2. In which Polly does go to the ball, and the historical and fictional figures referenced above make their appearance - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
The Assembly Rooms were cold, the elegant Georgian windows inadequate proof against the cold blast from outside. Polly’s backless biascut aquamarine evening gown hardly protected her from the cold either, uncompromisingly elegant as she knew it to be.
Actually, if she was honest with herself (as she was, more often than anyone ever gave her credit for) she would admit that most of the evening’s chill came from her having to face this particular ordeal alone. When they had finally let her in on their plan, she had assumed she would have Joe by her side in support.
Joe, inexplicably, had mouthed some garbage about its being more use if she could project herself as the go-between, the honest broker who might, possibly, talk the Sky Captain and his Legion into aligning themselves with the International Brotherhood of the New Jacobite Order. If offered a suitable retainer. Her diplomacy, he claimed unblushingly, would be infinitely more effective were he to be - diplomatically - absent while she deployed it.
So he had left her under the coolly detached patronage of Squadron Leader Charles Cook DFC, at whom she could never look without trying to trace his sister’s features in his generally immobile face. Which sister was about to dock in Portland, provoking Joe to take off for the West Country, on the pretext that her intelligence officer might have something useful to contribute.
Which left her having to face the assembled ranks of the British aristocracy and gentry on their own turf, without reserves or back-up fire-power. Her mind whirled with speculation as to whether that relationship really was over. Since her arrival in Britain, Joe had been incomprehensibly distant, even given that unfortunate misunderstanding in the Legion’s flat (and so far as that was concerned, all the circumstantial evidence had supported her conclusion; any girl in her position would have thought the same thing).
But she didn’t have time to worry about that sort of thing for long. On entering the Assembly Rooms they had been assailed by an upper-class mob: the women for the most part horse-faced and formidable, the men all wanting to pile in and exchange greetings with her escort (who seemed to have served with or be related - at least by marriage - to a good three-quarters of them) in an obscure argot of which she felt she was understanding one word in seven, but which all of the rest spoke perfectly and no doubt had done since the nursery.
Her inability to speak the local dialect had, she thought with a quick flush of embarrassment, led to one near-disaster already that evening. On their arrival a white-haired man whose pronounced limp somehow only enhanced his air of bird-like sprightliness, who had been introduced to her only as “the Brigadier, my neighbour” had looked her up and down with an expression which needed no translation, taking her in from the top of her painstaking coiffeur to the tips of her satin dancing-pumps, and, with jaw-dropping boldness, enquired “was she planning to stay long with the Squadron Leader, and, if so, might he have the pleasure of mounting her during the Season, harrumph?”
She had been boggled momentarily into silence, while struggling to come up with a sufficiently icy and devastating response (direct action, her first impulse, having been ruled out in consideration of his white hairs and invalid status) before Charles Cook, in a voice whose sardonic undercurrent betrayed that he was fully aware of the magnitude of the gaffe she was on the point of perpetrating, and which reinforced just how alike he was to his sister, blast her, had said,
“It’s generous of you to offer to lend her a horse, sir, but I don’t think Miss Perkins rides. Do you, Polly?”
At which the nearest of the horsy ladies - who had been introduced as the Honourable Amaryllis Something-or-Other, but who answered to another of these absurd nursery nicknames everyone seemed to be saddled with - Shingles, or Bingles or something - had feigned utter shock.
“Not ride? But darling, I thought all Americans rode. Those glorious wide open spaces you see in the magazines and on the movies!”
Another of those cool, clipped English accents had cut in then.
“But hardly in New York City, Binksie. Or do you count Central Park as one of those great wide open spaces? Because I believe Miss Perkins is very much an ornament of the great metropolis, rather than the Wild West, what?”
Polly had looked up to meet a pair of humorous grey eyes, one sporting a monocle, set in a long, pale aristocratic face under a sleek mop of hair that was as fair as her own, and immaculately brushed back from his high forehead. He must have caught the surprise in her face, because he added, smoothly,
“It is Miss Polly Perkins of the Chronicle, isn’t it? How delightful. Not that it feels as though one is making your acquaintance, of course, after following your columns for so long.”
She blinked. Charles Cook held out his hand. “Wimbles. I didn’t think you went in much for this sort of thing any more.”
The new arrival surveyed him momentarily before shaking hands. “Nor you, for that matter, Pongo. I’m dashed glad to see you here. Though not half as glad as I was when you turned up that time with the aerial recon photos at Staff HQ, to let us know that Brother Boche was concentrating his attentions somewhere else down the line at long last. If you would do me the honour of introducing me properly to your charmin’ companion? Can’t ask a lady to dance without being introduced, you know.”
Smoothly, with a hint of a grin, Charles Cook went through the formalities. Polly had a struggle to keep a properly unflustered appearance; whereas at home she had, in the line of duty, interviewed Senators, railway kings, film stars, and even, once the United States Vice-President without turning a hair, the younger brother of a Duke (and that, it seemed, a dukedom, it seemed, that went back the best part of half a millennium before her country had even existed) was something quite out of the ordinary. Especially when - as transpired before they had completed even half a circuit of the dance floor (he danced divinely, it turned out) - he clearly knew much more about her than she did about him. And not all of it entirely favourable.
“So; what brings you to these parts, Miss Perkins? Thinking of writing an exposé article on ‘The English Aristocracy at Play’?”
Those grey eyes were watchful; her immediate impulse of bantering deflection would hardly, she suspected, pass muster.
“Not quite.” She paused, wondering if she should go further. But she hadn’t got where she had without taking risks. And it was clear that in this society her dance partner could open any door he chose - if he chose. She could tell that from the sidelong glances the horsy-looking ladies had vouchsafed as they took the floor, and had taken heart that at least there were some areas in which the US and Great Britain were not separated by a common language.
She looked earnestly up at him. “Actually, it’s a particular aristocrat I had in mind - who I’m trying to find a chance to get an interview with.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Tell me more.”
Polly gulped. Now or never.
“Would you happen to know a Sir Oswald Mosley?”
The instant shuttering of those inquisitive grey eyes; his sudden assumption of an expression of amiable indifference like a net curtain blurring out the sharp intelligence of his face, told her she had touched a nerve. She kept her own face resolutely blank, but a little flicker of exultation lit within her. She was onto something, she knew it.
Her partner gave a slight, well-bred cough.
“Know? Well, a little, I suppose. Know of, certainly. An interesting choice for your interview, Miss Perkins.”
She leaned a little closer towards his immaculately starched shirt-front as they revolved smoothly round the dance floor just in front of the orchestra, and breathed seductively,
“You know, Lord Peter, the way you said that reminded me of something. There’s an old Chinese curse, they told me when I set off to Nanjing. ‘May you live in interesting times’. Was that the sense of ‘interesting’ you might have had in mind?”
He surveyed her steadily through the monocle, as though, she thought with a shiver that was not all down to the draughty Assembly Rooms, she were a specimen under a magnifying glass. They had completed another half-circuit of the room before he spoke again.
“Y’know, I think some people manage to make their times more interestin’ than Nature intended. And not just for themselves, blast them, but for peace-loving idiots like you and me. At least, I trust you’re peace-loving, Miss Perkins. You should be, after what you must have seen in the Far East. My congratulations, incidentally, on those articles you sent back. Your photographs of Tojo Hideki, f’rinstance. I confess to being deeply intrigued as to how you managed to take those. Though I suppose every trade has its secrets, what?”
His face was a well-bred blank as he spoke, and of course he couldn’t know. No-one knew - not even she herself, come to think of it. Nevertheless, her stomach gave a lurch. Though that particular exclusive had set her reputation as a serious journalist in stone - had permanently pulled up the ladder behind her, protecting her from ever sliding back into the sob-sister, fashion-plate ghetto from which she had clawed her way to her present eminence - she still preferred not to think too closely about exactly how it had come about. And what it had cost.
You make your own luck in this game, someone had told her once, when she’d been green but determined to make her mark in a tough profession and never, ever be forced to go back home with her tail between her legs to the small town of her birth, to face the indulgent smiles of her friends and relations who’d told her from the start that she was aiming too high, that she was looking at the stars and so bound to trip over her own feet and land in the gutter.
All she had done, after all, was give her luck a boost at the right time - she had only intended a ten-minute delay - and been sure that anything she was capable of doing to the plane’s fuel line would be spotted and fixed within minutes during the pre-flight checks. And she still told herself that there must have been someone else, a second and more effective saboteur who’d got at Joe’s plane after she herself had left it, that the disaster which had happened was not, and never had been, whatever Joe might believe, her fault.
More as an effort to change the subject than anything else, she said lightly, “Should I be flattered? You seem to have been following my career closely, Lord Peter.”
He smiled, distantly.
“Well, on and off, don’t you know. You’ve written some fascinating things over the years, Miss Perkins. Your interview with my wife, f’rinstance. That was the first thing of yours I read.”
Polly looked up, quickly. It was hardly as if she’d interviewed that many English people, and she could have sworn that none of them had been a Lady Wimsey, or a Lady Somebody Wimsey or even a Somebody, Lady Wimsey - blast it, she’d been burning the midnight oil with Debretts for the last three nights, and she still hadn’t got the rules anything like straight, and she suspected that the British crept about quietly switching them round on purpose, just to keep people like her permanently wrong-footed.
“I’m not sure I recollect -“
His voice was cool.
“No, why should you? After all, it was some years ago. Before we were married, in fact. She’s a writer, you know. Like yourself, though mostly detective novels rather than journalism, though she’s done some travel stuff and book reviews for the papers, here and there. To keep the wolf from the door, over the years. I’m sure you know how it is. Very tough, bein’ a writer, I imagine. Specially for a woman.”
Polly nodded. She knew, all right. Though she hadn’t expected this silk-lined son of a ducal house to know also. She could feel her face relaxing into a smile.
“But that’s so interesting. And your wife, what name does she write under?”
He looked at her; there was just the faintest possible inference to be drawn from his expression that it was rather gauche of her to need to ask.
“Miss Harriet Vane. The detective novelist, you know.”
His voice continued, meditatively, above her head.
“You know, I’ve always thought it must be a dashed difficult job for a reporter. Writing about detective novels, and making it interestin’, without givin’ away the plots, what?”
Polly’s face flamed. For now she had the name, she could remember very clearly the circumstances. And she had not, after all, solved the problem of how one reviewed detective stories without revealing whodunnit. Rather the reverse, in fact.
It had been about five years ago - no, nearer six - and Polly had been spitting feathers that she’d been sent off to interview some dowdy British ‘tec-story writer at all, as there’d been something big on at the time - a war? an execution? an election? After all this time she forgot the details - anyway, she was newly promoted to the mast-head and keen to prove herself on the really big stuff. The boys’ stuff. Being sent off on this cosy domestic assignment had looked like a deliberate kick in the teeth; neither the first nor the last of many.
And the interview had gone badly from the beginning, almost as if the subject had known that in Polly’s mind she was very definitely second-best.
Miss Vane had been unremittingly distant and prickly; not, after all, dowdy, but wearing a coat and skirt whose severe correctness of cut had made their own acid commentary on Polly’s own more revealing, less expensive, outfit. And her entire demeanour shrieked “blue-stocking” from the outset, as if Polly hadn’t already taken the trouble to look up the First from Oxford, and the strings of sycophantic reviews from the London Times downwards, applauding her “scholarly” command of English prose, and neatly turned use of a classical tag or an apt, abstruse, literary allusion. And her eloquent dark eyebrows and compressed, thin, expressive lips had not concealed what she thought about the unsophisticated young reporter confronting her.
Polly had already, by then, had her fair share of brushes with alumnae of Vassar, Radcliffe or Wellesley who’d contemptuously assumed that four years at some fancy liberal arts school at Daddy’s expense would make up for any amount of talent, flair and sheer determination possessed by a little girl from the sticks, with nothing more than a high school diploma and a burning conviction that nothing, nothing whatsoever could prevent her reaching her goals.
This supercilious British novelist with the Oxford pedigree was, Polly had determined within the first few moments of their encounter, and with all the savagery that, an uneasy few years later, she realised that only the very young and inexperienced could have lightly invoked, fully deserving of all she was going to get.
Fate had given her a weapon tuned sweetly to her hand. After all it was most clearly of interest to the Chronicle’s readers that someone who chose cheerfully to write about the darkest of dark deeds, and crimes uncounted, had herself come within the shadow of the gallows. And accused of the murder of her lover to boot; that would give the piece the frisson of the deliciously unsanctioned for the good ladies who subscribed to the Chronicle from the remoter reaches of Syracuse or Cincinnati. There might even be complaints, published in the Letters column, that the austere Chronicle had dared to interview such a self-confessed Jezebel.
Scandal, Polly had learned early, did wonders for a newspaper’s circulation. One only had to consider (though not imitate, of course) the career of Mr William Randolph Hearst.
The well-turned phrases had burned from her typewriter, and she’d glowed with all the satisfaction of someone who’d written a honed piece of prose, and so tempered a sword which would cut to the heart of its victim with the least possible waste of effort.
Until less than an hour after she’d filed her copy she’d found herself on the Arts Editor’s carpet, in an interview that still, if she recollected it unexpectedly during some sleepless night, made her go hot and cold and kick the sheets in shame and fury. His final iteration of the choices before her had been stark: spike, rewrite or resign.
At the time she had, resentfully and grinding her teeth for sheer fury as she rewrote (for a by-line was a by-line, and the end of her career at its very outset unthinkable), put his attitude down to the advertising power wielded by Miss Vane’s US publishers, who also, she found out later, had a stake in the Chronicle. Tonight, looking up at her dance partner, and seeing the bubble of privilege within which they moved as they traversed the floor, reflected back from them in the horsy faces on the periphery of her vision, she was abruptly aware of another possible explanation.
In this society Lord Peter could open any door he chose - if he chose. The corollary of which being, she now realised, that he could shut them. Just as easily.
But she had been determined not to be beaten as she slaved over the rewrite. And, relying on the legendary lack of knowledge of Art or Literature possessed by the Editor with responsibility for them both, she had taken the opportunity subtly to spike her enemy’s guns, revealing as many key plot points of her novels as Polly dared think she could get away with.
Polly chewed nervously on her lip as she considered, with the benefit of hindsight, just what that momentary flash of resentment might have cost someone who (she realised now) was after all only another girl struggling to make ends meet by her pen in a man’s world, where it was always an effort to make those who had the money to buy understand that it was only the fruits of one’s brain that were on sale, and where there were no prizes for coming second.
And, looking at her dance partner, she could almost fancy he had known about all of it, from the prickly hostility of his wife, to her own wounded counter-attack; the haughty defensiveness, and the small, mean retaliation.
“Anyway,” she said, her voice abruptly sounding rather too loud in her own ears, “is your wife with you this evening, Lord Peter?”
“Ah, no as it happens.” He paused. “Harriet isn’t going out very much, just at present.”
His smile for the first time touched his eyes. “Which, in the case of this particular event on the social calendar, I’m entirely sure she regards as a wholly fortunate coincidence.”
Polly gathered her courage together. “What a pity. I’d - uh - rather hoped we might meet again.”
That, she was pleased to note, had not been what he had been expecting her to say. She continued smoothly on.
“I think - if I were doing that interview today - there are a lot of different things I’d want to ask her. And a lot of things I wouldn’t be planning to say, this time around. I’d be obliged if you could tell your wife that, Lord Peter.”
His face lit up - his lips parted - she waited for what he would say next -
“Oh, good grief! That idiot boy! What on earth is he doing here?”
A blast of even colder air blew through the Assembly Rooms. Abruptly, Lord Peter stopped dancing. She - to say nothing of the couple behind them - almost tripped over him. He mouthed a conventional apology, but twisted, looking up at the slight, hatless figure of a blond, jaw-droppingly handsome youth who, wearing a light beige raincoat thrown over immaculate evening dress, was coming down the flight of marble steps leading down from the double doors which opened onto the street.
“Jerry!” Lord Peter muttered. “What in the name of all the saints did a poor, unsuspecting uncle do to deserve this?”
Seeing him thus discombobulated lifted Polly’s spirits, with a fizz like champagne. She grinned.
“Why not ask him yourself? After all; it’s clearly you he’s here to see.”
Indeed, as the band came to a stop in a ragged concatenation of false notes, it was apparent that the young man was determinedly making his way towards them, coming to a stop before Lord Peter with an impudent cock of his shoulders and a sidelong grin, which somehow managed to convey a febrile, nervous charm under its apparent nonchalance.
Her dancing companion screwed his monocle more firmly in his eye and looked repressively at the new arrival.
“And what, Jerry, do you mean by this? It’s the middle of Michaelmas term: why aren’t you still up at Oxford? Though you may not care to answer that with all the old tabbies in the Shires flappin’ their ears within range.”
As he spoke, he caught the young man by one elbow, and steered him determinedly off the dance floor and into the relative privacy of the maze of surrounding tables and elegant gilt chairs. Polly, her curiosity thoroughly whetted, followed in their wake.
The good-looking boy’s eye lighted on Polly, and an impish smile flickered across his lips.
“Uncle Peter! You can’t keep this charmin’ young lady standing drink-less while we go raking through all the dry bones, and before we’ve even been introduced, too.”
His uncle, recognising the diversionary tactic, sighed. “Miss Perkins; may I have the somewhat dubious honour of presenting my nephew, Viscount St George?”
“Call me Jerry,” the young man said eagerly, extending a hand. His uncle coughed.
“I should warn you that Miss Perkins lives by her pen, and if you don’t want your mother finding out about whatever it is that brings you here via the public press, you might prefer to tell me in private.”
Polly fumed inwardly, but the young man made a rueful grimace.
“Too late, Uncle Peter; the Morning Star must have got a man onto the next train up to Oxford before I’d even finished my discussions with the Proctors. He nabbed me just as I was leaving the House.”
He flashed a quick, sidelong smile at Polly. “If the Morning Star had had the brains to send someone as charmin’ as you they might have ended up with a story, rather than being upended in Mercury. I was feeling somewhat uncommunicative at the time he accosted me, you understand. Chap by name of Puncheon; says he knows you, Uncle Peter.”
“He does.” There was a smile of grim satisfaction on his uncle’s face. “Harriet once set a bull on him.”
Polly gulped. “Your wife - er - doesn’t seem actually to like reporters very much.”
Lord Peter looked thoughtfully at her for a moment.
“Let’s say she’s had one or two rather - bruising - experiences at the hands of the Press.”
Polly thought privately that it didn’t sound to her as though all the bruising had gone in one direction. Lord Peter looked repressively at his nephew.
“Anyway. Give, Jerry. If the Morning Star thought worth sending someone up to Oxford to cover it, you can’t have been sent down for any of the usual reasons. So how bad is it? Are you here to ask me to arrange a change of identity and to ship you off to North Africa to lose yourself in the French Foreign Legion?”
Jerry, capturing a couple of cocktails from a passing waiter, and handing one to Polly, grinned across the frosted rim of his glass at his uncle.
“It may come down to that, once the Mater gets on to it. Though maybe I’ll just join the RAF as a gentleman ranker under an assumed name, like Thingummy.”
“A/C Thingummy,” his uncle murmured. “I admit it has quite a ring to it.”
“But what is it you’ve done?” Polly demanded, her fingers feeling for her dance-programme and pencil. Over on the other side of the room she could see Charlie signalling to her in the pre-arranged code they’d agreed; the Mosley party must have arrived, and she needed to get down to the real business of the evening, but she was dying for the scoop here, and if the Morning Star had lost it (and were the English aristocracy always so nonchalant about confessions of random poisoning, even of journalists? And where had Jerry got the mercury from, anyway?) then the Chronicle would have it.
“I demolished a bit of Keble.”
“What?!” His uncle’s exclamation was sufficiently loud to cause heads turn across the room. He moderated his tones and said, “How, Jerry? Just - how?”
“Er, what’s Keble?” Polly asked. The two looked at her with identical expressions of politely veiled wonder that a creature so ill-informed could possibly exist.
“It’s an Oxford college,” Jerry said. “Quite a new one, fortunately. And devastatingly ugly. Looks like a cross between Manchester Town Hall and a Fair Isle sweater. Though actually I don’t think the Proggins could have been more unpleasant even if I’d hit somewhere that actually mattered.”
His uncle observed that Keble, while ugly, had a Master and Fellows who were doubtless fond of it, and added, “But how did you manage it?”
“Well -” Jerry put down his drink and spread his hands explanatorily. “It was the gargoyles’ fault.”
“And have they been sent down?” his uncle enquired sardonically. Jerry looked uneasy.
“Not precisely. Though one or two did sort of plummet down into the quad when the cable caught them, with this perfectly beastly crashing sound. But old Shutters did quite right to cast it off the winch drum when he did. Another split second and the whole airship would have come crashing down on college. And then the Proggins really would have had something to complain about.”
His uncle and Polly looked at Jerry.
“I had hoped,” his uncle said plaintively, “that the influence of your tutor might, by this stage in your university career, have infused you with a grasp of narrative structure. Obviously, you subscribe to the modernist school, whereby all attempts to construct a narrative according to a linear or any other identifiable pattern are eschewed with an almost religious fervour.”
“If I tried telling a story like this, my editor would kill me,” Polly said. She and Lord Peter grinned at each other, having finally achieved some substructure of common understanding.
“Well, it was like this,” Jerry said, in rather a rush. “It all began with Shutters’s airship - you do know Shutters, don’t you, Uncle Peter?”
His uncle indicated that he was, indeed, acquainted with Mr Shuttleworth.
“As a friend of yours with intelligence, imagination, the capacity to apply himself and a few ideas beyond nightclubs and the front row of the chorus he does tend to stand out, Jerry.” He took a sip of his own drink. “Much like a phoenix among a flock of farmyard ducks. I’m disappointed to learn he was involved in this caper. Have his studies also received a summary termination?”
Jerry shook his head. “No. Everyone rallied round and lied like troopers. There’s no reason the Proggins should ever know there was anyone else on board besides me and the paid crew.”
His uncle looked eloquently across at Polly, his eyebrows delicately raised, and then back to his nephew. The Viscount’s face flamed.
“Oh, oops! ” he muttered. His uncle’s smile had a deadly blandness.
“I’m sure that Miss Perkins appreciates that the best way to ensure the exclusivity of this story and your cooperation with follow-ups will be to - gloss over - such part of your indiscretions as implicate others not already affected; isn’t that right, Miss Perkins?”
His eyes were narrow and watchful. And she suddenly, abruptly concluded that she did not want to get on the wrong side of this man: so acute, so well-connected, so devastatingly intelligent.
And - she smiled inwardly to herself as she thought it - if Jerry was (as she suspected) not only the heir to the dukedom, but charming and unattached to boot, it was scarcely in her own best interests to offend him.
She looked across at them both and infused her voice with its huskiest sincerity.
“I won’t breathe a word about your friend,” she said. “Trust me.”
Apparently reassured, Jerry started to rattle away at break-neck speed. “Well, Shutters got the airship from his father for his twenty-first - he’d been promised a plane, but he thought the blimp would be better as a platform for testing some of his ideas on - he’s a great inventor - always tinkering with stuff and really likes getting his hands dirty - that’s why the Mater can’t stand him, well, that and the Shuttleworths being new money -“
“Albeit in very large quantities,” he uncle observed. “I trust this fashion for private airships isn’t going to catch on. I can’t see Helen caring for having to stable one down at Denver.”
Jerry grinned at him, and Polly was struck, momentarily, by how alike they were, after all. Jerry waved a hand and continued.
“Well, he’s very hot on War in the Air being the next big thing to come, and he reads up on all sorts of boffiny stuff about trajectories and civilian vulnerability to aerial bombardment and the like - he’s got a bee in his bonnet about the country being really vulnerable to attack if an enemy got control of the air, and everyone having their eye taken off the ball by flummery about Bolsheviks when actually the Russians have got too many problems running what they’ve got to be expansionist, and the real dangers are much closer to home - you should hear him talk, Uncle Peter; it goes right over my head half the time, but you’d understand him.”
“I said he was a rarity among your friends,” his uncle interjected.
“Anyway, he’d developed this new sort of winch and harness contraption; he’d got some sort of notion about an air-lifeboat service, and he thought it might be more effective than a Breeches buoy for getting people out of the water, or if they were stuck on cliffs and suchlike. And he wanted a volunteer to test it. And I - well, it was getting to that part of term when I was feeling somewhat short of the readies, and it occurred to me that I could use the chance to pull off a really spectacular set of bets, and put the kit through a really challenging set of tests for Shutters into the bargain.”
“Tell me,” his uncle interrupted, “did this proposed coup involve items of bedroom crockery, by any chance?”
Jerry looked at him. “What it is to be such a Sherlock. How the devil did you deduce that?”
Lord Peter sighed. “From the reliably conservative puerility of the undergraduate mind-set. So. How many jerries did you undertake to delivery, Jerry?”
“Six. Magdalen Tower, St Mary the Virgin, Sheldonian Theatre, Martyrs’ Memorial, Rhodes House and Keble chapel. Keble was the last because we needed to head North as our escape route; the airfield’s up there.”
He gestured. “Well, it all went swimmingly - drew a huge crowd, they were chasing down through the Oxford streets trying to work out where we’d strike next - some of the sharper colleges got their SCR to take command of the higher vantage points - the Master of Trinity nearly grabbed my boot off me with the handle of his walking stick, when the winch was getting a bit sticky - but then Keble caught us out. I was just descending nicely to position our little gift - and suddenly there was this awful vibration down the winch cable, and the airship started jawing about all over the shop, and I started wriggling like fury, and it turned out that one of the gargoyles on that blasted excrescence of a building had got tangled up with my harness and was holding me fast like grim death to Keble chapel roof.”
He paused for breath.
“And that was when I realised what the design fault in the whole set up was. You can’t self- release the cable from the harness end. Well, Shutters must have realised it at the same moment, because he just yelled at me to cover my head and keep as clear as possible, and released the brake on the drum. And every last yard of the blasted cable came down on top of Keble chapel roof. And then I had to sit there cuddling my gargoyle until they finally got ladders long enough to get me down. And, one short but nonetheless unpleasant interview with the University authorities later, me and the University of Oxford decided to terminate our engagement by reason of our irreconcilable differences.”
He reached an end to his narrative, and looked hopefully across at Polly.
“So, ” he said, “Having told you the whole sad history, shall we dance? You can minister the balm of female consolation to my lacerated and aching spirit.”
She looked across the room. Charlie’s signals were now becoming even less discreet. It was a tough decision to take.
She smiled sweetly at the Viscount. “Why don’t we make it later in the evening? I can see my host waving to me; there’s someone here he particularly wanted me to meet. But later, I’d be delighted.”
And, pausing only to scribble a telegram to the Chronicle and hand it to the waiter with instructions that it must be phoned through immediately, she made her way back across the dance floor to Charlie. And to the tall cold-eyed man with the small black moustache and immaculate, slicked back dark hair who was standing next to him.