from a diary:
A TALE OF TWO LIDOS
by Simon Barber
Amelia, Lady Allworthy (neé Amelia Bourne-Phipps) & her friends
(educated adventuresses all, and warrior priestesses, some)
fly from Newfoundland across the Atlantic to Europe - August 1937.
A Tale of Two Lidos
by Simon Barber
Sunday August 22nd 1937
A day of two very contrasting halves! I awoke quite late, eight o’clock, with Miss Cabot already having returned from an early bath and laying out our recently acquired Respectable clothing for church. We had warned the old couple downstairs not to come near our rooms – which I admit sounds rather high-handed, given that it is their house, but they seem to be rather in awe of us and made no complaint. Helen whispered that we are not meant to still be here at all according to someone’s plans – and whatever script had been written, we were off the edge of it in uncharted territories.
Anyway, at Miss Cabot’s coded knock I dismantled the wiring linking the brass doorknob to the mains, reassembled the bedside lamp and let her in to help dress before heading down to breakfast. Nobody had the tell-tales triggered on their doors or windows, so it seems our hosts are sticking to the rules for now, and nobody else has yet come ‘up to bat’ as Helen so quaintly put it.
So: being Sunday, Lady Allworthy accompanied by her maid Miss Cabot and trusty companion (Maria) headed out to see what Church is like these days. There is a big Victorian red-brick Church of England on Saint James’ Street, just a hundred yards around the corner, that I had noticed when returning last night. *
Helen is leery of all Churches apart from the Spontoonie religion and promised to keep her eyes open for us, and warn us if she spots any aircraft commencing dive-bombing runs or any artillery getting into position outside the service.
Right on time, the three of us Churchgoers were discreetly queuing up for Morning Service. The church doors were all thrown wide, and to my surprise rather than sitting down on the pews we followed the regular parishioners right through to the churchyard at the back. Of course, in a place like Brighton this time of year there is a flood of strangers looking for suitable places of worship. We attracted no comment as we looked around the first Church of England we have seen since Archbishop Crowley’s great reforms took place.
On the walls I noticed various new devotional plaques, some in ‘dialogue’ form as between a curious enquirer and a parishioner explaining the new styles of worship. One was on the lines of:
Q: “After all this time, why change the way we worship?”
A: “This is exactly the way it always DID tell you to. Read the Good Book for yourself!”
The references on the wall are certainly authentic, and point to some parts of the Old Testament that have been more or less ignored till now. Other plaques point out reasonably enough, that one cannot pick and choose what is acceptable – take it or leave it, just the way it is written. If the Book of Leviticus goes, Genesis may as well go too, with the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark and all the rest of it. All Archbishop Crowley has really done is to bring to centre stage what has long been ‘swept under the carpet’, to mix a metaphor. If he gives certain old laws a lot of prominence, it is surely just compensating for their having been unjustly ignored for so long.
Anyway, we passed right through the church and into the open air where folk appeared to be having a barbecue. There was a big stone block waist-high with a charcoal grill on top, already well alight and presided over by one of the New Vicars.
Dear Diary: how the world does change! At least, it remembers what was forgotten long years ago. The Vicar wore black with the regular white collar but to this he added an apron and an ornate chest plate (a ‘thurim’ if I recall my Sunday School classes). Something one might think a bit ‘high-church’ except it is definitely authentic, based on what the Bible actually says – not what generations of churchman have selectively edited out for (presumably) their own reasons.
The vicar presided over the flaming altar as several of his parishioners came up to him with various offerings. Two neighbours who had quarrelled came to publicly settle their feud with a Peace Offering of what looked like Indian chapatis brushed with oil; the only sort of unleavened bread available in these parts. (Leviticus 7: 11-18). Another came with various cuts of meat as a Sin Offering – what his sin was, he whispered to the vicar who put the cuts on the altar grill as Atonement (Leviticus 3: 1-5).
When a dozen or so furs had laid their offerings on the altar, the vicar cooked them ‘so that a sweet smell ascended to Heaven’ and declared the offerings now as ‘made Holy so that all the People may eat of them.’
Well! Things really have changed; sharing out grilled lamb and chapatis as elevenses in a church ceremony. I can see how this could really catch on, despite what some vegetarians might prefer.
While the congregation ate, more folk turned up with various garments and fabric – one set of cotton curtains was pronounced as having mildew and being Unclean, and the housewife recommended to wash it in boiling water with a little bleach before bringing it back for re-testing next Sunday. Indeed, I recalled there are whole passages where the Vicar is commanded to seek out and pass stern judgements on moulds and mildew (Leviticus 13: 47-59, if I recall). There would have been a lot of unhealthy slum housing much improved and lives saved if the new reforms had only come a century earlier.
That done, we were invited back into the traditional indoor part of the Church to hear a new-style sermon. The last such thing I attended was two years ago on Casino Island. One wonders if the Reverend ‘Beefy’ Bingham has updated to the new ‘awakened’ style as some folk are calling it.
Before the sermon proper there was a potted biography of Archbishop Crowley – his being raised by the ultra-strict Plymouth Brethren, his forays into long-lost sources of wisdom and his religious experiments, not all of which ended well. (Maria has mentioned that in the 1920’s he had a rather loose-living congregation of followers in Italy; they were all booted out by Il Puce as a bunch of degenerates, not the sort wanted in his respectable Fascist state.)
Then followed the official tale of his inspiring adventures, such as the near-impossible ascent of the loose chalk cliffs of Beachy Head (which he certainly did) and his solo conquest of the peak K2 in the Himalayas. Even his many detractors admit he really was on the mountain at the time, climbed well according to other expedition members and was certainly in a position to have at least tried it. Standing alone on the summit, higher than any other fur on Earth at that moment, apparently he was granted a Vision of what he must do and how he must do it. He also completely gave up his morphine habit from that day forth, allegedly. Rather an extreme of the traditional fasting for Lent, and healthier than most.
All of which is about as plausible as any of the other explanations I have heard of how he got the job – bluffed his way in, won it in a card game, or woke up hung-over with the ruling synod of the Church of England laughing and gloatingly waving a document bearing his signature on it accepting the post. He had apparently, been invited to give an educational account of modern Sin, as he knew far more of the subject than all the rest of them put together. Since then, he has been definitely quoting Scripture for his own ends.
Whatever the facts, it has to be admitted that furs are flocking to the churches as never before this century, and nobody likes to argue with success. Archbishop Crowley has attracted quite a following – if perhaps as Father once scathingly wrote on an officer’s yearly evaluation – ‘his men would follow him anywhere, even if only out of curiosity.’
Church over, we left via the collection plate and spotted Helen sitting in a small café just across Saint James’ Road. Very little is open today, except one or two newsagents and cafes, and away from the major tourist areas hardly that much. Spontoon, this is not!
Helen was in a good mood having avoided Church and finding somewhere that serves coffee to her tastes. Nobody obvious was ‘casing the joint’ while we were in Morning service, she says.
The café served us a very decent luncheon – a ‘cold collation’ of boiled ham, corned beef, cold potato and green salad quite fitted the bill. I could see Maria starting to turn her nose up at plain honest English cuisine, and reminded her of the Sunday lunches at Songmark. Maria conceded that at least here there is no poi. Ironically, In my condition I seem to have acquired a taste for it. One rarely gets everything desired!
As soon as we finished, Helen suggested we stay a ‘moving target’ as much as possible. I agreed, and led us down the hill Westwards out of Kemp Town, across the long park of the Old Steine (checking for any more hired hit-and-run merchants) then up the hill to the station. I had seen posters for excursion trains to a local landmark I had fond memories of visiting once as a kitten.
Four tickets to the sombrely named Devil’s Dyke were a shilling apiece, and we made sure we were the last to board the train. Westwards first through Hove, then climbing Northwards on a track about as steep as trains can go without rack-and-pinion equipment, up onto the crest of the South Downs.
Miss Cabot has a lively curiosity; she commented that we were going straight from church to what sounds like the opposite – and asked why the hills are called Downs, when they so obviously go Up? Not a question I could readily answer.
Half an hour’s determined steaming brought us out of the houses and up through green pastures to our destination, the Devil’s Dyke, or ditch. The South Downs run East-West along the coast or a little behind it, rising steadily from the South and dropping very steeply towards the North. The Dyke is a great steep-sided valley like a bite taken out of the ridge, with splendid views out over the fertile plains towards the distant line of the North Downs with London beyond them. It was a cheerfully sunny and breezy day, with our trainload of day-trippers spreading out along the wide open grass of the hilltop with cameras and picnic-baskets while assorted pups, cubs and kittens tried their luck at kite-flying. A peaceful spot indeed.
In another half hour we were indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd; just another picnic party trying to keep their twopenny ice-creams from dripping on their Sunday best outfits. Maria had her binoculars out – but so did many other furs, especially when a French Latecoere flying-boat went right over us at about a thousand feet, heading towards the gravel-pit landing lakes at Heathrow.
As I told Helen, it might be the calm before the storm but we might as well enjoy today – tomorrow is London where we may learn many things that point us towards new adventures. And we hoped we had shaken off our unwanted ‘tail’ should there be one – and the plain-clothed Police awaiting by the Guest House just might spot such folk following us back.
Maria muttered that anyone trying it in Church would have to deal with the New Vicar first, an ursine divine who looked a pretty formidable sort and keen to apply his ‘Muscular Christianity’ to smite sinners the direct way. She went on to suggest unlikely parallels with the ‘Awakened’ Church as folk are calling it, and the slogan Eva Schiller’s homeland keeps flag-waving – ‘Deutschland Erwachte’, or ‘Germany Awake!’ Not a likely association in my view – even if the New Vicar had a definitely fanatical gleam in his eyes. It is four hundred years since the Church of England were bold radicals, and our dear Archbishop has certainly breathed some fire into them.
Even the finest day has its ending; by five the clouds were beating up the English Channel like stately galleons and we joined the exodus back to the waiting train. An uneventful ride down the hill into Brighton station, checking the London timetable for tomorrow, then deciding our next step. First to the Belvia Guest House, remembering not to wave at the two plain-clothed furs nonchalantly sauntering outside, then in with four sets of eyes, noses and ears primed for trouble. None materialised, and indeed it looked as if assassins at least obey the ‘Lord’s Day Observance’ rules that means a hungry fur cannot even buy a loaf of bread on Sunday.
Once out of our best outfits and into something more practical, I felt ready for some more fresh air. A still-fine Sunday evening and us only three hundred yards from the Palace Pier – so I suggested a promenade on the Promenade.
The pier is a fine sturdy affair some two hundred yards long, standing on tall cast-iron legs that have survived nearly forty years of every storm the Channel can throw at it. On the seaward end is a complex of entertainments, with fairground-style attractions such as a big helter-skelter, boat swings and booths where the gullible can have their palms read by ersatz Romany seers (as Helen muttered, “I predict you are about to get poorer…”). The view was superb, with the Channel full of shipping and the flash of low sunlight on aircraft going over towards the Continent, or in towards Croydon and Heathrow for London.
The seaward end is a platform half a storey lower than the main promenade deck, accessed down a flight of cast-iron steps at each end. Fishermen stand on it to cast their lines without worrying about hooking holidaymakers standing behind, as they would if casting from the main level. There was a Fokker flying-boat taxiing a few hundred yards offshore, and Maria wanted to go down to the platform for a closer look.
So: this was the situation. We went down to the empty platform, about twenty feet above the waves, a space about thirty feet wide and five across, with a staircase leading up at both ends and a ladder down to the water below. Nobody on the main pier could see us until they were actually at the railing above and looking over.
I had noticed a mongrel type canine repairman in a blue boiler-suit carrying a heavy-looking green canvas tool bag; his cap declared ‘Brighton and Hove Corporation.” He had been keeping pace with us, looking critically at the lights and wiring along the railings – it had struck me as odd that he was working Sundays, but this is the height of tourist season and time is money for any amusement rides out of commission for even an hour. Emergency artisans such as electricians and plumbers work when they are needed.
We were all looking out at the flying-boat, which was a new type none of us recognised, when I heard the clang of the iron gate above. The workman came down the stairs slowly, not looking at us but tracing the wiring on the outside of the railings.
When he reached the bottom he gave a thoughtful nod, put down his toolbox and opened it – then his expression changed in an instant as he pulled out a five pound lump hammer and with a snarl and a yell, charged straight at me with it!
Dear Diary: I am definitely starting to think someone dislikes poor Lady Allworthy. They are hardly spending the money on trained assassins though – which is just as well. Any Songmark second-year could have grabbed his hand wielding the hammer and changed the momentum into a Jude-Jitsu throw to put him flat on his back. Being a third-year, the obvious refinement was for me to extend the throw and toss him clear over the railings to the chilly English Channel some twenty feet below.
I had just heard the splash when I also heard a shout from above and braced myself for a second wave of attackers – not alone, as Miss Cabot and Maria were in ready stances by my side and Helen had dashed to the tool bag to grab a lethal-looking crowbar. But it was a fur we recognised – one of the plain-clothes policemen who had been covering the boarding-house. He had evidently followed us and seen everything, which was just as well.
Maria had grabbed a life-belt from the rail and was looking at me questioningly. I nodded for her to throw it – with the Police actually watching us it seemed a wise move. They are naturally into taking prisoners, unlike other people we have met in certain places.
The lifebelt stayed empty for awhile; the assailant was striking out for the beach in hope of getting away. But even a Berlin Olympic swimming champion would be very slow in the water compared to Police running down the pier. The detective shouted down that no matter where on shore he aimed for, we would get there well ahead of him. That seemed to take the fight out of the swimmer; he turned round and headed back towards us, and in a few minutes was hauled up like so much very wet laundry.
Ten minutes after that, with urgent telephone calls and two more plain-clothes police-furs arriving, the bogus workman was handcuffed and driven off while we enjoyed freshly cooked fish and chips in the café half-way down the pier. We were joined awhile later by Detective-Inspector Barneson, who had been summoned from a peaceful Sunday afternoon at home with his family, and was in no good mood about it.
Still, it was hardly us he could be angry about – his own officer had described a vicious lethal assault on four harmless, innocent young ladies. The kind of things criminals get a fair and impartial trial for according to the book, then spend a lot of their sentence in Prison hospital after ‘acquiring a habit of falling downstairs’.
Rather grudgingly, the good Inspector told us they recognised the assailant as Sammy Stogar, a well-known local dope-fiend. Not someone with a record of assault, but such a folk may be driven to do anything for money to support his addiction. Evidently the Police are going to keep him locked up without his favourite ‘medication’ until he feels like talking about his employers.
Helen whispered that she has heard British police are behind the times in adopting American current investigative practice like ‘the third degree’, but keeping Mr. Stogar on a diet of food and water, will work just as well.
All of which is well and good, but small comfort to me. As I told the Inspector, I cannot stay behind locked doors forever. We have all heard about the diplomat in the patented bullet-proof vest who discovered it was not proof against a grand piano being pushed off the hotel roof five storeys above, as he walked out of the lobby surrounded by bodyguards.
Inspector Barneson took a deep breath and nodded assent – then thanked me for leaving the criminal alive this time. He noted that I had specifically asked him if he wanted a live prisoner. His plain-clothes officer had made very plain that Mr. Sammy Stogar could very easily have been sent over the railing to the bottom of the English Channel with the straps of his heavy toolbox around his neck, and nobody the wiser.
Anyway, tomorrow we will be out of his jurisdiction in London most of the day, where the Metropolitan Police can handle any more ‘regrettable incidents’ and there are no flighty holidaymakers to be frightened off.
Back after dining to the Guest House with a fresh plain-clothes policeman following at twenty paces behind us (instantly recognisable by his boots; I should mention to him they should avoid all wearing the same model). Upstairs to bathe and a restful night’s sleep – naturally, with all the traps set.
*(Editor’s note: Although Amelia does not say exactly where the Belvia Guest House is, to judge from the description of the houses and their having an extended North-South strip of ornamental gardens in front and a neck-twisting sea view, the only place in Kemp Town that fits the bill is the Northern end of New Steine.)
Monday August 23rd, 1937
Up bright and early for the London train; alas, ‘bright’ did not describe the weather, which was definitely grey and drizzling. The clouds were pretty much sitting on top of the Downs where we were yesterday. Ten tenths cloud, visibility one mile, cloud ceiling about four hundred feet. Not such a cheerful day for picnics and kite-flying, let alone flying any larger aerial craft!
Still, today it hardly matters. After a good breakfast we were all in our Respectable outfits with waterproof coats on top, and out to catch the 7:45 London express. Downhill Westwards through the damp streets of Kemp Town, crossing the long narrow park of the Old Steine (watching out for any more hit-and-run assassins), up the far side of the valley and a steep pull up to the station, in plenty of time for tickets.
It is over three years since I was in a railway station, I realised – I had almost forgotten what they were like. The great Victorian glass and cast iron arched roof over the long platforms, the jostling crowds, the steam engines hissing and the scent of coal smoke heavy in the air. A second-class carriage seemed best; we do not want to attract attention. Maria says she spotted two newspaper reporters by their notebooks and cameras, and the longer I can stay out of their sight, the better. The news of our “close escapes” are evidently being held tight by the local Police, as they are active investigations… but just the kind of thing a tabloid journalist would love to get his claws into. It is bound to happen sooner or later, but I have things to do that will be easier without the Press on our tails. Our plain-clothed policeman stayed on the platform with a relieved look on his muzzle as we headed out of his jurisdiction for the day.
Anyway, we were off on time, heading up North through the cuttings and tunnels through the chalk hills shrouded in mist and cloud. The only other fur in our compartment was a distinguished-looking otter gent in a natty pin-stripe suit, who immediately vanished behind the morning’s edition of ‘The Times’.
In Spontoonie, Helen whispered that he did not look the sort who suddenly switched roles and demonstrated the lethal powers of a sword-umbrella or rolled-up newspaper, but one can never tell. Whoever is after us seems to be well-connected and still out there; the driver of that stolen car on Saturday was someone bigger and more heavily-built than the Mister Stogar who is currently bemoaning the diet of ‘cold turkey’ in the local jail. (I recall Molly telling me that dope-fiends tend to rapidly acquire a wasted appearance, though her Father’s business never handled such merchandise.) I cannot really imagine he was the one on the esplanade who almost dropped a tonne of municipal flower-bed on us either – not without a six-foot lever or a hydraulic jack, which are tricky things to use inconspicuously on a crowded pavement without passers-by wondering what is going on.
At least, I think we must be making a dent in the local pool of willing and able “operators”. In Brighton at least I doubt there is any ‘Employment exchange’ for the profession, and even if there was, the word would get around what happens to those who take on the ‘Allworthy commission’. Still, we are heading to London now, where things may be different. Half of what Beryl told us of her happy days in the London Underworld is probably true; as ever the real trouble is working out which half.
Not the most scenic of rides today in the drizzle, but what we could see was very nice – green pastures, small fields, small woods and villages flashing past. All too soon we were into the outermost sprawl of London suburbia, all commuter belt developments. Miss Cabot seemed puzzled by the look of the new houses, some of them evidently just finished. Back in Boston, Senator Lovecraft had proudly shown us a few ancient surviving buildings with the style of the 1600’s; black-painted wooden external beams with white rendered walls between them, and small-paned diamond-pattern leaded windows. Here there are entire brand new housing estates in that exact style complete with overhanging first storeys, ‘gambrel roofs’ and all.
I explained that the suburban fashion of the decade we call ‘mock Tudor’ and folk think it adds a note of solid tradition into what would otherwise be raw new streets. Helen muttered that should we ever get round to building skyscrapers in London, we will doubtless build them as thirty storeys of mock Tudor. Well, and why not? Not everyone wants to live in the neon glow of Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’.
By that time we were into the decidedly Victorian red brick housing of the more central city; Clapham Junction, the busiest station in the world, flashed by in a haze of mist and coal smoke. Another five minutes and we were reaching up for the luggage racks for our coats, as the train began to slow approaching Victoria station. Not bad timing. Just over an hour non-stop from Brighton; and that in a regular Express train, not one of the ultra-streamlined sleek blue ‘Mallard’ class locomotives that are taking all the speed records on the long distance lines. (That is about the one form of transport our Songmark course did not cover – we have driven everything from bicycles to lorries, ships to dirigibles, but not trains, being about 30 years too late to have a working Spontoon railway to practice on.)
Well! London at last. Not a city I know enormously well, and the tourist sites I remember from school trips are not something we are looking for right now. Staying together was the first challenge with the jostling crowd of commuters pouring off the train, and soon we were outside the station in the bustle of London traffic.
First stop was the Allworthy’s lawyers, on Chancery Street in the old City of London. Ironically, I cannot get rid of the estates and title without first having it proved they are mine to dispose of. So Part One of the plan is just the same as for any legitimate claimant (or successful gold-digger) – beat off all challenges and opposition to the title. After that, we will see.
A black London taxi got us out of the rain and heading East towards the target, passing Trafalgar Square with the old and new statues – Nelson’s Column and the new, powerful modern sculpture of a proud, indomitable fur looking up accusingly Heavenwards, defiant forever. Things really have changed since Archbishop Crowley took over! There was quite an admiring crowd of tourists around it, some with their box brownie cameras out wanting a picture taken with the statue of the eldest and most beautiful of all the angels. ‘We fall for him, as he Fell for Us’, as the inscription on its base reads.
The taxi driver, a very cheerful rat gentleman, kept up a non-stop flow of Cockney chatter all the way. What with the weather, and the dim prospects of the bank holiday “dahn Saaaafend” (down in the direction of Southend, London East End’s traditional beach resort). To believe half of what he was saying, he had carried most of the famous names around London in the past few years. Not impossible, if a driver has ‘plum’ spots to pick up passengers outside Parliament, Whitehall, the Explorer’s Club and half a dozen other famous places. I was just glad there was no photograph of me in that newspaper last week for him to have recognised – though that will change soon enough, no doubt. It seems taxi drivers ‘people-spot’ as a hobby, like naturalists tick off wild animals they have seen.
So: half-past nine and we were dropped off outside the Inns of Chancery, traditional home to lawyers for centuries. I doubt our driver took us more than a third further than he might have done, and doubtless would have convincing explanations involving roadworks had we challenged him. Hopkirke and Randell (deceased) was the name on the polished brass plate outside; a liveried clerk took our names (“The dowager Lady Allworthy, accompanied by her secretary, companion and maid”) and ushered us in to an antique oak-panelled front room to await the Estate’s lawyers.
Miss Cabot whispered in Spontoonie that she was wondering which lawyer we would meet, the live or deceased one. In a few minutes we found out; Mr. Hopkirke shuffled in, an ancient rabbit whose dust-grey fur seemed quite as old as the early Georgian building around us.
Naturally, I had come prepared – or rather, in her role as my secretary Maria passed over for inspection my birth certificate, pedigree, the letter about my ‘marriage’ from Lord Allworthy’s local lawyers that dropped me in this whole mess, and my passport. It still took half an hour of detailed cross-examining from Mr. Hopkirke (whose ancient form hides a still razor-sharp mind) before he grudgingly accepted that I truly am who I claimed to be. That being established, he opened up a portfolio of the Allworthy estate, and invited me to look through it.
Oh my. The portfolio was more an index than a full description, but even so it took me half an hour to skim through. I had known about the shipyard and factories in Barrow-in-Furriness, the country mansion and the town house. It was all the other assets that took the time – controlling shares in breweries, factories and some enterprises I had not heard of – the “Westwind Import/Export Company”, the “Cosmopole Theatrical Agency” and similar ill-defined enterprises. Knowing something of my ‘husband’s’ tastes and the enterprises he had on Krupmark Island, I had a disturbing sensation that I have inherited a few dubious operations I would be better off without.
Be that as it may, I took a deep breath and signed the papers. For better or worse, I am now Mrs Amelia Allworthy, sole owner of the family estates. And feeling very much like one of those tin ducks in a fairground shooting-gallery right now, but with a considerably larger prize than a goldfish for the lucky shooter.
Mr. Hopkirke congratulated me, and passed over the keys to the town house. His ears dipped somewhat as he confided that it might not be as I would have wished – what with Leon Allworthy being exiled for so long and his bank accounts frozen, various orders had come through unofficial channels to sell various items and forward the money to him overseas. There is no staff, just a caretaker, who he had contacted to be on the premises today, anticipating I would like to examine my new house. The country mansion, he added, is currently let to tenants, the rent being forwarded to the Estate Trustees who have been looking after the estates for the past six years. (I am going to have to meet these Trustees, once I am up to speed with the situation.)
Well, I scarcely expected to walk straight in to a Mayfair property, hand my hat to the servants and take up residence just like that. I recall Molly’s suggestion some months back that when I got here I had a few of the staff shot as a general principle, ‘just to show ‘em who’s Boss!” Not the sort of thing we do around here – she had been around Krupmark Island too long. Thinking of criminal society and fast-moving lead, hopefully nobody has sold off the lead from the roof yet.
Having the legal papers signed and the cheque book handed over, I took my leave of Mr. Hopkirke for the time being – assuring him that his firm would retain the Estate business. Until I find out a good reason not to, that is. Then the next step, round to the bank (the famous Cox and co. at Charing Cross, the same establishment Father and much of the Army uses.)
Again, it took some time to establish my identity, but at least the good news is I am rich – or rather, the Allworthy account is. Having the account frozen to stop the disgraced Leon Allworthy drawing on it was no barrier to it accumulating years of compound interest. I recall Beryl musing on bankers being nicknamed the “6-5-4 men” – they lend out money at six percent, offer five percent interest on deposits – and are all out on the golf course by four! None of this wealth is truly mine, and I will account for every farthing spent to the rightful claimant (whoever that might be.) Drawing a hundred out for day-to-day expenses, I took my leave and we hailed another taxi.
Naturally, having seen the films and taken instruction from various professionals in Spontoon, we are somewhat choosy about not jumping into the first one in the rank – and assuming we are being observed, do not always make it the second one either. Taxis may be set up as traps in so many ways, from chloroform to suddenly locked doors and a driver who jumps out at the traffic light and sprints away, having remotely set the five-second fuse on two pounds of gelignite hidden under the back seat.
So far so good; we arrived safe and fairly soon (with another cheery cockney, an avian sparrow gent this time) telling us dire things about the roadworks, Tube extensions and such that are taking us far out of our way. The Allworthy town house was not unlike the Brighton streets we are staying in – a tall, narrow Georgian structure, one of an elegant terrace just off Pall Mall. The building seemed to be quite intact from the street, if a little shabby (unpolished brasswork and such). Having checked with the back of my paw it was not wired to the mains like our Guest House rooms overnight (fine hairs tend to prickle around high voltages, the kind of thing a star-nosed mole would sense a yard away) I took a deep breath and rang the front doorbell.
In about a minute I heard a shuffling tread approaching, and the door was opened by an elderly hound, who bowed and introduced himself as Mister Clumber, custodian. Though dressed in a suit about ten years out of style (evidently having donned it for the occasion after the lawyers warned him of my visit) he seemed decent enough although smelling rather of cheap gin. Somewhat mournful, but being alone with a shuttered-up house for years might well have that effect – especially as now it is ‘all change’ and for all he knows I might be about to bring my own staff in and throw him out. He was looking rather alarmed at Miss Cabot, the only uniformed servant around.
It took nearly an hour to rapidly look the place over, five storeys tall (including attic and cellars) with around six rooms per floor – including a warren of tiny servants’ bedrooms in the attics, well above any heating. The furniture is mostly under dust sheets, and as for the smaller items such as silver cutlery – Mister Clumber produced receipts signed by Leon Allworthy to forward them to the “Westwind Import/Export Company.” It looks as if a lot of the more portable and saleable items found their way to him, or their cash value did. What was in the bank was more easily frozen.
The master bedrooms are neatly made up; it looks like fairly normal service carried on awhile after the owner went on the run from the Authorities. There were two main bedrooms, adjoining with a door between them – which had no lock or bolt at all. It seems Leon and Susan Allworthy had been extremely close for quite a while. I did not like the decor, it being what Eva Schiller would call ‘decadent art’ – some old pieces of very leering and somehow corrupt characters in the outfits of the 1890’s. By Beardsley, I believe. Not a room I want to spend the night in!
One wonders if the 1890’s pictures are Leon Allworthy’s own purchase, or passed on from the previous generation. From what I heard there was little spoken against the family until that shocking business at the weekend country house party Miss Jenks mentioned, when the wrong guest was murdered. But there could have been a lot that was never much talked about, and long purses can hush a lot of mouths.
Downstairs at the back was a strongly built room with narrow, barred slit windows… I winced at first sight, imagining it had been put to ill uses involving captives. I could see Maria looking hard at it. But instead it was for storing the house valuables – or at least the places they had been. Mister Clumber had quite a sheaf of receipts for antiques, plus a collection of classic sporting firearms, Purdeys and other top names I recall from joining Father on shooting weekends when he was on leave. At least the empty racks and labels remain to show what was there.
Sometimes I really miss Molly. I can only imagine her ecstatic comments when we found the one sporting weapon that was still there, and something she would have loved. It was an enormous piece of ordnance, a four-bore at least, that was actually bigger than the tank-killing T-Gewehr we left at Songmark! Certainly a lot heavier. A “Punt-gun” I believe it is called – easily seven feet long, and designed not to be carried around but to arm a waterfowling boat on rivers or estuaries. I imagine the recoil would drive the boat considerably backwards…
One quick discussion (in Spontoonie) later, we decided it might be jolly useful. There is no ammunition though, and it is not the kind of thing one walks down the street of London carrying. A possible solution came as we were shown the garages around the back – wrapped in dust sheets, a 1926 Bentley open-topped tourer, in British Racing green!
I was quite surprised that this is still here, seeing how many other valuables have walked off. But Mister Clumber told us it is not in running order – it was booked in for service in “that final, fatal week seven years ago” as he put it, but in the confusion of the Allworthies fleeing, it was never fixed. We took a quick look – it is up on bricks to spare the tyres, the battery and fuel tank are dry – but the engine turned over nicely when we turned the starting handle. Not seized, at least.
Putting it aside for another day, we had to bid Mr. Clumber adieu for the day and headed out to the last appointment of the morning, back to Gray’s Inn to see the firm Judge Poynter recommended, and to whom he has already written with letters of introduction and a summary of my case.
London solicitors seem to be much of a muchness – not for them a shiny new plate-glass fronted office on Oxford Street; neatly kept eighteenth century buildings with polished brass company plaques and door handles are more their style, reached by half a dozen steps up from the street – useful in days when streets were considerably dirtier than today. At quarter to twelve we were just in time for our promised arrival ‘in the morning’ – but until I had been acknowledged as heiress to the Allworthy estate and seen a clue to its state I would have had little I could definitely say to Messrs. Jarndyce and Descendants.
It seems the original Jarndyce has been gone a century or more, and the two ‘descendants’ we met seem not much younger! Identical twin bloodhound brothers by appearance, they greeted us in the front reception room and offered us sherry while they sent a clerk to fetch the dossier. I assured them that anything they say to me could be said in front of my friends, who know my exact situation. (Maria’s tail twitched slightly at that; I know what she thinks of my plan.)
If the Jarndyces were surprised at me listing Miss Cabot in her maid uniform as an intimate friend, they gave no sign of it. Then, anyone accustomed to handling the problems of the great families of the country for decades must have heard a lot of staggering revelations, and discretion is their watchword. Had I been guilty of murder and had they been specialist criminal rather than civil lawyers, these would be the furs to confess all the details to, and their job would be to get me acquitted.
For a first consultation it took an hour to lay out the situation, confirm the facts and impress my intentions in the matter. It is hardly a case of them finding one law in an ancient legal tome, agreeing it fits my case then saying ‘definitely’. Lawyers do not work like that, and they could not afford antique chambers, polished doorknobs and fine sherry if they did. Evidently my case is going to take a lot of thought as well as finding some statutes they will have to blow the dust of ages off before reading.
Still, for today I have set the ball rolling. By that time we were all jolly hungry, so we took our leave of the lawyers and strolled out, free for the day. The sun was out, and the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral sparkled not far away, visible over the rooftops. For all Helen’s mention of skyscrapers, they would definitely spoil the view (our classic churches are still the highest spots on most of the skyline). Plus their natural home of New York is based on solid granite, whereas London has soft clay – one might build our own version of the Empire State building here and find it getting shorter by the week as the ground floor gradually becomes the cellar then the sub-cellars.
Luncheon was a fine chop-house on the nearest street corner, where Helen and I dined on grilled mutton chops the like of which I have not had in years. Then, any street populated by distinguished and wealthy lawyers is not likely to be selling the jellied eels and chips the East End is more famous for. Maria and Miss Cabot dined on rissoles, of no clearly defined origin.
Refreshed, we took a stroll in the sunshine towards Pall Mall where the Army and Navy club stands on the corner. I had written to my brother, who is with his regiment, and (like us) on an uncertain timetable. But messages via the club will always find him; they have a forwarding system second to none. Indeed, when I enquired with the concierge there was a message for me from him. He is in town this week, hurrah! I left a reply hoping to see him here tomorrow lunchtime, along with the telephone number of the Belvia Guest House should he need it.
Having made a start on organising my future it was Maria’s turn to work on her own. First stop was a main post office, where she could access her numbered tele-box account and check for any telegrams. Yes indeed – her Uncle received her wire from Saturday, and wants her back in Italy by the end of the first week in September. So, that is a deadline – the break-up of our little group is a fixed date in the diary now.
One of the reasons to take taxis is I am not that certain of London street by street, and it is far too big to just wander and hope you chance upon the right place. But we saw a bus for Victoria Station and hopped on that – an upstairs seat at the back, with a good view and a fraction of the price. Oddly enough, it went straight there, and we saw nothing of the huge roadworks the taxi drivers were talking about.
Being the main terminus pointing South towards boat-trains to Europe, the station has an international booking office and Cook’s Travel agency, from whence Maria eventually emerged carrying brochures and timetables. She has not bought her ticket yet, but can do so on a few hours’ notice. She would naturally prefer to fly – and who knows? Our own planned commercial flight to Europe took an unexpected twist when the Storm Bird unexpectedly appeared ‘out of the blue’ in more ways than one.
At three thirty we were boarding a southward train ourselves, bound not for the Riviera and Rome but back to Brighton before the commuters start pouring out of their offices after five. A far more cheerful ride than the morning trip, with the rain-washed landscape looking at its best in the sunshine. This time we got a 6-person compartment all to ourselves (it would very different in two hours time). Being the final carriage before the guard’s van, there is plenty of space for the smoke of the engine to disperse; we opened all the windows for a breezy ride without too many soot smuts landing on us. It is awhile since any of us flew in an open cockpit, and I find myself rather missing it.
Not an express train this, and nine stops later we saw the great chalk wall of the South Downs looming up in front of us. One thing we all agreed on was we need to take a lot more exercise – our Songmark fitness is something that will fade if we do not work hard to keep it. A few hard walks up onto the Downs would be a decent start, as soon as more pressing business can be dealt with, or at least started to run under its own momentum.
Another fifteen minutes and we were pulling into Brighton, the station of which is half a mile or more from the coast, a substantial distance up the hill. There is an old music-hall joke where a lady passenger asks the train guard “Does this train stop at Brighton?” At which he replies “One hopes so, Madam – otherwise there will be quite a splash!"