically valuable - it was a trinket which Joe had bought for her years ago in Shanghai (had he forgotten that, like he had the camera, she wondered?).
Her mind wandered back to that humid day, when she’d dragged Joe shopping because she was still - despite her pose of sophistication - too frightened to venture into the old town alone, and risk what rumour said might wait for over-bold Western girls who wandered off the beaten track.
And the little old yellow man, wrinkled and sinister behind his wares in the curio shop in one of the alleys that ran up from the waterfront, would certainly have been too intimidating to tackle alone, no matter how much she’d fallen in love - at first sight - with the dragon brooch. When she’d asked, through Joe, if he would remove it from the display case for closer inspection, he’d pointed to her, and muttered excitably.
“What’s he saying?” she’d asked, and Joe had exchanged a few words of halting Cantonese with the shopkeeper, and then grinned.
“Just talking up the price,” he’d said. “All these blokes do. He says it’s specially lucky for you. He saw you looking at it, I expect.”
But that hadn’t satisfied her; nor the shopkeeper neither. He’d uttered another stream of gibberish, and a slight, somewhat effeminate-looking middle-aged Englishman who’d been poking through some rolled-up hangings on silk towards the back of the shop had unexpectedly interjected,
“He didn’t just say it was lucky. He said; ‘it will call to you across the deep water, and snatch you from out of the talons of the eagle’. That’s quite some class of prophecy, I’d say. I’d buy it, if I were you.”
And she’d agreed, and after some half-laughing protest Joe had bought it for her - at what the little guy had been asking for it, since he hadn’t seemed inclined to bargain.
And now she’d lost it. And - despite the vague ideas squirreling around her head from the art gallery - she really didn’t have a clue how to get hold of a decent costume for the fancy-dress ball on Friday. Even if Joe’s frumpy typist hadn’t probably comprehensively blown her cover already.
“Balls!” Polly hissed, uncharacteristically, virulently and satisfyingly into the dark of the bedroom.