3. Polly storms the citadel - and, a little late, reflects that the fly, too, usually experiences little difficulty getting into the web... - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Polly’s initial response on finding how she had been seated for supper, which was announced at 11.45pm, was relief at the hand fate had dealt her. Her quarry was on her left hand side, and the Brigadier, who was at least a known quantity, directly across the table from her. Charles Cook was on her right, and Lord Peter across the table, no more than four places away.
Regrettably, Viscount St George, presumably because of his unheralded arrival, had had to be squeezed in down towards the bottom; well out of earshot though not, as Polly subsequently discovered, outside Making Preposterous Gestures With Napkins range.
Polly rapidly began to regret the distance between her and the irreverent young aristocrat. The general talk around her, which had commenced, as was only to be expected, with reminscences about the killing of foxes, touched lightly on the slaughter of grouse (the prime season for which was past, she gathered), detoured up to the Highlands to discuss the stalking of stags and a further operation connected with the process, referred to mysteriously as ‘gralloching’ which, from what Polly could gather, was very definitely not something into which she wanted to enquire closely, and finally concluded with an analysis of the prospects for snipe and woodcock over the Christmas period. Judging by the enthusiasm with which ballistic technicalities were being rapidly exchanged by everyone within range, Polly did not think that, had she been a woodcock (whatever that might be), she would have considered her prospects encouraging.
In fact, not even in a military mess in the midst of a war-zone could Polly recollect a conversation which was so unremittingly sanguinary.
And so utterly useless for the purposes of her investigation.
In an desperate attempt to keep herself in the hunt (and how accurate was that metaphor in this company?) Polly turned to her neighbour.
“I don’t see your wife here tonight, Sir Oswald?”
He turned, his excellent teeth rather visible in a charming but somehow also vulpine smile. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a sardonic twist to Lord Peter’s mobile mouth, and fumed inwardly in belated recognition that her choice of phrase sounded more than a little opportunistic - actually, given the appropriate absence of charity, a blatant come-on.
Sir Oswald, it appeared, thought so too. His knee brushed briefly against the biascut satin under the table. His voice held an almost indecent purr.
“Diana’s abroad, alas. Staying to console the exile of two very old friends of ours who - unhappily - are prevented from being here tonight. Still. As our Hebrew cousins say, I believe; next year in Jerusalem, eh? Which London fast seems to be becoming. May I engage you for the Lancers? And for a waltz or so?”
Demurely, she looked down at her dance programme, hanging by its twisted silk cord from her gloved wrist. Demurely (and with a pang of inward regret) she struck through two of the post-supper dances the Viscount had, claiming all the prerogatives of youth and rank, appropriated to himself, and presented it to Sir Oswald.
“It would be my pleasure.”
He smiled - more, she suspected, at the sight of the struck-through names on her programme than at his own in pride of place. And then, as though a piece of business had been concluded and freed him to move on to more important things, he leant across the supper table towards Lord Peter. Even given the distance across the elegantly set white-linen draped table Polly thought she detected a slight increase in formality in Lord Peter’s demeanour, as though Mosley were intruding uninvited into his private apartment.
“You and Denver shootin’ at Sandringham this Christmas, Wimsey? Shouldn’t be any reason this year for His Majesty not to reinstate the big shoots they used to have, back in the old’un’s days.”
Lord Peter raised his eyebrows.
“You hadn’t heard?”
Polly thought she detected a faint but insultingly detectable lack of surprise at the other’s ignorance in his tone.
Not quite in the inner circles, then.
There was an angry flush on Mosley’s cheek; he had, it appeared, caught the sub-text. Polly made a rapid mental addendum to her earlier thought.
And boy, is he ever sore at that, too.
“Drains,” Lord Peter said succinctly. “They’ve finally decided that the pestilential cesspit that constitutes the Sandringham drainage system has indulged in its last blockage. It all has to go, by Imperial fiat. So the tradition of ages is displaced, and His Majesty is to winter at Balmoral, with all the Family.”
Momentarily Polly detected a calculating expression cross Mosley’s face. There was, if she had ever trusted her instincts before, more about this conversation than met the eye.
And anyway, at least it wasn’t about killing something with fur, feathers or antlers.
She made her voice lightly interrogative.
“Isn’t that high treason, or something? Revealing the hideous secrets of the Sandringham plumbing to all and sundry?”
Lord Peter looked the table up and down, and then leant across towards Polly, with an exaggeratedly conspiratorial wink and speaking in a broad stage whisper.
“Hush! Don’t let the Master overhear you, O untutored child of the boundless prairies. He would feel it reflected on the honour of the Hunt. This is not an event open to All. And very definitely not to Sundry.”
“Besides,” a high bored voice broke in from the other side of Mosley, “the fact that the plumbing in all the Royal residences is a disgrace isn’t any kind of secret, let alone a state one. ‘M surprised only the Prince Consort died of typhoid. Well do I remember my Presentation when I was a deb; we were told on pain of death not to drink anything beforehand, but they still kept us waiting around for so long that everyone had her legs crossed, and eventually we were trooped off en crocodil by the chief dragon of the bedchamber down about forty miles of Buckingham Palace corridors, each draughtier than the last, and even then the best they could come up with was a chamber pot behind a chinese screen. Darling, I couldn’t possibly have a light, could I?”
A gilt-tipped cigarette in an amber holder was waved vaguely under Sir Oswald’s nose.
His smile was tight-lipped. “Of course, Binksie. But you’ll have to wait until after the Loyal Toast.”
The Hon Amaryllis wrinkled her nose. “Oh no! Don’t tell us the Master has decided to subject us all to that frightful rigmarole? And speeches as well? Oh, too, too weary-making. Can’t someone muzzle him before he starts?”
But before anyone could put this suggestion into practice there was the tinkle of a fork against the stem of a wine-glass, and the florid-faced man to whom Polly had been introduced in the earlier part of the evening got to his feet, to discourse for the best part of twenty minutes on - Polly was by now unsurprised to learn - the theory, practice and downright moral obligation of pursuing foxes.
All that being said, some other bigwig got to his feet to reinforce the salient points of the previous discussion, for a further ten minutes.
And then the Master laboriously got back to his feet to deliver a précis of what had gone before, for those who might be assumed to have been asleep during the whole.
Much to her surprise, Polly noticed Sir Oswald pull out a propelling pencil and scribble something on his cuff during the final part of the peroration. She tried to crane her head unobtrusively, but could make nothing of it in the dim light of the candles; it might have been nothing more than three wavy lines one above another for all she could see in the brief glimpse before he pulled his sleeve down to cover the cuff.
The Master reached his peroration - whatever it might have been. He picked up his glass.
“Lord Lieutenant; Your Grace; my lords, ladies and gentlemen: the King!”
And they were all on their feet, pledging, it suddenly occurred to Polly, a slight, shy, stuttering figurehead to whom she owed no natural allegiance, and who was only in the position he was by accident of Fate, and his brother’s love for a woman deemed by a censorious Establishment to be unworthy of being Queen.
She cast her glance down towards the tablecloth, momentarily afraid that her brash American scepticism about the mumbo-jumbo of reverence to a hereditary monarchy would mark her out as a pariah.
And so she was in a position to see what perhaps no-one else in the room could; the slight hesitation as Sir Oswald Mosley took up his glass to pledge his Monarch as a loyal subject should, and the ritual formality with which he passed it over the cuff on which he had written before raising it to his lips to join in the echoing thunder that resounded through the Assembly Rooms.
The frost-bound garden behind the Assembly Rooms was stiff and formal; put up for the winter and not, quite clearly, intended for public display. Wigwams of bean-poles tied with baler twine hung suspended, laden with hoar frost over the herbaceous borders. The dark figure of her quarry was no more than ten yards ahead of her, though.
Polly inhaled, drawing the sharp cold air laden with wood smoke deep into her nostrils, and felt more alive than she had done for months. And that was odd, too. For surely, she’d been in love all that time? And didn’t all the magazines say that that the world was changed when that happened to you, and even the colours of the rainbow sounded brighter?
So how wrong was it, for her to feel better to be on the case, with every nerve-ending tingling with excitement and the fear of discovery, than to be on Joe’s arm at some glitzy event, arriving amid a shatter of flashbulbs and an echo of admiring sighs from the bystanders?
“Do you need a light?” she asked, her nonchalant tones pitched to surprise. And succeeding; he spun on the spot, the starched front of his shirt and its row of diamond studs gleaming stark and heartless in the frozen moonlight. She held out the little silver matchbox she had carried in her evening purse against this moment, before the immaculately dressed man could respond either to assent or demur. Before answering, he took a match from the box, struck it, and lit the cigarette between his lips. The flare of the match lit up the device emblazoned across the box’s front; she thought she detected a hint of surprise; even, she hoped, admiration. He disguised it well, though.
“Miss Perkins. I hoped we might become better friends this evening. Perhaps meeting here, so - unexpectedly - may assist my hopes. Though I confess I - hadn’t expected you to follow me when I wandered out here to think.”
Polly gave a disbelieving shrug; she hoped it was visible in the reflected light from the Assembly Room windows. The protest of coincidence was for form’s sake only; the hints about the time and place of this assignation which he had given had been too clear, earlier. The frosty air struck cold on her body under the thin satin of her gown. She was not unaware that, painful as this was proving, it might also have its advantages.
“You’re an interesting man, Sir Oswald. And interesting men - interest me.”
The moonlight fell full on his face; she saw him raise a sardonic eyebrow.
“Oh? And why might that be?”
She put all she could into her voice, turning it into the huskiest of purrs.
“Because, Sir Oswald, interesting men so often turn out to be dangerous men. Haven’t you found that? And I adore dangerous men.”
He gestured; the glowing tip of his cigarette described a glow-worm pattern in the night air.
“I can see, Miss Perkins, that you have experience -“
The pause was just short enough not to be a deadly insult.
“Of dangerous men,” he concluded smoothly.
He nodded towards her right hand, which still loosely held the silver matchbox.
“Might it have been one of them who presented you with that pretty little thing?”
She smiled. “Sir Oswald. You can’t ask a girl to give up her secrets just for the asking. That would be foolish. After all, I might even ask you to for one of your secrets in return.”
He smiled; the moonlight glinted coldly off his teeth. In his sharp-boned face it gave him a suddenly vulpine air, and Polly’s shiver was not just because of the chill surroundings.
“Ask away. You’ll never know what you might be given - until you ask for it.”
She put her head on one side. Long experience had taught her that even those who certainly ought to know better could be disarmed by a pose of girlish innocence.
“What was that I saw you writing on your cuff, before the Loyal Toast?”
He hesitated a moment, but then flicked back his jacket sleeve, revealing the small symbol scribbled there; three parallel undulating lines, like a symbol on an Admiralty chart intended to indicate ‘rough waters here’. She looked at him nonplussed, and his smile widened. He stretched out a finger and traced around the device embossed on the matchbox, allowing his finger to linger suggestively on the thistle in the eagle’s talons.
“You need to research your Jacobite traditions. Did you notice the waiters removing the finger-bowls just before the Master started speaking? If Royalty had been present, no-one except the royal party would have had finger-bowls at all. Some traditions die very hard. And those of us who wish to uphold them - after our own fashion - have learned ingenuity.”
She creased her forehead in thought, recalling the glass being passed over the hidden symbol on his wrist before his punctilious participation in the toast. And then she made her voice deliberately dismissive. “You mean it’s a superstition?”
The baronet smiled. “Hardly. And though I said it was a tradition, that’s wrong too. Traditions look backwards; they’re what strangle any hope of vitality at birth. This country - the whole of Europe, with one or two exceptions - is choking under the accumulation of its traditions. Even America - which two generations ago everyone applauded for its freedom from the outmoded shackles of the ages - is in danger of choking under the growth of tradition. And like everything you put in the soil there, they grow faster and bigger than anywhere else.”
Polly smiled. “You sound like my Uncle Oliver, clearing weeds out of his backyard.”
The baronet, evidently not picking up on her mildly sardonic tone, nodded.
“Weeds. Yes. They need to be rooted out. Without vigilance, they’ll overrun the garden, and choke all the strong young growth -“
She made her tone bland, yet inviting.
“Tell me. If you had the power, how would you rid us of those weeds?”
Sir Oswald looked at her; his glance was both direct and compelling. Despite herself she felt her pulse begin to beat quicker. This man had charisma, no two ways about it. And ability, also. And - she gulped - sex appeal. In spades. This close, it was impossible to ignore.
It was not that it was a quality she was unfamiliar with. But to date she had always had a blithe assumption that no matter how far she took matters, ‘No’ would always be a complete answer. No matter what the calm assurance of the other player in the game that he would have his way, she had always unquestionably assumed the existence of the unseen umpire, to assure fair play. However close to the line she took matters. Nor had she assumed that those she might have tempted along the way - trapped by their delusions, never hers - would ever fail to play by the rules.
This man, she sensed, had no interest in rules, except as a cloak for his dominating ambition.
“Do you really want to know?”
She nodded, dumbly.
He gestured expansively. “Well, you came here as the guest of Charlie Cook, didn’t you? A good man, from a good family: a family with a real stake in this country. Who’s served, with distinction. Who’s made sacrifices for the sake of something he believes in. And yet his vote in the nation’s affairs counts for as much - or as little - as if he were some waster from a Gorbals’ slum, who’s never done a hand’s turn in his life and waits every week to draw his dole so he can spend it all on cheap whisky and gaspers. Or a small shopkeeper from a provincial town, whose highest idea of sophistication is tinned peaches with evaporated milk, and who is so cowed by “what the neighbours might think” if he dares to stray from his narrow, conformist little rut that by now he’s become incapable of allowing himself an original thought from one year’s end to another.”
His mouth twisted up in a grimace.
“And yet - because of the strangulation of “tradition” it wouldn’t even occur to my old comrade-in-arms how degrading and just plain absurd that situation is. Or that he ought to be doing something to change it.”
Polly widened her eyes. “And you would?”
His grin was almost boyish.
“Of course I would. What else could I do? Neither of our countries will get anywhere until we grow up enough to fling out the things we’ve clung to mindlessly for so long, like a boy steeling himself to throw away his teddy bear before he goes to his prep school. What we need is to have the courage to cast off the rule of the muddled masses, those who are too ill-educated to see what has to be done, and too short-sightedly selfish to make the sacrifices needed to achieve it even if they could see it.”
She put a nicely gauged blend of admiration and scepticism into her tone. “You’d really want to overturn democracy? And replace it with what?”
Sir Oswald shrugged. “The rule of the best, of course. What else?”
“Aristocracy?” Her voice was disbelieving, dismissive. It nettled him, obviously. He cast a glance towards the Assembly Rooms, from which dance music was still drifting.
“Well, not in the sense you mean it, no. In the world I’d create if I could, one couldn’t simply be given the privileges of the best by accident of birth. Or buy your way there; though at least one thing where your country is head and shoulders above ours is not having this superstitious fear of new money. At least your country recognises that someone who proves his superiority by creating his own wealth is to be applauded, not quietly sneered at behind your hand.”
His voice was deep with passion. “Look at the young man you danced with earlier. Money and position; all the chance in the world to make a real mark - to serve by doing so and so prove himself worthy to rule. But instead - as he is - well, he makes himself a typical example of what everyone thinks of when you talk about aristocracy; a bone-headed, well-tailored young oaf without an idea in his head beyond jazz-clubs, chorus girls and chasing after foxes.”
Briefly Polly wondered, with a hint of inner amusement, whether Lord Peter would change his opinion of his nephew if he were to hear Sir Oswald, whom he evidently disliked, echoing it so eeriely. Well astride his hobby-horse, her companion continued on without waiting for her response.
“But then the so-called aesthetes among the young are worse. Long haired, unhealthy, velvet-jacketed pansies, revelling in their degenerate tastes and screaming shrilly after the next new thing, if it’s only vile enough to tickle their jaded fancies. Sometimes I despair; I find myself thinking that the post-war generation’s rotten to the core, and will drag us all to hell with them if people with the eyes to see don’t pull together the courage to step out and stop it.”
“We aren’t all like that, my generation,” Polly said, a little stung.
He smiled disarmingly. “Indeed. Forgive me. There is gold among the present generation, if you’re prepared to pan for it. But it’s so cryingly difficult to convince the young of the need for service and sacrifice. Those concepts got too badly smeared by the mud of Flanders, and the mumbling red-faced idiots sitting safely behind the lines who mouthed them as platitudes without having the courage to look at what they meant by them. And then the Bolsheviks hijacked them for their own foul purposes. But you, of course, are lucky. You have indeed had experience of meeting - a different sort of man. I imagine your - ah - friends in the Flying Legion wouldn’t find the notions I’m talking about as alien as most of your generation might do?”
Polly felt a thrill down her nerves. The moment had come; the one to which she had subtly been leading up to all along.
“You mean Joe?” she said with a deliberate carelessness. “I think he’s apolitical. Well - I’ve never heard him talk about politics, anyway.”
Sir Oswald leant over towards her. “Perhaps because he’s never heard any politics worth talking about?”
She smiled. “That could be so. And I confess: if I tried to tell him what you’d tried to tell me tonight, I’d be making a pig’s ear of it. Because, if you put it that way, Sir Oswald, I might have to confess that neither have I. But I’d be fascinated to have you enlighten me. Please feel free to tell me more about - politics.”
He turned and offered her his arm. “I’m hosting a house-party over the next few days. There are one or two people I’d like you to meet, people who can talk better than I on the topic. And there are a couple of guests from the Continent - from places where they’re trying a few experiments in - politics - we could profit from here. If your host can spare you, may I take the liberty of sending a car for you in the morning?”
Her heart raced; after all and despite the warnings it had almost been too easy. And then common sense prevailed: of course this part had been easy. Flies seldom find the spider’s web hard to evade. It’s backing out that proves the tricky part. She nodded, suddenly without words and abruptly aware of her own vulnerability.
Sir Oswald smiled.
“You look chilled to the bone, Miss Perkins. I’d better be taking you back to where you’ll be warmer.”
But even the warmth of hot coffee back in the Assembly Rooms, and (everything else being settled) eventually the comfort of her own bed with two stone hot-water bottles and one big rubber one, failed really to warm her, and when she at last slept her dreams were haunted by cold dark eyes, and infused with a pitiless chill.