7. Polly is inquisitive, the plotters are indiscreet, and Miss Kitty O'Farrell turns out to have sharper claws than anyone suspected - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Polly, as it happened, was at that precise moment neither worrying about fending off Sir Oswald’s unwelcome advances nor about avoiding lethal “accidents”.
The principal worry on her plate at the moment was, as a matter of fact, anchovy toast.
Afternoon tea was not a meal she had had occasion to consume before. She had arrived in the middle of the afternoon on Saturday, and with the new influx of the houseguests arriving at more-or-less the same time, when the core of the party who were already in residence were out in the countryside in earnest pursuit of foxes, the house was as close to in confusion as a country house with an efficient butler and housekeeper is ever allowed to get. Though someone had offered her tea, she had declined in favour of unpacking: she had abruptly realised that in arriving without a lady’s maid she was in a distinct minority, and she was going to have to get on top of how things were managed here quickly if it were not to show to her disadvantage against the other women in the party.
Yesterday, being Sunday, there had been no hunting, and she had started to get her bearings, sounding out the other members of the house party.
Most, she didn’t doubt, were exactly what they seemed; a cross-section of the leisured upper classes, with little on their minds beyond fox-hunting by day and the odd hand of solo whist of an evening, and no desire to go seeking any risk beyond that posed by the next five-barred gate, or a spread misere with a few guineas too many riding on each point. The two young officers who’d captured her the previous day after lunch, and insisted on taking her out for a long country walk, allegedly to view some Roman remains in the next parish were, she concluded, if anything less complex below the surface than they seemed on an initial meeting.
But there were others - whose conversations abruptly cut off or were awkwardly turned when she entered the room - there were hints, and lifted eyebrows - odd gestures and emphases on particular words -
Yes. Even though her host had yet to elaborate upon the hints he had dropped to her at the Hunt Ball, and she had caught him more than once looking at her, when he thought himself unobserved, with a sidelong, enigmatic smile, there was very definitely something going on here. And Polly knew, with a sure reporter’s instinct that had never let her down yet, that she was unquestionably in the right place.
Not that that made navigating the hazards of afternoon tea any less formidable. The gathering in the Blue Drawing Room as the dusk started to draw in outside on that particular November Monday was predominantly middle-aged, if not elderly, and overwhelmingly in command of the Amazons. The younger and more active portion of the party was out chasing foxes, and her host, having looked in on the tea-party for long enough to exchange a few sardonic remarks with the assembled company, had withdrawn pleading pressure of business to the estate office, a male lair located, Polly had ascertained on her casually nosy wander round the house on Saturday, off a little corridor on the ground floor that led the the gun-room and, ultimately, to the stable-yard.
No such retreat was possible for a mere guest, and Polly found herself trying to cope simultaneously with toast smeared with the aforementioned anchovy paste, an odiferous and salty spread, and being the subject of an interrogation which was no less far-reaching for being conducted in high, silvery, well-bred accents, and no less barbed for all it was set amid the bone-china and chintz of the elegant drawing room.
Humiliatingly, Polly abruptly realised about two minutes into her ordeal, the ladies of the party seemed in little doubt about the nature of the interest their host might be supposed to have in her, and the main thrust of their veiled questioning seemed aimed at discovering how far he might as yet have managed to get.
Glancing around in the hope of lighting on something which would enable her to change the conversation without it looking too defensive, she caught out of the tail of her eye some movement outside the window. On pretext of refilling her plate, she got up and sauntered across the room, noting as she did so that a car which had drawn up for long enough only to deposit a passenger was driving off again, and that a small, slight figure in a soft hat, carrying only a light attache case, was moving briskly - but, Polly fancied, almost furtively - up the shallow flight of steps to the front door.
She substituted cucumber sandwiches for anchovy toast, and returned thoughtfully to her seat. Not an overnight visitor, evidently, given his absence of luggage - and even in a brief glimpse his finicky precision of dress and manner gave the lie to his being a sportsman, in any event. But if he were an ordinary visitor the laws of the Medes and the Persians - or at least, the code of hospitality which governed English country house visiting - would decree that a guest arriving at that hour had to be shown into the Blue Drawing Room to take tea with his hostess. No possible excuse of errand or urgency - short, perhaps, of bereavement or declaration of war - could possibly exempt him.
But minutes passed, and the door to the drawing room remained resolutely closed.
Polly made up her mind. With just so much carefully suppressed anguish injected into her expression as to suggest acute intestinal discomfort clamped down under an iron stoicism, she bent over towards her hostess, a dowager aunt of Sir Oswald’s doing duty in place of his absent wife, and murmured something about an urgent need to powder her nose. Her hostess, assessing her expression with shrewd but not unkindly bead-black eyes, nodded sympathetically. Within seconds Polly was out in the deserted passage and making for the corridor to the estate office.
Native caution bade her go cautiously. She could have no legitimate excuse for being in this part of the house at this time, and betraying her presence could prove fatal to more than her hopes of unlocking the secrets of the New Jacobite Brethren. When - almost at her destination - she heard booted footsteps ringing on the stone-flagged floor round a bend in the corriedor ahead of her she grabbed the handle of the nearest door and took hasty refuge inside the broom-cupboard it revealed.
There was a brief, staccato exchange from outside the broom cupboard; one of the grooms being ordered to take someone’s horse and look sharp about it, hey! Evidently one of the hunters had returned early from the day’s sport. And Polly’s pulse quickened as she recognised his voice: Hanrahan, the rawboned middleaged bruiser with the rakish air, who had arrived slightly late for dinner the previous day. A little out of place among the smooth aristocrats at the table, he had stood out with the vulgar vitality of a farmyard cockerel amid a flock of white peacocks. He manufactured something or other, Polly gathered, and was rumoured to have made an immense fortune out of the Great War. He was definitely one of those in the party Polly had had her eye on.
There was the sound of another door opening. Frighteningly close to her lair, Polly heard Sir Oswald say, “You’re late. Dr Fischer has little time to spare for us this afternoon, and we can’t afford to waste a minute, given Saturday’s events.”
The other man gave a sharp bark of laughter.
“Well, Dr Fischer; it’s harder than you might think engineering a plausible-looking tumble out in the field. I had to pick my time and my landing. Wouldn’t have been any use with a broken neck, would I? Too many of those around this weekend, anyhow, it looks like.”
“Indeed.” The third voice had a precise, almost foreign intonation, though no discernable accent. “Your caution does you credit, Hanrahan. Would others in our movement had displayed the like quality. Not merely crashing the Avro, but so publicly - and leaving the wreckage to be crawled over by every intelligence agency the British Government possesses. It has taken me the best part of two days to ensure that one of our people is in control of the investigation, and there can, of course, be no guarantee that his control will be adequate to prevent further damage. And there remains the question of the Warhawk debris -“
Sir Oswald interrupted. “What I’d like to know is which qualified imbecile gave the order to ambush Sullivan in the first place? From the line his girlfriend was spinning at the Hunt Ball I’d had him marked down as all but a supporter - and no-one can deny that bringing in the Flying Legion on our side when the balloon goes up could avoid a lot of trouble -“
Polly suppressed a gasp of shock, and bent her ear closer to the broom cupboard door. The almost-foreign voice spoke again; she could all-but hear the shrug of the shoulders which accompanied it.
“Well, that is, of course, regrettable. Had you seen fit to advise the central committee of your manoeuvrings in that direction, possibly something could have been contrived. Though, to be frank - we are, of course, all friends, and friends must and should be frank with each other - I believe the young lady may have been more optimistic about her chances of enlightening Sullivan than his history warranted. And, in any event, however strong your argument, the committee would have found it difficult to resist yet another attractive young lady with tough and influential connections, who was most adamant that eliminating Sullivan was her down payment for bringing her friends in on our side.”
Hanrahan emitted a grunt of surprise. “The O’Farrell floosie insisted on having Sullivan rubbed out? What had he ever done to her?”
“Alas.” Dr Fischer’s voice had a hint of a cold amusement in it which sent shivers down Polly’s spine. “I may be able to unlock the laws of physics and fathom the deepest secrets of the universe, but the ways of women and their vendettas remain a mystery to me. Suffice it to say: she raised her pretty hand to condemn Sullivan to death, and the deed was done.”
Sir Oswald made a tetchy sound. “Regrettaby.”
“No doubt. But Miss O’Farrell has a wholly accurate estimate of her own importance to us. As you know, we must have the IRA disturbances in Glasgow and Belfast to keep the Navy occupied, or his chances of ever setting foot upon British soil become much weaker.”
“What I’d like to know,” Hanrahan broke in, “is that we are sure Lewis did down Sullivan before he crashed. Trading two for one I could just about stomach - though the Avro set me back a pretty penny - but two down for no return just isn’t a business proposition.”
Dr Fischer sounded tetchy. “Our information is good. But here is not the place to stand discussing it - nor the other news I’ve brought for you. Mosley, if you would be so good as to lead the way - “
There was the sound of footsteps departing, and then a click of a door shutting. Polly was out of the broom cupboard and heading for the stairs in an instant. She needed time to herself and a space in which she could think - and also, no mind whatsoever to leave her whereabouts unexplained, if anyone sought to enquire.
Within two minutes she was lying on her bed, a handkerchief soaked in eau de cologne on her forehead, and her limbs draped across the counterpane in an attitude of pitiable feebleness.
It was as well she had had foresight. She had barely been in position five minutes when there came a soft scratching at the bedroom door.
“Come in,” Polly called, in a soft voice suitable for her assumed invalid status. The door opened to reveal a neatly dressed maid, muttering some platitude about presenting madam’s compliments, and was there anything she might do to help, miss?
For verismilitude’s sake, Polly dispatched her on a quest for aspirin, and sank back amid the pillows, her mind racing.
For, of course, a solicitous hostess might naturally be concerned about a guest who vanished early from tea, apparently in ill-health. But Polly had endeavoured, to the best of her acting ability, to convey to her hostess that the nature of her indisposition was one with which any woman might sympathise, but into which no lady would be indelicate enough to enquire further. And, what was more, she could have sworn that her hostess had taken the point.
It occurred to Polly, with a nasty jolt of apprehension just under her solar plexus, that her alibi had just been checked. And checked, moreover, by people she had just heard plotting treason on the grandest of scales, and who were plainly accustomed to ordering murder with the casualness with which she, Polly, might order a cup of coffee and a doughnut.
And who had, they believed, just murdered Joe in cold blood. Polly gritted her teeth and uttered a stern injunction to herself, lest the fear and horror that news unleashed turned her to a useless, gibbering wreck.
They had not, it seemed, found a body. And without a body, all their confidence was the merest supposition. She knew - who better? - about Joe’s ability to cheat death and confound fate, no matter how black the picture might appear.
And in any event, any hint to her host or his friends that she had heard any rumour of any such tragedy would betray that she had been eavesdropping.
She stole a quick glance at the delicate gold watch on her wrist. In less than two hours the bell would signal dressing for dinner. And she dare not miss it; her host would certainly be on the lookout for any unusual behaviour.
She would have to attend, and swap repartee, and act as though she hadn’t a care in the world, and as if there was no shadow of dread gnawing at her insides.
In short, Polly realised, she was going to have to act for her very life. And no-one would excuse her if she missed a cue, or muffed her lines.