14. Still no word from Polly, and Joe isn't the only one worrying - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Helen looked down at the dragon brooch which curled around its tail in the centre of her palm, and glared up unblinking at her from small ruby eyes.
“So, what am I supposed to do with you now, then?”
Her voice was lowered in consideration of the other members of the house - who might find her talking to jewellery (and stolen jewellery at that, her conscience reminded her queasily) unduly disconcerting. Though to be frank, it was hardly as if there was anyone around to hear her, with Charlie and Rhys down at the far end of the stable block, alternately crowing with delight or being thrown into the depths of despair by how the new test assemblage delivered by Shuttleworths two days ago was performing under various stresses they chose to put it through, and with Joe off on one of his mysterious absences. It had been disconcerting finding Joe, whom she had regarded as an exotic bird of passage when she had met him in Glasgow, a semi-permanent resident of Charlie’s house, rather as if one might be expected to share quarters with a unicorn with a bizarre penchant for bacon sandwiches. Nor had his tendency to slope off on unspecified “business” for days at a time, returning unshaven, demanding a bath, sunken-eyed with exhaustion, and pausing only to grab an hour or so’s sleep before vanishing again, assisted to dispell the air of faintly awed alarm with which Helen regarded him.
The dragon maintained its own counsel.
Helen shook her head, thoughtfully. She had seen it first perched on the lapel of Polly’s coat, sneering coolly down at the idiocies of the twittering lunch-party. And then, that evening, she had seen it again, blinking resentfully up at her from the depths of her Aunt Georgiana’s handbag, through which (carefully instructed by family gossip and the housekeeper’s nervously broad hints) she was taking one of her twice-daily precautionary rummages.
Why it was there was unquestionable; how Aunt Georgiana had brought it off - more intriguing. And why it was still here - more problematic still. And yet, although (especially after the brush-off the American girl had given her attempts to help) all she need really do - what she ought to have done the moment she saw that enigmatic ornament - was to package it up and forward it to Mosley’s residence with a polite note to the housekeeper about its having been unaccountably mixed up in her employer’s trinket box, and a civil apology for any inconvenience Miss Perkins might be presumed to have suffered.
But a week or more had passed, and still Helen had kept it at the bottom of her little shell-box.
And today was the day she was going to do something about it. She had taken more than a week to come to a resolution, but with no word from Polly, and Charlie and Joe - when he was here - growing evidently (if tacitly) more twitchy by the day about that, it was high time she sorted things.
And here in her hand she had - as she had known all along, if she had had the nerve to admit it - the key to the whole problem.
Helen had her outdoor things on, the dragon brooch shrouded in her handkerchief, and was out of her room and onto the landing before, consciously, she was aware of having made up her mind.
Had someone intercepted her on the stairs or in the yard she might still have failed in her resolution. It was just after dining room lunch, though, and the staff would be eating their own meal, or snatching a precious half-hour or so of leisure. She got to the little Baby Austin without interruption, and once she caught the roll of the open road in her rear-view mirror it would have taken wild tigers to stop her going through with it.
Within the hour she was in the housekeeper’s room at Mosley’s house, being plied with tea and shortbread, while with a breathy schoolgirl hesitancy she stuttered out an explanation about “only just having come across” and “inexplicable mix-up” and “might she restore her property to Miss Perkins with her personal apologies?”
The housekeeper received her barely coherent explanation with an unruffled demeanour and a soothing selection of reassuring platitudes that almost sent Helen into fits of semi-hysterical laughter. Was there, she wondered, a deeply secret manual in circulation among society hostesses and their most trusted servants which set out the foibles of possible houseguests, and standard operating procedures for dealing with them? “Lady G; kleptomaniac. Shake down all luggage thoroughly before departure. Lord F; Not Safe In Taxis. Ensure only travels in company with fully accredited battleaxe. The Earl of R: cheats at poker….”
But the housekeeper’s next words drove all considerations of levity far away.
“But what a pity you missed Miss Perkins.”
The housekeeper nodded.
“She had a telegram, Miss. Ooh - four days ago it must have been. While we were having the fancy dress ball. Oh, it was a shame you missed that, it was such an event. And the costumes! And the masks! Cook said you wouldn’t have recognised your own brother if he’d been standing right next to you. Anyway, it seems Miss Perkins’ newspaper wanted her back in America, on urgent business. One of the guests was travelling, also, so he drove her straight off to Liverpool the morning after the ball. They were gone before any of us were stirring; she didn’t even have time to say goodbye. Though I will say, she left all the staff very friendly notes thanking us for looking after her while she was with us.”
From the housekeeper’s expression, Helen had little difficulty in deducing that at least some of said notes must have had “I promise to pay the bearer -” inscribed on them.
But, reading between the lines, it did not look good. Whatever the household staff might believe, it seemed that Polly had vanished into thin air days ago. And Helen found it difficult to believe that if Polly had left voluntarily she wouldn’t, at the very least, have found the chance to tell Joe what she’d discovered to date.
“She had to go? Oh, dear.” Artistically, she looked down in bewilderment at the dragon brooch, and then looked up as though just struck by inspiration.
“Surely, if she only left at the weekend she might not have got a berth yet? Perhaps if I send it express I can catch her at her hotel? Was she staying at the Adelphi?”
The housekeeper compressed her lips. “We did think she might have to wait. But apparently people have been cancelling berths all week. There was a report in the News of the World that some old woman up in Yorkshire or somewhere predicted that something was going to happen at sea this month which would change the history of the Empire and determine the fate of kings. Folk are saying it could be a second Lusitania. Not that I believe any such stuff, of course.”
And the housekeeper eyed Helen sidelong, as if to accuse her of any different sentiments from robust scepticism in the face of superstitious nonsense.
Helen bit back her words. Whether she believed in prophecy or not, indeed world events were stirring - the company she had been keeping over the last few weeks had told her as much - and the war - when it came - might well start at sea. Anyone thinking to assault the British Empire would certainly have to deal with the Royal Navy, and why not sooner rather than later?
“Well,” Helen said, picking her words carefully - it would never do to appear too inquistive, in case the housekeeper gossiped to someone who might be alert to anyone expressing curiosity about Polly’s whereabouts, “I hope that means she managed to travel by a good line. When my cousin went to New York with her husband last year they could only get berths on a French boat; just imagine!”
The housekeeper’s expression told her that her hint of xenophobia had hit the right note.
“Well, I know she did better than that. There wasn’t a Cunarder leaving soon enough, but I think Sir Oswald said Miss Perkins had managed to do very well; a Canadian line, I believe, but all very modern.”
Helen murmured something suitable about sending the brooch by registered airmail to Miss Perkins’s office in New York, and turned the conversation, via the excellence of the shortbread, to a recipe Lady Georgiana had hoped she might obtain as she was going to be in the neighbourhood. A few minutes later Helen stood up, pulling on her gloves, having taken the housekeeper’s discreet hint that, pleasant as the opportunity to sit and gossip might be, she had duties to be about.
“Well,” she said, “I’d better be on my way. Thanks so much for the tea -“
Helen’s immediate impulse had been to drive at the best speed the Baby Austen could command back to Cousin Charles’s, and demand that they begin an immediate investigation as to which Canadian liners had sailed for North America in the relevant time period, and establish whether Polly had, in truth, been a passenger on any of them. But a subtle sense of something wrong had been twanging at her nerves ever since she’d driven out through Mosley’s park gates. Its influence caused her almost without conscious thought to swing decisively left at the next major road, taking the route she would have taken had she indeed still been - as she had unblushingly pretended - in Lady Georgiana’s employment, and travelling further away from her cousin’s house.
It was a road which Chesterton would have delighted in; winding through coppices and between tall hedges apparently for the pure pleasure of it; cresting little ridges, and descending into dips and hollows roofed by intertwined branches from the trees that lined it, which no doubt became dark green tunnels when the leaves were thick in mid-summer.
Helen, who had maintained a moderate, almost dawdling pace, had once or twice on the crest of a hill caught glimpses in her rear view mirror which served, if anything, to increase her nervousness.
The pace of her breathing speeded up. Although the Baby Austin’s engine was not of the quietest she fancied she could hear her heart thudding; she could certainly feel it.
It occurred to her that the road, however picturesque, was very deserted; she had passed no-one since a farm cart four miles back, and nothing coming in the other direction since a District Nurse, puffing past her on a bicycle, had spared her a cheerful wave.
With a prickling of her conscience it occurred to her that she had omitted, in the speed of her departure that morning, to carry out the exhaustive series of checks on the Baby Austin which her father had impressed upon her (when her steady persistance had worn down her father’s mild aversion and her mother’s outright opposition to her being taught to drive at all) were essential if a car were not inevitably to break down irretrievably. Her ear cocked for the sounds of the Baby Austin’s engine, and tried to gauge whether it sounded as it usually did, or was labouring under incipient mechanical breakdown. The more she listened, the less natural did the engine’s note sound. But was it that she had never listened this closely to it before, or was there really something wrong? This really would be a very lonely stretch of the road on which to break down, and the short winter day was already drawing towards dusk. And - Helen cast a nervous glance into her rear-view mirror again - she was now certain that she was being followed. A motorcyclist, whose powerful machine could certainly have overtaken hers, especially at the modest speed at which she was driving the Austin, was always at the same distance on the few glimpses she had caught of him.
The few scattered, ill-built cottages which began to denote the outskirts of a village struck her as having all the charms of Venice, Alexandria, Tashkent or any of the fabled remote cities of the world she had dreamt since childhood of exploring. Surely now she had reached 20th century civilisation the peril that she had felt lurking behind her on the open road must dissipate like so much smoke?
But at the back of her mind came the answering thought, “Suppose it doesn’t. Was it like this for Polly?”
If her suspicions were right, the people she was up against had vanished one woman already.
Her hands on the wheel were trembling. She stopped the car in front of the village shop, and went in. There was a white-haired old lady sat knitting behind the counter, and, Helen spotted with enormous relief, the paraphrenalia in one corner of the shop denoted it also did duty as the village post-office.
“Hello! I wonder if I could send an urgent telegram?”
The woman behind the counter looked up, her face uncomprehending.
“Sorry, Miss? What was that you were saying? Didn’t quite catch.”
Her voice had the toneless lack of variety of the profoundly deaf.
Despairingly, Helen raised her voice, enunciating clearly and slowly.
“I was just wondering -“
There was a harsh jangle as the door behind her opened and closed again. She half turned, to see a man in a long trench coat, with motorist’s goggles and gauntlets, entering behind her. He made a polite gesture, inviting her to go on.
Helen gritted her teeth. If he were her pursuer, her plan of sending a telegram to invoke Charles’s help would immediately alert him that she knew she was being pursued, and that would be tantamount to her confessing that her visit to Mosley’s housekeeper had been no more than snooping.
Sexton Blake and pulp novels of a like type had been a craze at school; she knew exactly what she might expect from the villains if she betrayed her knowledge. Bluff was the only answer.
Abandoning unborn any thoughts of enlisting the shopkeeper in her defence, she bought a penny bar of Fry’s chocolate, and made her way back to the car. As she let in the clutch and pulled smoothly away from the kerb she could see the stranger emerging from the shop door.
Helen gritted her teeth. Where to go? If he continued to follow her - and he had been persistent enough so far - she had to assume he had learned enough from the housekeeper to know that she had claimed to be on an errand at least nominally on behalf of Lady Georgiana. If she failed to return to Lady Georgiana’s house - if she betrayed the fact that she was no longer employed by that eccentric and bitter old lady - then not only her own fate but very probably that of Polly’s would be sealed. But her break with Lady Georgiana had been acrimonious and final, as her need to give her relative a sufficient excuse to dispense with her services had shaded, as Helen’s natural honesty and temper came to the fore, into a scathing denunciation of Aunt Georgiana’s selfishness, capriciousness, tyranny and overall sheer silliness. Furthermore, even if she were willing to listen - even if Helen could convince her of the genuineness of the danger (and she knew enough by now of her character to realise she would not readily give any credence to a romantic story of which she was not herself the heroine) who was to say where Aunt Georgiana’s sympathies would lie? Helen had heard her express enthusiasm for Mussolini often enough, and she certainly despised what she was pleased to call “the unwashed multitudes”.
There was, however, one slender hope. It was not yet half-past three. It was Lady Georgiana’s habit, when she was alone (and her uncertain temper had accounted for many of those friends of her youth that increasing age had not) to spend the hours from 2 to 5 ostensibly resting in her room, but in fact reading salacious French novels and sipping Madeira. If she could slip in unnoticed - persuade the servants not to reveal her presence -
Fate favoured her. As she drove under the arch into the old stable-yard Lucas was bent over the Rolls, tinkering with something under its bonnet and whistling. He looked up at the sound of the Austin Seven’s engine, and Helen pulled over to park next to the Rolls.
Lucas opened her door before she had a chance to do so herself. He had a broad grin on his face, but he cast a quick look up at the upper stories of the house, though as Lady Georgiana’s room looked forwards and had the heaviest of green plush curtains across the windows at any time when daylight might otherwise dare to creep in, Helen was not in particular apprehension of danger from that direction.
“Pleased to see you, Miss,” he said. “But I’m not sure I can say the Mistress would be of the same mind. She’s still very bitter about the things she says you said to her - was it true you called her -?”
“Probably,” Helen said abstractedly, making a sshing gesture at him. He looked surprised, and faintly put out. The roar of the motorcycle engine she thought for a second had only been the product of an overstretched imagination grew louder.
The motorcycle and rider swept round the corner into the stable yard, put down his right heel, hard, and came to a slithering, curving halt - it occurred to Helen to wonder if he had trained as a speedway rider, or was merely indifferent to the cost of boot-leather. It had its effect on Lucas, however; he looked frankly impressed.
The cyclist pushed up his goggles and smiled at her - he was, as she had never doubted, the man from the shop. His voice was without any pronounced accent, but betrayed he was also not what her mother would have called, “out of the top drawer”.
“You left these on the counter at the shop, Miss. I’m glad I managed to catch up with you so I could return them to you.”
And he held out to Helen her driving gloves.
She took them, inwardly cursing her stupidity at leaving them (though doubtless he would have found some other excuse), muttering vague thanks.
“Can you put me on the right road?” he added. “I need to be heading towards Rugby, and I think I may have missed my way at the village.”
Lucas started to direct him. Helen, trusting to his shrewdness and inherent loyalty - she had endeared herself to him within the first twelve hours of arriving in Aunt Georgiana’s employ by asserting gently but firmly that not even a mechanical genius could be expected to keep an antique like the Rolls running without an occasional pause for necessary repairs, and that chauffeurs, like their cars, also deserved opportunities to refuel on the road - smiled sweetly.
“Lucas, has Cook got the kettle on? I’m absolutely parched.” She turned towards the motorcyclist. “Thank you so much for your trouble about the gloves. I would offer you a cup of tea, but I’m afraid I daren’t risk disturbing my aunt during her quiet time. It would be more than my job was worth.”
She turned, and went in through the kitchen door as though she owned the place.
Cook was sitting at the kitchen table, and looked up as Helen came in. “Miss Helen! What the -?”
Helen put her finger to her lips. “Please,” she murmured, “don’t disturb Lady Georgiana. She doesn’t know I’m here.”
“Doesn’t know? But Miss Helen -“
Helen raised her hand again, just as Lucas entered from the stable-yard outside.
“Has he gone?” she demanded. Lucas nodded.
“Yes, Miss. And he didn’t get anything out of me, neither. But what’s going on?”
Helen’s air of bafflement was genuine.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I just got the idea he’d been following me. Not just from the village , I mean, but for much longer. Here was the only place I dared turn in.”
Cook, whose idea of ultimate heaven was the account of a really gory trunk murder to devour with her afternoon pot of tea, pursed her lips and nodded with the grave air of one who is shocked, but not surprised.
“White slavers, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” She drew in her breath with a satisfied hiss that came close to lip-smacking. “No young woman today is safe!”
Helen, who had heard too much from her mother on the subject of her own scanty allocation of youthful charms, was somewhat inclined to point out that some young women, however, were less at risk than others.
However, with policy in mind, she said instead, “Well, I’m not sure about that. But even so, I’d be glad if I could telephone my cousin, and ask him to send someone to take me home.” She caught Cook’s doubtful glance and added hurriedly, “Reverse charges, of course. Look, can you hide the Austin from Lady G. until someone picks it up tomorrow, Lucas?”
Both of them nodded, slowly. “But place your call now, Miss Helen. Her Ladyship will be down shortly, and we wouldn’t like -“
And Cook gave a tremulous glance towards the staircase, which Helen - who, after all, had to work for her living also - had no difficulty in interpreting. They would protect her to the best of their ability, true, but if the mad tyrant who ruled their destiny caught them at it then they would be out in the street, thrown to the winds of heaven without quarter.
And that would hardly be fair.
“I’ll be quick,” she promised, “and after that, put me in the scullery, and I’ll peel you some potatoes until Cousin Charles’s man gets here.”
Cook was indignant at the suggestion that Helen should occupy herself in such a way. However, a quick call later - her cousin, she reflected with relief, having an admirable facility for grasping essentials in short order - she did indeed retreat to the scullery, which, while malodorous, was the part of the house least likely to be invaded by Aunt Georgiana.
Cook had thoughtfully left a few of her most treasured newspapers there, and Helen spent an instructive three-quarters of an hour brushing up on her knowledge of white slavers, and trunk murderers, and why no young woman these days could possibly imagine herself to be safe. They were not the sort of newspapers which Mummy had ever allowed into the house at home (Helen briefly wondered whether that might be a factor in their own heavy staff turnover, even compared to that under Lady Georgiana’s insane exactions). She delved into accounts of raids on London night clubs, and felt herself much better informed, albeit a trifle baffled, about male depravity in its more ingenious branches.
The sound of an engine outsie cut short her vicarious wallow into the seamier side of life. Cook, looking strangely flustered, appeared in the scullery, hustling her out, urging her to hurry up, and on no account to make any more noise than she could help; her Ladyship was, from the sound of it, up from her nap, and clearly on the prowl.
There was a butcher’s van drawn up at the back door. Helen’s suprise at its appearance there at that time of day was tempered by her recollection that the local tradesmen were browbeaten into appearing at the house at whatever time Lady Georgiana summoned them. She wondered, idly, whether the butcher had finally come round to give her relative a piece of his mind about Lady Georgiana’s apparently fixed belief that if Cook only used a modicum of diligence she could find boneless joints aplenty.
Cook pushed her in the small of the back, propelling her towards the van, and then, at the sounds of a shout from indoors, vanished back inside. The back doors of the van suddenly swung open. She suppressed a gasp as her cousin grinned up at her. Rhys, in white overalls artistically spattered with gore, turned round from the driver’s seat. Lucas came out from behind the other side of the van, his grin as broad as her cousin’s.
Helen found herself gawping; she couldn’t help it.
“What -? ” she began.
Her cousin swung himself round to face her, awkwardly because of his leg, so that he was sitting on the edge of the van.
“Don’t make it too loud, Helen,” he said. “If Lady G. finds out I’m trespassing on her premises disguised as a leg of mutton she’ll cut me off without a shilling.” His expression showed that he did not regard the threat as a particularly intimidating one, which was reinforced by his adding, “Would that make it the forty-third time or the forty-fourth, I wonder? Lucas!”
Lady Georgiana’s chauffeur stepped closer in the dusk, and Helen heard paper crackle pleasantly.
“Thank you, sir.”
Lucas’s voice sounded impressed. Her cousin’s voice was brusquely businesslike.
“You earned it, man. Both you and Cook did. And if Lady G were to find out and cut up rough; well, you know where to come, don’t you? I’ll see you don’t lose by it.”
Lucas nodded. And then there was a noise from the house - she could detect the high-pitched screech of Aunt Georgiana, and Cook murmuring something in response. Charles unceremoniously hoisted her aboard, wriggled round, and pulled the doors to behind her.
“Get going!” he instructed Rhys. As the van lurched out of Aunt Georgiana’s gates Helen let out a deep shuddering breath of relief. Her cousin pulled a cigarette lighter from his pocket, and inspected her by the light of its flame.
“Good girl,” he said approvingly, having evidently established to his satisfaction that she was not about to collapse in a fit of the vapours. And then, conversationally, “Can you shoot?”
By way of answer he unearthed a long, canvas-wrapped parcel from somewhere in the interior of the van.
“Thought it best to be prepared,” he said. “After all, the most likely explanation is that the bloke on the motorcycle was just doing a bit of checking to make sure your story tallied. If he’d really suspected you, he’d have scragged you on the road, not risked you getting anywhere you could ‘phone. But if they think to call Aunt G as an extra precaution, to see if you really do still work for her - well - we’ve got a long way to go before we get to Liverpool, and from what Franky’s chap seems to have ferreted out, the Ungodly seem to have a heck of a pull with the forces of law and order. Hence, of course, the incognito.”
He gestured to indicate the butcher’s van.
“Yes,” Helen said, suddenly struck. “Where did this come from?”
Her cousin coughed repressively.
“I found it, Miss,” Rhys said, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead.
“Oh.” She thought it was better to change the subject. “You brought a gun?”
Charles shrugged. “Several, actually. After all: I’ve got them handy, and one never knows…Anyway, you haven’t answered my question. Can you shoot?”
“Well -” She thought for a moment. “I used to bribe the gardener’s boy with shillings to take me after rabbits, when I was at school.”
Charles laughed out loud.
“Good girl!” He pulled the twelve-bore out of its canvas package. “If you’re familiar with shotguns, you’d better take this. I’ll keep the service revolver and the rifle. Now, if you’re used to rabbits, there’s a couple of things that are different when you start shooting men instead. The first thing is that men are bigger, so you’re more likely to hit something, and the second thing is that men are more likely than rabbits to shoot back…That’s why you need to be quick about it, once you decide to fire.”
His matter-of-factness almost took her breath away.
“You can’t mean that I might have to -“
He swung to face her - even in the dark of the van, illuminated only by the flickering street-lights of the town through which Rhys was taking them his face looked wholly serious, his eyes intent.
“Helen; answer me this. Have you seriously doubted, since you saw that man in your rear-view mirror this afternoon, that England is at this very moment at war?”