Mad About The Boy?
Arthur Stanton stubbed out his cigarette, peering anxiously through the haze of smoke at his reflection in the mirror. A sharp crack sounded outside the open bedroom window and his fingers twitched, pulling his white tie into a creased ribbon. For God's sake, couldn't they stop that bloody noise? Fireworks. He drew a deep breath. Take it easy, Arthur, he told himself firmly, it's only fireworks. They're setting up the display for tonight. He threw down the crumpled tie and fumbled for another cigarette. How the hell was he supposed to get ready with all that row going on? Another bang sounded and he shuddered. These weren't even the fireworks proper. The big show was later in the evening and compared to that, all these odd bangs and cracks would pale into insignificance. He'd enjoyed fireworks at one time. What the devil was the matter with him? All he had to do was put on a tie.
He caught sight of his long, worried face in the mirror and clicked his tongue in disgust. To have a grown man reduced to a state where he couldn't tie a ruddy tie because of a few mistimed fireworks was crazy. How on earth was he going to cope later on? Why the devil was he here at all?
He knew, he thought gloomily, the answer to that. He was here because he'd been invited to Hesperus for the ball and to stay for a few days afterwards. This, he'd told himself with a surge of hope, was the chance he'd been waiting for. To be with Isabelle in her own home was an opportunity he'd seized with both hands. Yes, of course he knew there'd be other people about - there were always other people about when Isabelle was there - but he'd painted a picture, a rose-coloured, idyllic picture, of just the two of them. He'd spent the previous fortnight sweltering in a London heat-wave, longing for this week in Sussex, dreaming of lazy summer days and rich velvet nights. It was just the sort of weather to go boating on the river or for long walks through the woods or maybe picnicking in some secluded spot. It'd have to be, he thought cynically, very secluded indeed to cut out the hoards of friends Isabelle always seemed to be surrounded by.
Fool! He looked at the crumpled tie in his hand. The weather was the only thing in that pipe-dream that had matched up to reality. Yes, it was summer. Yes, Isabelle was here at home in Hesperus, and yes, there were rivers, woods, shady lawns and long June nights. But for all the chances he'd had to get Isabelle alone, she might as well be standing in the middle of Piccadilly Circus.
Aunt Alice and Uncle Phil are holding a ball for their Silver Wedding, said Jack. Hesperus will be really nice at this time of year. We're having a fireworks display. You'll enjoy it. Enjoy it! Jack must know how he felt. Jack, of all people, should have guessed how he'd react and why. Stanton paused. Jack really should have known. So why…?
The hazel eyes in the mirror narrowed. There had been a faint question mark at the end of 'You'll enjoy it.' So Jack had guessed. There had been other questions, too. Bloody marvellous. Stanton's reflected face twisted. He obviously thinks I'm verging on being a basket-case. The next thing you know I'll be giving the loony-bin some business. He stopped, chilled, as his stomach clenched in a heavy lump of fear.
That wasn't funny. He rested his forehead on his hand. Loony-bin. Hospital....
He straightened up. There was one person in this world and one person only who could prevent him going back. He forced himself to look at his reflection squarely. Me. Me. Jack wasn't going to stick him in a... a... He swallowed. A hospital - he forced himself to think the word - again.
A puzzled look came into the mirrored face. Why on earth had he put it like that? Jack wasn't responsible. It wasn't Jack's fault. Jack had met him at King's Cross. It was meant to be over. The... The hospital had discharged him and he was supposed to be fit for active service once more.
The Euston Road. The pleasure of being with an old friend. Jack's an old friend. Hold on to that. He told me he was a friend. I know he's a friend. But… Traffic. So much traffic. He's talking about cricket scores. Can't he hear the noise of the traffic? He's talking about the weather. I can't hear what he's saying because of the noise. Can't he see the crowds? He made me come here. Here, where there's hundreds of people. What's he saying now? A new musical? What? Do I fancy seeing a show? Go to where there's more people? Aren't there enough people here? There's hundreds of people jostling, pushing. What about something to eat? I'll be trapped. He knows I'll be trapped inside a crowded room. Can't he see the faces of the crowd, waiting for me to panic, daring me to run? There's an Italian restaurant in Soho. That noise! Oh, God, that noise!
Everything went blank, then Jack was talking to someone, a big man in a blue uniform. "It's all right, don't worry, Officer. He was badly shot up at Passchendaele. We thought he was all right." Jack's anxious face, close to his. "Don't worry, Arthur, I'll take care of you." Liar!
He'd been taken to... to That Place again and Jack had abandoned him.
The strength of the emotion pulled him up sharp. He hadn't been abandoned. Jack had helped him. He couldn't possibly have stayed. After all, Jack had to return to his squadron. He'd given up his two precious days of Home Leave to meet him and all this was so damned unfair. I ought to be bloody well ashamed of myself, thought Stanton. It was just that the inside and the outside of that time had never matched but grated away at the back of his mind. For the first time he wondered what Jack had thought about it all. He'd never mentioned it. It might never have happened for all the difference it seemed to make, but, if only Jack knew, that was difficult as well. Because it had happened and it had been - well, difficult. I might as well call it that as anything, he thought; difficult.
He looked at the crumpled tie again. He couldn't wear that to the ball. Wearily he took a spare from the drawer, wincing as another firework cracked outside the window. I don't care, thought Stanton. I'm going to tie this wretched.... Damn!
A knock sounded on the door and Stanton guiltily stood up.
Without waiting for an answer, Jack Haldean came in. "Aren't you ready yet, Cinderella? You'll be late for the ball."
Haldean's tie, Stanton noticed with a twinge of irritation, was immaculate, like the rest of his dress clothes. He didn't know how it was, but old Jack somehow always looked more foreign in evening dress than in ordinary things, a bit like a cultured gypsy mixed with some Spanish hidalgo, with his black hair smoothed down and his white shirt emphasising the Mediterranean darkness of his skin. He looks as if he's about to dance a tango or start the Inquisition or, thought Stanton grumpily, lead some ruddy dance band. Then he met the warm friendliness of those dark eyes and, for the second time in as many minutes, felt ashamed.
Haldean looked round the room curiously. "Where's your valet?"
"He gave notice." Stanton hurriedly knotted his tie. "I haven't had a chance to replace him yet. Didn't I tell you?" He looked in the mirror and frowned. "Will that do, Jack?"
Haldean twitched the recalcitrant cloth into place. "It will now. Come on, everything's about to kick off."
Privately, Haldean was concerned. He'd been unhappy for a while about his old friend. Arthur was naturally a cheerful, kindly sort, sensitive to other people's feelings, who'd go to an awful lot of trouble without making a fuss or even without thinking there was anything to make a fuss about. A dependable bloke, thought Haldean, which sounded virtuous but dull. It wasn't dull; Arthur had mixed it with an amiable goofiness which leavened out the solid worth, and he wasn't perfect. He was forgetful, late for meals and lost things but those weren't really faults. Naturally, after what had happened in the war, he couldn't be expected to be the life and soul of the party, but he'd been getting there. To outward appearances Arthur had come through the war unscathed and looked much the same as he always had; a tall, well-proportioned man with deep hazel eyes, a firm jaw, high forehead and brown hair that would not, despite his best endeavours, stay fashionably sleeked back. And he had been getting over it. Now? Now he looked washed-out and nervy. At a guess that was partly the fireworks - the evening had been punctuated by random cracks and bangs - but Haldean had no hesitation in laying the blame for Arthur's nerves squarely on his cousin Isabelle's shoulders, and that, too, was partly due to the war.
If he hadn't been in the army Stanton would have met Isabelle ages ago and would have witnessed her transformation from a leggy schoolgirl with spots into an acknowledged beauty. Quite when the miracle had happened Haldean didn't know, but there was no doubt that Isabelle, with her green eyes, her rich auburn hair and her wicked grin had a shattering effect on quite a number of young men. Stanton should have been just another name on the list. But Isabelle clearly liked Arthur, liked him very much. Liked him so much, in fact, that Haldean had caught himself thinking how pleasant it would be to have his cousin married to his best friend.
Then Isabelle had met Malcolm Smith-Fennimore and Stanton had been eclipsed. Because Smith-Fennimore, merchant banker, aviator, racing-driver, broad-shouldered, blue-eyed and fair-haired, wasn't just some idle rich bloke. He was deeply sincere, troubled by the world around him and obviously hungrily searching for happiness. Isabelle had taken one look and melted. Which left, thought Haldean, poor old Arthur out in the cold and no mistake.
However, no matter how fraught the poor chap's feelings were, they still had to go to the ball. A hum of animated conversation met them as they as they rounded the curve of the stone staircase. The house was thronged with evening-clad people. Isabelle was in the middle of the black and white marble-floored hall, talking politely to the new arrivals.
She looked up and smiled as she saw them. Haldean heard Stanton's quick intake of breath. It wasn't surprising. Isabelle was lovely anyway but now, dressed for the ball, she was simply beautiful. She rid herself adroitly of a stout woman in satin with pearls and feathers and zig-zagged through the crush to the foot of the stairs.
"So there you are," she said in an undertone. "I've been waiting ages. Why on earth everyone doesn't go into the ballroom instead of hanging around in the hall, I don't know. Jack, will you dance with Squeak Robiceux?"
"The terrible twin? Delighted, old thing," said Haldean, taking her arm. The three of them stepped round the edge of the crowd and walked towards the ball-room. "Shall I take on Bubble Robiceux as well? There's a reduction for quantity."
Isabelle shook her head. "Bubble hasn't got a problem. She's as thick as thieves with Tim Preston and that's why Squeak's a bit high and dry."
"I'll gladly dance with Squeak," put in Stanton. "She must feel a bit lost without Bubble."
"She does," said Isabelle. "Thanks, Arthur. That's nice of you. Step in if you see her stranded, won't you, Jack?"
Haldean grinned. "Trust old Uncle Jack. As always, I shall be a willing lamb to the slaughter. I shall hold her hand, glide her round the dance-floor and, if necessary, whisk her into the conservatory and whisper sweet somethings into her shell-like ears. All part of the service. Moderate charges and families waited upon daily."
"There's no need to go over-doing it," said Isabelle. "I could imagine you being worryingly magnetic if you really turned on the charm. You might look like South American Joe, but keep it under wraps, will you? I want her entertained, not heart-broken."
"I shall aim for modified rapture." He nodded to Lawson, the footman, splendid in full livery, who announced them at the top of his stentorian voice, and went into the ball-room, smiling as he caught Aunt Alice's eye as she stood with Uncle Philip, greeting the guests.
Haldean whistled involuntarily. Aunt Alice had really been to town. The last ball at Hesperus had been at Christmas and, despite its size, the room had been snug with Christmas colours of green and red. Now, on this night in high summer, all the french windows stood open and the smells of the garden mixed with the heady scent of the cascades of white roses spilling down the walls. Under the diamond brilliance of the huge chandelier the silver ribbons looped round the walls glistened like threads of frost, reflected in the glassy shine of the deeply polished floor. The orchestra was tuning up and there was a buzz of excitement from the people thronging the room. He smiled at his cousin. "This looks tip-top."
Isabelle looked round the waiting crowd and gave a happy little wriggle of anticipation. "We're going to have a wonderful time."
And they were, thought Haldean. Later on he'd slip up to the balcony to see what it looked like from up there. He grinned. That had been a real childhood treat. He, Isabelle and her brother Greg had been allowed to sit on the balcony and eat ice-cream and watch the dancers below before being packed off to bed. Those had been magical nights, with the rich, mingling colours of the women's dresses contrasting with the black and white of the men. It was the smells that whisked him back, a heady mixture of perfumes, warm people and the oil-and-chalk smell of the ballroom. At the far end of the room was the conservatory. Now that had been an unobtainable Mecca when he was a kid. There was a whole room packed with elaborate pastries, rafts of tiny sandwiches, lemonade and gold-topped green bottles in glittering ice. He wished Greg was here to share it all, but Greg was far away from Sussex, sweltering in the tropic heat of Malaya. Just for a moment he felt a twinge of sadness but shook it off. Hello, things were about to get going.
Uncle Philip stepped up onto the orchestra stand. I'm not much of a hand at speeches, he said, but he did very well, Haldean thought. Everyone was welcome, the ladies were beautiful, and he was so clearly moved so many people were there, he got enthusiastically applauded by his guests who were very pleased with themselves for turning up.
The clapping died down and there was an expectant rustle as the leader of the orchestra announced the first dance.
Stanton coughed. "Er... I say, Isabelle, are you engaged for this dance?" His face lit up. "You aren't? I don't suppose you would? Would you?"
Isabelle favoured Stanton with a smile. "Of course I will."
Stanton caught his breath once more and took her arm.
That, thought Haldean, was downright cruel. Dance with poor old Arthur, yes, but was there really any need to gaze at him with that If You Were The Only Boy In The World expression? It was a downright shame Greg wasn't here. He'd tell her. But Greg wasn't here. Which meant, thought Haldean glumly, that he'd have to step into the breach. Why on earth couldn't she let him down gently instead of pouring petrol on the flames? As soon as Smith-Fennimore walked into the room Arthur would be dropped with a thud. He really was going to have to tackle Isabelle about it. Arthur couldn't take it. The poor devil had been getting downright twitchy recently. His nerves hadn't skinned over enough for this sort of treatment. Damn it, Belle, stop it, he mentally pleaded as he saw her hand caress his friend's arm. And Arthur should have more sense.
With his good mood well and truly dented, Haldean turned away to go in search of a drink.
What he found was his old friend Tim Preston, marching down the side of the ball-room with a scowl on his normally good-tempered face. "That bloody man," he said.
"Who?" asked Haldean.
"Need you ask?" said Preston. "Lyvenden, of course. My esteemed employer. God knows why your uncle invited him. If he knew half of what I know, he wouldn't have him in the house."
"To be honest, Tim, I did wonder about it myself. I can't say I took to him at lunch."
That was an understatement. Even though Uncle Philip could get along with just about anyone on earth - chiefly by assuming everyone was exactly like himself - Haldean had been surprised by his uncle's new acquaintance, Victor, Lord Lyvenden, a tubby little arms and munitions manufacturer from Birmingham, who had promised a firework display. Lord Lyvenden had arrived in state, complete with his wife, Lady Harriet, his wife's companion, Mrs Strachan, his servants and workmen. That he'd also brought his secretary, Tim Preston, who knew both Haldean and Stanton and was a close friend of Malcolm Smith-Fennimore's, was unexpected but welcome.
Haldean had caught the pained expression on Preston's face as Lyvenden held forth to his unenthralled audience over lunch about how he'd helped the war effort and how, undaunted by the fact that there no longer was any war to help, had had the Foresight, Enterprise and Initiative to develop the fireworks part of his business, principally, according to him, to aid The Operatives Of The Leading Manufactories Of Our Sadly Depressed Industrial Heartland. The capital letters were clearly audible when Lord Lyvenden spoke. Haldean had to fight the urge to shout "Hear, hear!"
"I suppose he does some sort of good by providing jobs," Haldean said to Preston doubtfully. "Homes fit for heroes, and all that."
Preston leaned forward. "Don't believe a word of it, old man. The only person Old Tubby wants to help is himself. He's as mean as sin and I don't believe he's as successful as he likes to make out, either. There's a lot of cheap arms kicking about nowadays, as you'd expect, and the bottom's dropped out of the market. His peerage cost him a cool fifty thousand and you have to sell a lot of roman candles to make up that sort of money. I think he's struggling. That's why he was so anxious to get on the board of Malcolm's bank."
"Yes. That was partly my fault. Lyvenden knew I knew Malcolm and made it his business to scrape an acquaintance. The next thing you know, he was on the board. I warned Malcolm what he was like, but he pulled a long face and talked business at me. I suppose Malcolm knows what he's doing, but I wouldn't trust Lyvenden as far as I could throw him. I tell you," said Preston, drawing Haldean away from the swirling dancers, "if I don't get another job soon, I'll go crackers. Every damn time he sees me he has me running up to his blasted room for something. Lady Harriet's forgotten her bag, so guess who has to go and fetch it?"
"You?" suggested Haldean with a grin.
"Yours abso-ruddy-lutely," replied Preston with feeling. He glanced over his shoulder to see they couldn't be overheard. "I've been up and down like the proverbial bride's nighty. He's awful to work for. I wrote three perfectly good letters for him this afternoon, all of which ended up in the waste-paper basket."
"You can't blame him for wanting to get it right," put in Haldean.
Preston snorted. "Can't I though! You don't know what he's like. If that wasn't enough, I picked up the wrong papers and he went bonkers. He's neurotic about those papers. God knows what he got so worked up about. It was all in some sort of code and I couldn't understand a word of it."
Haldean looked doubtful. "It was in code, you say? To be fair, it might really be important. Doesn't he have government contracts and what-have-you for his munitions works? After all, fireworks are only a side-line. All the munitions stuff would have to be confidential."
Preston gave another snort. "Confidential! Let me tell you, Jack," he said steering him towards the door, "If I had any confidential documents, Old Tubby is the last person I'd trust them with." He cast another quick glance over his shoulder. "D'you know what I found the other day, mixed up with some quotes for cardboard sheeting? A love letter."
"A love letter? From Lady Harriet, you mean?"
Preston gave him a withering look. "No one gets love letters from their wife, Jack. Talk sense. No, this was from his latest armful, so to speak, Mrs Strachan, Lady Harriet's so-called companion. " Preston paused. "He pays her very well," he added meaningfully.
Haldean was stunned. "You don't mean the Mrs Strachan who's here, do you?" Preston nodded gleefully. "My God, Tim, he must be mad. If it got out he'd brought a…" He hesitated. "I'd better call her his mistress, I suppose, to a house party, he'd be ruined."
"I know." Preston's grin was infectious. "It's not really done to arrive with a ready-made harem, is it? Especially one of the Queen of Hearts, so to speak. Finding someone on the spot's different."
Haldean laughed. "Don't be coarse. Hesperus has never been somewhere to play musical bedrooms, but that's above the odds anywhere. What the blazes is Lyvenden thinking of?"
"God only knows. And look at her. She's no scorcher, is she?"
Haldean glanced across the room to where Mrs Strachan was languidly sipping a glass of champagne. She was wearing a frilly apricot and white dress with ostrich feathers and looked like a dissolving wedding-cake. "I hope to God my uncle never finds out. He'd blow a fuse."
Preston smoothed back his sandy hair with a grin. "Shocking, isn't it? She did start off as Lady H's companion, that's kosher enough. Old Tubby can't keep his hands off the domestics or anything else in a skirt, for that matter. I tell you, Jack, he's not a nice man."
"Poor Lady Harriet."
Preston sniffed. "Save your sympathy. If I were married to her, I'd want some time off myself. She's a complete iceberg, a shocking snob and hates his guts as well. She was old Ballavinch's daughter, who went half-dotty with horses and drink, and he married her off to the highest bidder. The title's pukka, though, and that's what Lyvenden was after. He wanted a posh wife who'd get him into society."
"Watch it!" warned Haldean, catching sight of the red-faced Lord Lyvenden walking ponderously towards them. Preston swore and shot off down the room, leaving Haldean with the irate peer.
"Was that Preston?" puffed Lord Lyvenden. "Eh, boy?"
"It was, sir," said Haldean smoothly. "I must apologise for holding him up."
"Hmm. When I ask for something to be done, I expect it to be done." Lord Lyvenden frowned at him. "It's Hutchinson, isn't it?"
"Haldean, Lord Lyvenden. Jack Haldean."
"Ah yes," said Lord Lyvenden with satisfaction. "Rivers was telling me about you. You do murders, don't you?"
"Not exactly," replied Haldean, keeping his face straight with some difficulty. "I write about them, though. I write detective stories."
"Thought as much. I don't read 'em myself. I've far too much to do." A crack of a firework sounded from outside and Lord Lyvenden frowned. "Did you hear that? It's a good job I'm here otherwise it would all be a complete shambles. I've checked every item in that display myself. Every item, sir," he added, as if Haldean had been arguing about it. "You'd think the men would be capable of setting up a firework display but they're not. They'd never get it right if I left them to it. Constant care, that's my motto. Constant care and vigilance. Thank heaven you don't have any responsibilities, boy." He nodded and strode away, the worries of the world heavy on his shoulders.
Haldean turned to find Isabelle at his shoulder.
"Go and dance with Squeak Robiceux," she hissed. "Now!"
"I want a drink."
"Not now, Jack. The poor girl's waiting."
Haldean looked to where Squeak Robiceux was standing. She looked lovely, if, uncharacteristically, nervous. Her fair hair dressed with a pink ribbon set with pearls that perfectly set off the pearls of her necklace and the pink and cream of her ball-gown. She saw his glance and smiled, a quick, rather tentative, smile. Haldean's conscience bit him. Poor old Squeak must have spent ages getting ready and it wasn't too much for the girl to expect someone to dance with her. He liked the Robiceux twins. They were old friends of Isabelle's and she'd often told him how the virtually indistinguishable twins had enlivened the dull life of school. And now Squeak was on her own; it must be rotten for her, especially as she'd been so looking forward to the ball.
"Of course I'll dance with Squeak," he said. "It's a pleasure.
"Good-oh." Isabelle turned as a man hovered respectfully beside her. "The next dance, Ronnie? That's spoken for, I'm afraid." She flashed out a melting, if artificial, smile. "You can have the fourth one from now if you like."
Ronnie Hawthorne coloured with pleasure. "I say, that's awfully good of you."
"Not at all." She looked round to find Haldean still there and switched off the smile. "Please, Jack. You promised."
Haldean duly danced.
It was a good three-quarters of an hour afterwards, during which he had Waltzed, Shimmied, Glided, Jog-Trotted and Missouri Walked, that Lady Rivers approached.
"Jack, there's a peculiar looking man at the door," she said, drawing him away. "He's asking for your Uncle Alfred and I can't find him anywhere. I can't ask Philip to help. He's far too busy and the servants have all got their hands full. Will you take care of this man until we find Alfred? I can't have him wandering all over the house and he didn't seem to understand anything I said to him. He's certainly not English. Goodness knows where Alfred came across him, but he's definitely odd. I left him in the hall."
"I'll see to him, Aunt Alice. Don't worry."
Haldean lit a cigarette and walked out of the brilliant, noisy ball-room into the empty, shadowy house, hearing the music fade behind him. His weak leg, a souvenir of the war, throbbed warningly and it was a relief to stop dancing for a while. He could feel quite grateful to Alfred Charnock's visitor, no matter how odd. Almost by definition, any visitor for Isabelle's Uncle Alfred could be described as odd. Alfred Charnock was Aunt Alice's step-brother, and, although well over forty, stalked through life like a lean panther with a dark, moody charm which he used to wind otherwise sensible women round his finger. Not only that, it was Charnock who had introduced Lord Lyvenden to Uncle Phil and that was probably his worse offence to date. He had been living at Hesperus for months now, having come to grief, so he said, in the City. And whatever scheme Charnock had been involved in, it was bound to be dodgy, Haldean thought uncharitably. There was a mysterious blank about what he'd done in the war, too. Isabelle had a typically romantic reason for his silence. "Russia! And they're still after him!"
But there might, thought Haldean, pausing at the pillared doorway to the now deserted hall and summing up Charnock's visitor, be some truth in the Russian story after all. For the man slumped on the settle was certainly a Slav. He had hair so fair it was nearly white, high cheek-bones and wore knee-length boots and a short leather jacket which were obviously foreign. His age might have been anything from twenty-five to well over thirty. Haldean coughed and the man turned a pair of hard, pale blue eyes to his.
"Al-fred Char-nock?" The man picked over the syllables of the name carefully. "You are Al-fred Char-nock, yes?"
Before Haldean could answer, Charnock himself came down the stairs into the hall. He stopped short, then crossed to the settle, snapping out a sentence in a language Haldean didn't understand. Although the meaning was obscure, the emotion was transparent. Charnock was furious. The Slav looked sullenly at the floor, spat, and gestured towards Haldean in the shadow of the doorway.
Charnock whirled, forcing a smile. "Jack! Been here long?"
Haldean shook his head. "I've just arrived. Aunt Alice asked me to take care of your visitor until you could be found."
Charnock cocked his head and rapped out another sentence to the man, receiving a grunted reply. Then he relaxed. "Thanks, Jack. Good of you to bother. I'm going to have to go out for a while." He indicated the Slav. "This is an old friend of mine. I came across him in the war. He's a bit up against it. I'll have to go and see if I can get him a bed for the night. I won't inflict him on Alice. She's got enough to do and I don't want to trouble her. Can you ask Egerton to leave the side-door unbolted? I may be some time." Charnock rapidly escorted the man out of the front door, leaving Haldean to close it after him.
And what, thought Haldean, turning back to the ball-room, was all that about? Old friend be blowed. Old friends could be counted on to recognize one another and it was clear the Slav had not known Charnock. So who the devil was he? And why did Charnock want him out of the house so urgently? Giving Aunt Alice any trouble was something which had never bothered Charnock in the past. No. For some reason Charnock had been very anxious that Aunt Alice shouldn't see any more of the man than was necessary. Why?
In the ball-room, Arthur Stanton was leaning by the door. He was beginning to enjoy himself. Hesperus reminded him of home before it had all been broken up and sold. He had lived twenty miles up the coast and was touched to find his father's name still affectionately remembered. He took a great delight in the everyday conversations round him. No one had mentioned Flanders or the war or illness, just solid, ordinary things such as the weather and crops and dogs. He had a great yearning to be part of this world once more, with a house and some land and settled, reliable tasks in front of him and all… all that so firmly behind that he need never think of it again. Then Isabelle walked towards him and, as he saw her smile, contentment changed to delight.
She grinned at him conspiratorially. "Arthur, do you want to save a human life?"
Her smile was exhilarating. "That sounds rather a good idea. Whose?"
Stanton felt a glow of sheer pleasure. "I'll say. What do I have to do?"
She leaned forward. "Meet me by the stone seat at the end of the terrace with some cigarettes and a cocktail. Make sure mine's got plenty of gin in it. I'm going to die if I have to spend another minute in here." She turned as a cry of "Isabelle! My dear!" sounded behind her. "Mrs Gavinthorpe!" she said with every appearance of sincerity. "How lovely to see you again!" She tipped him a wink as she swept away.
She'd chosen him. Not Jack or Tim nor any of the other dozens of men in the ball-room or even Smith-Fennimore, with whom she'd danced far too often that evening, but him! He got the drinks, went out onto the terrace and took a deep breath as he saw her shadowy figure come towards him. The light and music of the ball spilling through the open french windows seemed distant and remote, as if it belonged to another world. A brilliant moon chequered the house and gardens in black and silver. A man laughed and the sound was far away.
"Are those the cocktails?" asked Isabelle, unethereally enough. She took a substantial drink and sighed. "Thank God for gin." She looked at his face and laughed. "Oh dear, I've shocked you."
"No, you haven't," said Stanton, nettled. "I've seen you drink cocktails dozens of times."
"Ah yes, but that was in London and what goes on in London, so I've been told, won't do here. Have you got a cigarette? Thanks. I need it."
"Whatever have they been bothering you about?" asked Stanton. He sat beside her and lit her cigarette. "I'm sorry, they're only gaspers. Shall I get you something else?"
She shook her head and put her hand on his arm. "No, don't go. To be honest, I just wanted some time off. I've had to be so nice to so many people, it all got to be a bit of a strain. I've danced with at least three old relics of about ninety-six and been ever so polite, even though one smelt of snuff, one trod on my dress and the other told me about every ball he'd been to since the Crimea. At that point I saw you and thought of gin. I knew you'd be a sport. Goodness knows where Jack's got to and Tim's spent the evening either glued on to Bubble Robiceux or running errands for Lord Lyvenden."
Stanton coughed. "What about Smith-Fennimore?" If there was an edge to his voice, she didn't notice it. Her hand seemed to burn through the cloth of his sleeve.
"Malcolm? I like Malcolm, but..." She sipped her drink reflectively. "He's difficult to relax with. I could never imagine being out here with him and simply having a drink and a cigarette." She looked at Stanton affectionately and squeezed his arm. "You're different. You're a very easy person to be with."
There were so many mixed messages in this speech that Stanton baulked at working them out. He let the tangle of thought go and smoked in silence, feeling her warm presence beside him. He was afraid to break the spell and yet... An owl hooted in the distance and a rustle close by suggested it would not hunt in vain. Surely this was the moment? She'd said she felt happy with him.
Isabelle stood up and threw away the stub of her cigarette, watching it firefly into darkness. "I'd better be getting back, I suppose."
The moonlight caught the nape of her neck, the skin of her shoulders and the delicate angle of her jaw. Stanton scrambled to his feet and held out his hand. "Please don't go." As she turned to face him, her hand lightly holding his, his stomach turned to water.
"Arthur?" For once she looked absolutely serious and it made him, if possible, love her even more. "Arthur, please don't."
"I've got to," he insisted. "I love you." He'd said it. He'd tried to say it for months. "I love you. You must know I love you." He reached out and touched her face with the palm of his hand. She said nothing, but looked at him with such compassion that he knew what her answer was. He strapped down the numbing feeling of desperation and stroked her cheek gently, pleading with his eyes. Slowly she shook her head and Stanton felt his world start to splinter round him.
" I'm sorry," she said quietly. "We're friends, Arthur. I don't want to hurt you. I never did want to hurt you."
He dropped his hand and drew a deep breath. "No. It's no, isn't it?"
She moved impulsively then was still once more. "I'm sorry."
He met her eyes squarely. "Sorry? You've got nothing to be sorry for." Again she moved towards him but this time he drew back. Then, on an impulse, he took her hand, raised it to his lips and gently kissed her fingertips. "You'd better go."
There was a quick look of concern in her eyes. "You will be all right, won't you?"
He straightened up, put his shoulders back, and made himself smile. "Of course. I'll sit in the garden and eat worms. Off you go, before they send search parties for you."
She gave a smile of relief. "I'm so glad we can still be friends." She walked away, glanced round once, hesitated, and went into the house.
He watched after her, smiling faintly, but as soon as she had gone, collapsed on the stone seat and sank his head in his hands. For minutes he sat there unmoving, then rubbed the heel of his hand across his eyes. With clumsy, shaking fingers he pulled out his cigarette case and tried to open it. The cigarettes spilled out on to the stone flags. He watched them dully before slamming the case shut with unnecessary violence and thrusting it back in his pocket. "Damn!" he said faintly, then, louder, "Damn!" He got up and strode back to the house.
The noise of the ball assaulted his ears. He couldn't face it. Not yet. He walked along the terrace, into the deserted dining-room and so into the hall.
Tim Preston was on the stairs. "Arthur! Would you believe it? Lyvenden's done it again! He's forgotten his cigar case this time and sent me to fetch it. What d'you say to that?"
Stanton, unable to trust his voice, couldn't say anything and nodded a reply. He drifted back to the ball-room and leant against the oak panelling, his eyes automatically searching for Isabelle. He couldn't see her. What did it matter, anyway?
"I was wondering where you'd got to, Arthur." It was Haldean. "We've just got time to get a drink and wedge ourselves in somewhere to see these blessed fireworks."
He took in Stanton's strained face. He couldn't ask Are you all right? Stanton obviously wasn't, but he wouldn't be any happier for having it pointed out. "I gather the correct attitude is to stand around in slack-jawed wonder making "Ooh" noises at appropriate intervals." He knew he was talking to fill up the gaps, but Stanton seemed relieved by the fact he hadn't, apparently, noticed anything. He steered his friend across the room and out on to the terrace. "That's better. We'll get a decent view from here. Hello, here's the Master of Ceremonies, old Lyvenden himself." More gap-filling. "He looks even redder than usual. Must be rotten, being fat in a crush like this." He was bordering on inanity, but he guessed it was helping. "Oh, God have mercy, he's going to make a speech. We might have known he couldn't resist the opportunity."
The entire party followed Lord Lyvenden and Lady Harriet outside onto the lawn. Haldean wedged himself beside the french windows and gave himself up to the dubious pleasure of listening to Lyvenden's raptures on This Happy Occasion of his hosts' Argent Anniversary.
Haldean grinned in involuntary appreciation and settled back to enjoy the speech. The florid always made him smile and Lord Lyvenden had struck a rich vein. Lord Lyvenden, it appeared, was happy (Great and unalloyed gratification) to be here. Lord Lyvenden hoped that everyone else was equally happy (Share my jubilation) and offered his congratulations (Heartfelt felicities) to Sir Philip and Lady Rivers. He humbly offered, as a small token of his regard, a display of fireworks, or, as he preferred to phrase it, These Polychromatic Pyrotechnics, a phrase that reduced Haldean to discreet hiccups of laughter.
He turned to share the joke with Stanton, but his friend had vanished. Concerned, Haldean tried to see where he had gone, but was hemmed in by the crowd. Lyvenden, in fine fettle, allowed himself a few more orotund flourishes before he abruptly decided to sink the public man in the private. "Harriet, my dear," he boomed at half volume to his wife. "You should not be out here without your shawl. You might take cold."
"Nonsense, Victor," she drawled. "The night is perfectly fine."
"Nevertheless, I shall send for it directly." His eyes roamed over the crowd but for once Preston had managed to stay out of sight. Yvette, Lady Harriet's maid, who was standing with the rest of the servants behind the guests, was dispatched. On the terrace, Lord Lyvenden gave the assembled company the benefit of Some Further Thoughts. Turning, Haldean caught sight of Stanton by the door. Muttering excuses, he pushed his way to the back of the group.
Stanton nodded to him. "Sorry I disappeared, Jack. I couldn't stand the crowd."
"We'll stay here if you like. No need to mix it with the hoi polloi."
Lord Lyvenden produced a triumphant and, thankfully, final rhetorical embellishment, then summoned his foreman, who took a length of fuse from his khaki dust-coat and handed it over. Then, with as much ceremony as would attend the launch of a transatlantic liner, Lyvenden lit the fuse and handed it back to his waiting employee. The foreman walked back to the silent display and, on a signal from Lord Lyvenden, lit the touchpapers. There was a terrific crash, rockets zoomed and the sky lit up in a blaze of colour.
"My God," breathed Haldean. "It's like the Somme."
Beside him, Stanton groaned and shielded his eyes. Haldean took one look at his ashen face then took him firmly by the arm, shepherding his unresisting friend out of the ball-room and into the drawing-room.
Here, at the front of the house, the noise was deadened. Stanton slumped in a chair and breathed a sigh of relief. "Sorry, Jack. Stupid of me. When those fireworks went off I felt as if I'd had all the stuffing knocked out of me. Is that soda-water on the sideboard? Could you get me some?"
Haldean gave him a drink and straddled his legs over a chair, watching Stanton fumble for a cigarette. His case was empty. "Here, have one of mine." Stanton took his lighter from his pocket and spun the little wheel for a few moments, unable to get it to light. Haldean struck a match. "Use this. What on earth's the matter, Arthur? Surely it's not just the fireworks?"
"Mind your own bloody business," snarled Stanton, and was immediately contrite at the sight of Haldean's hurt expression. "Sorry. I'm sorry. It's just.... Oh hell, can't you guess?"
Stanton nodded and drew deeply on his cigarette. "It's all over. Skittled out." He raised his glass. "Here's to Smith-Fennimore. Looks, talent, charm and now the best damn girl in the world. What the hell. I knew I didn't stand a chance." He straightened his shoulders and gave a wobbly smile. "Women, Jack, are the devil. God, listen to me. Trite and clichéd by turns. Irresistible."
"Arthur, don't," begged Haldean. "Go easy on yourself."
Stanton shrugged. "I'll get over it." He took another sip of water. "It's the only thing I can do."
They smoked in silence, listening to the popping of fireworks in the distance. As they faded, Haldean crushed out his second cigarette. "I suppose I'd better be getting back," he said apologetically. "If you want to slope off, I'm sure it'll be all right."
"Slope off?" Stanton shook his head. "I can't do that." The fireworks exploded in a tremendous, final crash. There was a long pause, then the music started again. "Let's go. I'll have to face her again sometime."
By an unlucky chance the first couple they saw on the dance floor was Isabelle and Smith-Fennimore. Looking at the physical grace with which they moved, Haldean couldn't help thinking they made a genuinely striking pair. Stanton heaved a deep sigh and was about to walk away when the music stopped and the dancers applauded.
Sir Philip, who had been giving a very creditable account of himself on the dance-floor, saw Haldean and walked over to him. "Ah, Jack, m'boy. I've been looking for you, and you, Captain Stanton. You play golf, don't you, Captain? Good. There's a new links a couple of miles down the coast and Alice and I thought we could get up a party for everyone who was staying for a few days."
Isabelle and Smith-Fennimore joined them. "Are you talking about golf, Dad?" She gave Stanton a determinedly level look. "I didn't get a chance to mention it to you, Arthur, but I think it's a lovely idea."
"Yes, I...." began Sir Philip, then stopped in surprise.
The butler, Egerton, had come quickly into the room. He looked red and flustered and, when he saw Sir Philip, visibly relieved. "Sir Philip! Sir Philip! Thank goodness I've found you, sir!"
Sir Philip looked at him. "Well, here I am, man. What's the matter? Spit it out."
Egerton actually clutched at Sir Philip's arm. "It's Adamson, sir, Lord Lyvenden's man. He's just been to his master's room to prepare it for the night and he found Mr Preston."
"Well, why shouldn't he find Mr Preston? He's all right, isn't he?"
"No, sir." Egerton could hardly get the words out. "Oh sir... He's shot himself!"
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