Concerning the Events in Leinster Gardens
(Title story from Leinster Gardens & Other Subtleties (c) Jan Edwards)
The paving under his feet rumbled, setting shivers up through the soles of his boots. It was the Tube; only trains, he knew that. The ginger-moustachioed officer told him, as he’d sold Archie his ticket, how the Metropolitan Line ran right through the street, and laughed as he spoke of it. Archie had laughed along with him, though he felt less than amused now.
‘Number twenty-four.’ He checked the card again, sure that he had come to the right place. The door was solid enough beneath its ionic portico. The perfectly normal balustrade on either side of the perfectly normal step was all perfectly normal for a Regency terrace. But unlike the other residences in Leinster Gardens, there were no lights showing in any of its windows. Even without a Ball, and even if the family were not at home, servants would keep lamps burning in this kind of household. The only sign of life was a small tabby cat perched on the end of the balustrade.
‘This is all a bit wet,’ he told it. ‘Dashed poor show.’
The cat only stretched onto its toes and pulled its lips back in a silent hiss before slinking into the basement stairwell.
Archie looked at the lit windows all along the row, noting how a few drapes had been left daringly undrawn, the better to show off electrical Christmas lights; welcoming beacons for the late-night walkers. When he turned back to his dark destination he almost fell off the stoop, because in that short moment all things had changed.
Soft lamp-glow spilled onto the pavement where there had been total darkness. A maid was silhouetted in the doorway, her bibbed apron stark against a long, dark dress, and her viciously starched lace cap flashing as she bobbed him a perfunctory curtsey.
He stepped across the threshold into a long, lofty hallway, which he took in with a professional eye. The ticket declared a ‘Dickensian Masked Ball’ and this was it to a positive tee. Minton-tiled floor, moulded cornicing, carved bannister finials, and all decorated for the season in true Dickensian fashion. Ivy ribbons and paper chains looped their way around the picture rails and stairs. A large Christmas tree was crammed into one corner, tastefully sprinkled with ribbons and cinnamon sticks, pine cones and candied fruits, all darkly redolent of classic Victoriana, despite the building’s Regency frontage. He thought the gas lamps were a nice touch. Most of the well-heeled Town residences he knew had been electrified. The place was a set designer’s dream. And this was only the lobby. He was willing to bet the ballroom would just be the cat’s meow.
‘Who shall I say is calling, Sir?’
He handed the maid his hat, and replaced it with a coronet of silk holly leaves and tinsel. She gave him only the smallest raise of an eyebrow. ‘Ghost of Christmas Present,’ he said, surprised at her disapproval. The outfit could hardly come as a shock at this time of year, though perhaps not quite entirely authentic he would admit. He had Dickens’ simple green robe … bordered with white fur, but he wore it open, over a rather dashing white evening suit.
‘Saw one like this in a musical at the Rialto just last week,’ he had told Pogo Beasley only yesterday. ‘Talkies. That’s the future.’ Though masked balls were, in his opinion, still copper-bottomed class, and Dickens would always be fashionable.
As he proffered his ticket Archie wondered how many others had suffered her scrutiny over the evening, and failed muster as spectacularly as he appeared to have done.
That girl is an absolute pill, he thought. I’m willing to bet nobody else’s got access to stage props this good. Straight off the boards of a Leicester Square theatre. He retained his habitual veneer of calm, whilst she read the card; which she did very carefully, before glaring at him with undisguised suspicion and handed it back.
‘Here, sir? A Ball?’
‘That’s what it says.’ He pointed out the address on the gilt-edged pasteboard. ‘I know, I’m late, but the invite does say until two a.m.’ He flicked the card’s edge with a flourish and grinned at her. ‘I was unavoidably delayed.’ He preened his voluminous white wig and beard, applied by Jennifer in make-up, and beamed in his best avuncular fashion.
The maid only nodded. ‘I’ll tell the mistress you’re here,’ she murmured.
‘Perfect,’ he said, as much to himself as the girl’s vanishing form.
Several minutes crawled by, during which Archie prowled the foyer with a growing impatience. He paused to examine the single portrait that hung between two of the gas mantles. It appeared to be newly painted, its colours still bright under fresh varnish, and showed a merchantman sea captain, resplendent in dress uniform; a formality that, in Archie’s opinion, did not quite match the wild red hair and whiskers. The captain’s deep set green eyes glared out into the room with apparent disapproval of the world in general and Archie in particular.
‘Presumably,’ Archie said, ‘you’re the big cheese in these parts.’ He leaned in to read the legend set into the heavy gilt frame. ‘Captain Thos. Mackay. Knew a chap called Mackay back in—’ He closed off the memories, as he always did, and shuddered. He eyed the captain with a wary defiance. ‘You look like a rum sort of cove. Odd thing, staring at a chap that way.’
As a portrait it was nothing out of the ordinary. He had seen a million just like it, in a hundred houses across the English county set. Pictures ranging from early Tudor right up to the latest Deco style, yet most had two things in common. One was the assured arrogance of the sitter and the other an absolute certainty that, sooner or later, someone would be telling all and sundry how ‘the eyes follow you around the room’.
There had been pictures fitting that bill in the old homestead. Archie’s brow creased. He didn’t like remembering the ex-family pile. If the bloody Excise hadn’t slapped death duties on it three times in twenty years – title’s no bally good without the estate. Or the cash. But that, he thought, is about to change come the New Year. No more of that bloody baggage. I’ve hauled it around these twelve years, like the chains of Marley’s damnable ghost – and enough now.
His War years had made him something of a persona non grata in those places that required what was euphemistically referred to as calibre. Shellshock and his long spell in the nursing home had left him fit for very little in their eyes. ‘Come the New Year,’ he said to the captain, ‘that’s going to be in the past. I’m going to be someone new, without an entire company of men on my conscience; unless it’s a film company of course.’
Pogo Beasley had been rabbiting on for months about how talkies were the big thing for a chap. ‘With that accent, old boy? You’ll clean up,’ he’d said. ‘And all you need, Archie, is to get yourself enough cash to reach New York, hop across to the California coast, and you have it made.’ The world, according to Pogo, was always that cut and dried.
Archie awaited admittance for several more minutes, with no sign of maid or host returning, in a growing unease. Had they rumbled him? Did they know his current line of work? He hated himself for what he had become. But a chap has to earn a crust.
He considered cutting his losses, and then told himself it was Just those bally trench-nerves acting up again.
to the dining area where clusters of small tables were peopled mostly by gaggles of chattering women. The music came from the dance floor through an archway to his right. To his left he knew would be a smoking room where all the men, not arm-twisted into the marital marketplace, would be hiding. A table, placed at right angles to that far door, held a vast punch bowl with a glistening cut-glass ladle looped invitingly over the rim.
Nobody seemed to have noticed his quiet arrival and that was good by him. He eased his way around the room and helped himself to a cupful of punch. One sip told him this was for the young ladies, being over-sweet and full of fruit, with only the smallest quantity of brandy. He slipped his silver hip-flask from an inside pocket to spice the cup with a little snifter, and stood sipping the brew as a cover whilst he scanned the room for potential marks; and all the while keeping a wary eye for anyone who might know him. Amazingly, he had yet to spot anybody he recognised. London is a big place, but the social elite were a small and intimate circle.
On the other hand, this was a masked ball where the idea was not to know with whom one was conversing. In practice, he had come to know what everyone of his intimate acquaintances looked like with the black satin domino across their upper face. But life could still surprise one.
He edged nearer to a group of young women giggling to each other from behind their fans. He ignored the icy glares of a dozen old moggies sitting nearby, the mothers and aunts keeping watch over their precious kittens. He bowed to them and smiled at the lips pursed in unison at his lack of convention. They could say nothing, however much they disapproved. This was a masque, where one didn’t require introductions.
‘And it’s just a few days off the 1930s, dammit. Hasn’t anyone told them? All that chaperone nonsense is done and dusted.’ Archie pinched his lips together, aware that he had voiced his thoughts aloud; a bad habit he’d picked up at the sanatorium and never quite broken.
One of the girls, or rather a woman, some five or ten years older than the rest, was peering at him over the top of a pale-cream Nottingham lace fan, her large green eyes circled by a sequined green-satin mask, which in turn was framed by a mass of Titian curls. Such unusual colouring more than hinted at her being one of the household’s daughters. The thing about her that he noted most, however, was the ornate jewellery pinned to her hair, ears, throat and wrists. Antique gold settings seeded with pearls and emeralds. Plainly the family jewels and an unmistakable signal for eligible young men that here was an heiress of some fortune.
From Archie’s point of view it signalled a prime target. He smiled at her, reminding himself to admire the green of her eyes and not of her adornments. ‘Archie.’ He bowed, with a dramatic flourish of the wrist. ‘Lord Archibald Kemple-Fielding,’ he added, ‘of the Gloucestershire Fieldings. But nobody calls me that. I’m just Archie.’ His smile widened. ‘Don’t mind these whiskers. Bit of a mix up. Told this was a fancy dress. Bit embarrassing really.’ He knew he was burbling, but the woman’s green cat-stare was quite unnerving him.
She inclined her head, more in civility than greeting. ‘Pleased to meet you, sir.’ She nodded quickly at one of the old dragons, and was answered by another quick jerk of the head in some weird reptilian semaphore that he didn’t quite understand; and which made him profoundly uneasy.
Archie offered his arm to guide her toward the dance floor and away from her elder cronies. She was smiling and compliant. The hook was baited. All he need do now was play the line out a smidgen and those little green beauties would be in his pocket and, ‘Hollywood here I come.’
‘I beg pardon, Sir,’ she said. ‘Did ye say something?’
Her accent was not broad, most likely from the very best Edinburgh had to offer, as he had expected from the name. ‘That accent,’ he said. ‘I’m certain it’s from Edinburgh? And if you are from that great city then I need to go there. Who should I need to say I’m calling on?’
‘At a masque it is not your business to ask before the stroke of midnight,’ she replied. ‘And you, sir, are a little fresh. Not to mention extremely late.’
The music ended almost as soon as they began to dance, and he found himself escorting her back to her place. She was smiling as she walked and he had the distinct impression she was laughing at him, not with him.
‘Sorry, old thing. Didn’t mean to give you the high-hat. My sister tells me I can be a bit of an egg sometimes. Got all of the breeding and none of the manners. I was just thinking – well – very nearly midnight, and all that… I’m being an idiot aren’t I? Emilia says – that’s the jolly old sister – she says I bang the old gums far too much.’
She seemed puzzled. ‘Banged? What would that be meaning, exactly?’
‘That I talk too much,’ Archie over-smiled.
Her reply was a wry grin. ‘Your sister is extremely astute.’ She motioned to the punch table. ‘You may fetch me a glass, to make up for your shortcomings in some part.’
‘Of course.’ He hurried to the table, wishing he had remembered his manners and wishing the punch carried – well – more punch. Before he could grab the ladle, a footman, rather an elderly cove to be a mere footman to Archie’s mind, had ladled out two drinks and handed them to him without a word.
Archie stared at the glass cups for a moment. He knew he had picked a mark far harder than the average. She was not some pliant young girl open to charm and title alone, but a grown woman, probably close to his own age; not one to fit his usual modus operandi. He slipped the hip flask out once again and poured a liberal tot into one glass. After only a moment’s hesitation, he poured an equally generous slug into the other. He winked at the footman standing near to the wall, hoping he was not the kind to run to sir. The footman turned his head slightly as though determined not to see. Archie hurried back to his new friend before anyone could approach him.
The redhead took the glass and sipped delicately, pausing to savour the taste, her gaze flickering over him momentarily. ‘Mama’s recipe seems to have improved,’ she said. ‘My father will be pleased, at any rate.’
He warmed to her. In another time, when he’d had the means, she would have been exactly the kind of girl Mater would have approved of. She was gazing at him now with a curious expression on those cream-and-roses features and he felt his pulse rise.
‘Come with me.’ She rose abruptly and led him into the hallway toward the rear of the house. There was no garden to speak of, as with most of these old town houses, but it did have a sizeable conservatory. Neither the masked ball nor Christmas had reached this part of the house. There would not have been room apart from all else; he stood in a vast edifice of wrought iron and glass, all filled to bursting with exotics from around the Empire. It smelled of damp and heat and rich, loamy soil; and a faint yet acrid undertone of engine oil.
He wondered that a household of this status would allow the stench of industry to pollute their home. He guessed this glasshouse had to be a hundred years old but decided that a new-fangled oil heating system meant to bring it into the twentieth century might not be as well ventilated as its coke-fuelled original.
The woman had seated herself on one of two wrought iron chairs and set her drink on the table which stood between them. ‘Be seated,’ she said, ‘and then perhaps you can tell me what you are really doing here.’
It was a bold approach. One that he hadn’t expected. ‘I had an invitation,’ he muttered. ‘Well – more of a ticket really. Chap sold it to me. For charity, so he said. A masked ball.’ He sat on the other chair and took a large swig of the punch. It tasted off. Sharper and slightly oily and he wondered if maybe some wag had tipped in a jug of gin. Not that he minded the gin, but it was rather a waste of his good scotch.
She was tapping the table with a well-manicured nail for his attention. ‘I want to know your reasons for coming here tonight. This is a private family function and your presence is quite upsetting to my mother.’
‘It is?’ He frowned, blinking rapidly as his vision shimmered for a fraction of a second. He wondered if a chap could ever see heat-haze in a hothouse. ‘Sorry, and all that. Didn’t mean to intrude. I was sold the invitation. Perhaps someone in the family wanted new blood in the pack?’
‘New blood?’ She smiled, grimly, and held her hand out, palm up. ‘Sarah tells me you have a card of some kind.’
‘Sarah? I thought you were all for no-names-until-midnight.’
‘The maid,’ she snapped. ‘Don’t be absurd.’
‘Maid. Of course.’ He winced inwardly. What was going on with him tonight? One gaffe after another like a ruddy amateur. Not his usual style at all. He handed over the ticket and watched her read, anxious for no reason he could fathom. This woman made him twitchy. ‘Perhaps I should just leave,’ he said. ‘It is rather late.’
‘Where did you get this?’ she asked.
‘Where – oh. The Arthur’s Club.’
Archie ran a finger behind his dress-collar, aware that he was sweating slightly. ‘Frightfully warm in here,’ he said.
‘Obviously. It is a hothouse,’ she replied. ‘Now. Your man with the ticket. Was he a Scot?’
Her question confused him for a moment. ‘It was in Arthur’s,’ he replied. ‘Wasn’t a member, but he looked familiar. I remember that. Had a bit of an accent now you mention it.’
‘So he was a Scot?’
She had dropped any hint of civility and he had gained a distinct sense of déjà vu.
He was back at Battalion headquarters in Montreuil, getting a grilling from the old man. Colonel Graham had terrified him and this red-haired woman possessed exactly the same kind of inhuman detachment. Another of those judge first and never ask questions possessed of a correct answer sort of interrogation. It made a chap feel guilty even when he wasn’t, and after all, a chap can make a mistake, dammit. Pressures of war, and all that? Shellshock, so the doc always said.
‘Scottish? Oh – err – I really couldn’t say – can’t even remember what he looked like.’ Archie broke contact with those eyes, which were far too familiar.
‘You bought a ticket from a stranger,’ she said. ‘And wonder that it’s not entirely correct?’
She seemed amused, which annoyed him. Who the hell was this bearcat to judge? I’ve been judged. A long while back. By bigger fish than she. ‘He was right there in Arthur’s,’ he snapped. ‘He had to be a member, dash it all. And I bought that ticket in good faith. Cost me ten guineas, dammit. More than I could afford.’
‘More than you had – yet you bought it.’
He shrugged. A tall brass-cased clock was just chiming the twelfth hour. It gave him a moment to cleave a way through his muddled thoughts as they both glanced toward it. ‘Seemed like a good plan. I recognised the address.’ That part at least had been true. He could not recall why it should be familiar, he would admit, but it had stood out as being in a good area, and thus a beacon of opportunity for one last skim before he left these blighted shores.
‘Twenty-four Leinster Gardens?’ she said. ‘You may not remember writing it, but you knew the name. You knew Alex Mackay. How could you ever forget him? He was older than the rest. One of your command. Your mistake, Mr Fielding. Your first and greatest mistake.’
‘I’m not standing for this,’ he swilled down the last of his punch and started to rise. ‘Not the done thing, old girl. Not my fault if I bought a dud, but no need for – no call – oh. Oh my.’ He sat down heavily, his senses pulsing in and out of understanding. The chair toppled, sprawling him onto the moist floor, though he barely noticed. He only noted how the stone was firm and cool against his face.
‘Isabelle,’ a voice was telling him, indistinct now, as if through water. ‘Isabelle Mackay. Remember that – if you can.’ Cool and hard, full of sharp edges. A voice that could break bones.
He pulled his green velvet gown tighter against the cold and wondered when he had collected it from its hiding place. A few vague images filtered through the fug. Of maids and masks, and the femme-colonelle. ‘Isabelle. Isabelle Mackay.’ He remembered that much. He also remembered Alex, muddied and bloodied in no man’s land, and he really wished he didn’t.
Archie sat up, and promptly slipped to one side. The ground was slick with snow which covered a plethora of hard lumps. He shook rime from his green gown, pulling it closer still around him. Though sodden with melting snow, it did at least give him an illusion of warmth.
He peered about, trying, and failing, to get a bearing. He had woken in some depressing places on past Christmas mornings, from the cold dank trenches of Ypres to the cold dank castle of his godparents, which had been home since the Hall was sold. But he’d never woken in a place like this.
Brick walls rose sheer on three sides, and a series of massive iron beams straddled the gap above. They made no gains in shielding him from the clumps of snow that danced down around him like a zillion tiny parachutes. He could see the central wall was a single brick skin at the apex, sinking to a gaping tunnel at its base. High up on either side were windows; houses, rather than industrial premises, which was something to be glad for. He might find help from one of them. On the fourth side, the channel he sat in ran straight for some distance before veering to the left in a haze of swirling snow. It reminded him of the trenches, except there was no mud, and the area around him smelled not of stagnating liquid but of oil and grease.
He looked dazedly at his evening-dressed legs stretched out in front of him and wondered where he had been to cover their pristine whiteness with so much muck and grime.
Lights from nearby houses bounced off the snow-glare and made a curious kind of twilight, though his watch told him it was only four o’clock and the dawn was still hours away. Had he really been unconscious for hours? He had to assume that, as he remembered little after the masked woman’s interrogation.
A tooth-clenching judder ran though him and he realised he would have to get away from here before he froze to death. He tried to stand, and failed. His legs and arms were just not co-ordinated enough to support him and he landed badly on a long hard ridge, adding further to his pain.
That bloody Isabelle creature must have slipped me a mickey. Damned bad form. He scrabbled unsteadily for his flask and conveniently ignored the memory of dosing his victim’s punch.
The ground beneath him was vibrating. From the tunnel came a clicking and rumbling that grew louder by the second. The battalion of fairy parachutes swirled upwards and outwards to escape the warm blast emanating from the tunnel mouth.
Archie could only blink in their general direction as he tried to decipher the evidence of his senses. He rolled onto hands and knees and scraped the fast-freezing snow away from the ridge, exposing the metal rail beneath. Even as his quagmired thoughts were forming logical conclusions, a glow of light formed in the dark recesses of the tunnel.
The noise grew rapidly, far faster than his cold-numbed brain could calculate. He had the briefest moment to recognise the squat face of a small train, and remembered that laughing chappie with the red hair telling him how the Metropolitan Line ran right through the street.
** (reduced to extract 2nd Jan 2016 as advertised to get the full version Leinster Gardens and Other Subtleties is available on Amazon HERE (kindle and paper formats)