A Hundred Thousand Dragons
In the lounge of Claridges Hotel, Jack Haldean met his cousin Isabelle's irate glare. "I am not," he said firmly, "appearing at the Stuckleys' fancy-dress ball in what is virtually a state of nudity, Isabelle. Absolutely, definitely not."
"But I don't see why, Jack. You'll look wonderful." Isabelle turned to her fiancé, Arthur Stanton, for support. "Won't he?"
"Altogether now," murmured Jack. "Or should that be, In the altogether now?"
Arthur Stanton gave a snort of laughter, which he tactfully cut short at the sight of Isabelle's outraged expression. "I think it'd be very striking," he said diplomatically.
Isabelle looked triumphantly at her cousin. "You see, Jack! Arthur agrees."
"Well…" temporised Arthur.
Isabelle pushed her chair back and stood up. "Maybe you can talk some sense into him," she said in exasperation. "I've never known anyone so stubborn." She picked up her handbag. "I'm going to freshen up. I hope you're in a more reasonable frame of mind when I return."
"Fat chance," said Jack, politely getting to his feet with a charming, if insincere, smile.
Isabelle gave an irritated toss of her head, put her handbag under her arm and marched off, her shoulders rigid with annoyance.
Arthur raised his eyebrows ruefully. "You've upset her. She had her heart set on it, Jack."
"Tough," said Jack.
Arthur Stanton sighed. In less than a month he and Isabelle would be married. Isabelle, he thought, was the tops, but there was no denying that she liked her own way. It was probably his imagination, but Isabelle's hair seemed to turn a deeper shade of red as she realised that Jack was flatly refusing to co-operate.
"I'm not," said Jack, "fancy-dress ball or no fancy-dress ball, making an idiot of myself. Good God, Arthur, you'd agree if you weren't goofy about the girl."
Arthur gave a sheepish smile. "Well, if you want the truth, I do, but I thought it'd be better coming from you."
Jack looked at him with dawning comprehension. "You sly devil. You knew perfectly well that I'd put my foot down."
"Shall we order another cocktail?" asked Stanton, innocently.
Jack grinned. "All right. You'd better get another Mother's Ruin for Belle, too. With any luck it'll put her in a better mood. I'd rather talk to her about your wedding than the fancy-dress ball and that's saying something."
For the last month, his cousin Isabelle had been a voice at the end of a telephone. Her wedding plans were going well; rapture. Her wedding plans had hit a snag; deep gloom. Did he think that St. George's, Hanover Square was suitable? Well, yes of course he did. What? With Clarice Matherson and that dreadful mother of hers making it a by-word for showy ostentation? Could he be serious? Did he expect her to compete? Wouldn't it be better, more dignified, more in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion to be married at the village church which she had attended all her life? Wouldn't that mean more? Well, he supposed it might. Did he care? She was glad of that, anyway.
And, by the way, added the Champion of Solemnity, he was coming, wasn't he, to the Stuckleys' fancy-dress ball?
Oh, God? What did he mean by... He wasn't talking about the wedding, was he? Oh, the party… So what if Marjorie Stuckley was going to be there? If Marjorie Stuckley chose to think he was the bee's knees, that was her look-out. Besides, Marjorie made sheep's eyes at everyone. Don't mention it.
It was Marjorie Stuckley who suggested to Isabelle that Jack would look very dashing as a sheik. ("He's got those black eyes, Isabelle and that dark hair. He could look so exotic. So foreign.")
Which was, as Isabelle said to Arthur, very true, but in her opinion, sheiks, since Hollywood and Rudolph Valentino had taken the world by storm, had been done to death. She wanted something more unusual, something outstanding, something memorable.
Jack, sitting across from her in Claridges Hotel, listened to her ideas for their fancy-dress costumes, his eyes wide and his jaw open. It would be memorable, all right, he said. Good God, neither he or Arthur would ever be allowed to live it down.
For Isabelle, entranced by an article in Vogue about classical influences in fashion, had decided to be Diana, goddess of the hunt. She could have a golden bow, her hair would look wonderful and the dress, a diaphanous, floating affair was nothing short of dreamy. So far so good, and Arthur Stanton had agreed wholeheartedly with Isabelle's estimation of how she would look. What he didn't agree with - what, in fact, he was privately horrified about - was her announcement that, as she was going to be Diana, he would, of course, be Apollo. Tactfully, he hadn't disagreed but suggested that, as Jack was coming as well, the three of them should all be Greek gods. Jack, he said, having a fairly accurate idea of how his friend would react, could be Cupid. They would, he added, discuss it over lunch.
"Cupid?" said Jack when the idea was broached. "Cupid?" he repeated in a dazed voice. "Like the statue in Piccadilly Circus, you mean?"
Isabelle's knowledge of the Classical pantheon was more or less limited to Vogue. "Isn't that Eros?" she asked, her nose wrinkling.
"It's the same thing."
"Is it? I don't know why all these gods have so many different names but whatever you want to call yourself, I'm sure you'll look really different."
Jack gave a laugh which Isabelle described as coarse. "Absolutely I'd look different. Are you seriously suggesting I should turn up at the Stuckleys in bare chest, gold skirt and sandals, proclaiming I'm the God of Love?"
"Well, perhaps not that then, but there's lots of gods. Mercury, for instance."
"That's gold skirts, too! And," said Jack, turning on Arthur, "I don't know why you're laughing. What the devil d'you think you'll look like, rigged out as Apollo?"
"Go on, Jack," pleaded Isabelle.
Politely, firmly and, as Isabelle had remarked, stubbornly, he said he would go to Ronald and Scott's, the outfitters, and choose a costume which, although it might be less spectacular, would at least mean he was fully clad. A Greek god? "Nothing," said Jack firmly, "doing."
"So you're not playing ball?" said Arthur.
"Too right. If she's that desperate to see my chest, I'll arrange a private viewing. What on earth put it into her head?"
"It was some article in a magazine. After reading it she was torn between Greek gods and ancient history. It's nobody's business what they wore then, Jack. She talked about Tutankhamun -" Jack hid his head in his hands - "but she went off that idea."
"Assyrians," said Jack from behind his fingers. "What about Assyrians? Purple and gold. They came down like the wolf on the fold, if you remember, according to the poem, with all of their cohorts in purple and gold. That's long robes. They'd be all right."
"It'd mean beards," said Arthur doubtfully. "Great big curly things. Isabelle lugged me round the British Museum the other week and I saw the Assyrian Bulls. The legs would be awfully hard to do and they had bare chests, too, and beards. I can't say I'm too keen on the legs. I don't see how we'd bring it off, even if we wanted to."
"I wasn't thinking of being an Assyrian Bull, just an Assyrian," said Jack.
"It still means beards," said Arthur. "You've got to be careful with beards. Food and so on gets stuck in the hair."
He turned to summon a waiter and nodded his head to where a sturdy, aggressively bearded, middle-aged man was standing in the entrance to the lounge. "That chap over there is a bit of an Assyrian Bull himself, isn't he?"
The man by the entrance had evidently just come in and was gazing impatiently round the room. He looked, thought Arthur, out of place in Claridges. He was conventionally dressed in a suit and tie, but looked as if belonged on the quarterdeck of a ship, traversing the Arctic or scaling some mountain peak. Even without his brindled beard he would have been a striking man. An Assyrian Bull wasn't a bad description of him. He was strongly built, with large hands, massive shoulders and his skin was as deeply tanned as if he'd been carved out of some dark, solid wood.
Jack glanced round, then froze. The smile petrified on his lips and the colour slowly drained from his face.
"Jack?" asked Arthur, shocked. "What's wrong?" Jack was staring at the man as if he'd seen a ghost.
Jack dragged his gaze from across the room. He bowed his head, shielding his face with his hand. "It's Craig," he said quietly. "Durant Craig."
"Tell me what he's doing," interrupted Jack, stammering in his urgency. "Craig, I mean. The Assyrian Bull. What's he doing?"
"Another chap's seen him," said Arthur in a low voice. "They're shaking hands. Hang on, Jack, I think I know him. The second chap, I mean. It's Mr Vaughan. He knew my parents years ago. "
Jack kept his head turned away. "What are they doing now?"
"They're coming into the room. I think Vaughan's asking the other bloke if he wants to go into to lunch or have a drink first." He sat back in apparent unconcern. "I think we're in luck. It looks as if they're going into the dining-room."
Jack's shoulders drooped and he let out a ragged gasp of breath.
Arthur sat upright. "Oh no, Vaughan's seen me." He raised his hand in reluctant greeting and got to his feet. "Bad luck, Jack," he said quietly. "Vaughan's coming over." He glanced down at his friend. "We can't get out of it."
Jack took a deep breath, stood up, squared his shoulders, and turned round.
Vaughan smiled in recognition as he walked towards them. "Captain Stanton? I thought it was you." Although he was much the same age as the man they had labelled the Assyrian Bull, he was a very different type, tall and spare with a wiry strength. He had an intelligent, decisive expression and the fresh look of someone who spent a lot of time outside.
Stanton summoned up a smile. "Hello, sir," he said, then, following Vaughan's enquiring gaze, was forced to add, "this is my friend, Major Haldean."
Jack nodded stiffly.
"Major Haldean?" said Vaughan with interest. "I believe I know the name. Now why is that? Something to do with Sir Philip Rivers I think…" He snapped his fingers in triumph. "I've got it. Are you Sir Philip's nephew?"
Once again, Jack nodded.
"Of course. Stanton, you're engaged to Sir Philip's daughter, aren't you? I saw the announcement in the Morning Post. Congratulations."
"Thank you, sir," said Arthur. Jack, who still hadn't spoken, was standing rigidly beside him. What the devil was the matter with him?
"Major Haldean…" Vaughan frowned. "There was something in the papers..." His face cleared. "Of course, Major, you're the man who was involved in the Lyvenden case."
Again, Jack didn't speak.
Vaughan turned his head away. "Craig!" he called. "Just a minute. There's someone I want to introduce." He turned back to Arthur and Jack. "I'm lunching here with Durant Craig. He's a well-known man." He looked at them with modest pride, obviously pleased to be seen in Craig's company. "Ah, Mr Craig," he began, as Craig reached him. "This is Captain Stanton, whose parents were neighbours of mine, and this is Major Haldean, Sir Philip River's nephew."
Craig looked at the two men with casual interest, then his eyes narrowed in recognition. "Haldean?" He thrust his shoulders forward, his jaw clenched and his face darkened in an angry flush. "I know damn well who this is," he ground out. "Major Haldean, you say?" He stood back with a contemptuous bark of laughter. "So you got away with it, you little runt?"
Arthur drew his breath in with a gasp. Jack put his hands behind his back, stood rigidly to attention, his chin raised and his eyes fixed forward.
His posture, the posture, as Arthur recognized, of a solider on parade, seemed to infuriate Craig. "Haven't you got anything to say?"
Jack didn't move. Only the tightening of his throat muscles betrayed that he had heard Craig's question.
Craig's face contorted in fury. "You filthy little dago." He dripped the words out one by one. "I swore if I ever cast eyes on you again you'd be sorry!"
There was a stunned silence which knifed into the low hum of conversation around them.
Vaughan, staring at Craig in disbelief, dropped an agonized hand on his shoulder. "Craig! For God's sake, man! You'll cause a scene. People are looking."
Craig shook off the hand. "Let them look," he grated. "I've got a score to settle with this lousy little wop that's been waiting a long time."
Arthur Stanton listened in shocked amazement. Jack, his face set in a blank mask, was simply standing there, eyes fixed on a point above Craig's head.
"Well, Major Haldean?" demanded Craig. He crossed his arms over his chest. "Haven't you got anything to say?"
For the first time, Jack met Craig's eyes. He flinched, looked away and shook his head slowly. "No," he whispered.
"Wait a minute," put in Arthur vigorously "I've got something to say." He started forward but Jack gripped his arm tightly.
"Arthur, don't. I… I deserve it."
Craig gave a short laugh and, reaching out, pushed Jack so he staggered and almost fell back in his chair. "Coward! I knew it. Come on, Vaughan. I'm not staying near this scum. The air seems foul. We'll eat somewhere else." He strode off.
Vaughan wrung his hands together, his face working with emotion. "I must apologise, gentlemen. I had no idea anything of the sort would happen."
"Vaughan!" came a voice from the doorway.
Vaughan leaned forward urgently. "I can't apologise enough."
"I know that, sir," said Arthur, torn between an anxiety to get rid of him and genuine sympathy for his position. Once again, Jack said nothing.
With a final, apologetic look, Vaughan turned away to join Craig.
The conversation around them started to swell once more and two waiters, who had started to hover in a meaningful way, faded into the background.
Arthur dropped into his chair beside Jack. "What the devil was all that about? Are you all right?"
Jack fumbled for a cigarette. "Yes. Yes, I'm all right. I'm sorry you were here, old man. Thank God Belle wasn't around. Don't say anything to her, will you?"
"Of course I won't. Who on earth was he, Jack? He was an absolute oaf."
Jack lit his cigarette with unsteady fingers. "He's not an oaf. His name's Durant Craig. You must have heard of him." Arthur looked blank. "The explorer, you know?"
"Hang on." He had a vague memory of a story in the newspapers some time ago. "Did he walk across a desert or something?"
Jack sucked in a mouthful of smoke. "That's the one. He's…" He stopped and swallowed. "He's a great man in his way." Arthur felt sure that wasn't what Jack had been going to say. "He's one of the few Englishmen to have been through the Yemen. He's more at home in the desert than most Arabs."
Arthur raised his eyebrows. "Is that who he was? What on earth has he got against you?"
"I let him down rather badly once. I deserved everything he said."
"You can't have done."
Jack's mouth twisted. "You think so? I'm sorry, Arthur." He hesitated. "I can't explain."
"But you…" began Arthur when Jack raised his hand warningly.
"Here's Isabelle," he said. "Please don't tell her." He crushed out his cigarette, stood up and gave a shaky smile. "Isabelle! You look even more radiant than you did ten minutes ago. Shall we go in?" And standing behind his friend and cousin, he shepherded them firmly into the restaurant.
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Copyright © Dolores Gordon-Smith 2007