|The Lady of
by Drake Hackett
Special to the London Daily Observer (Part Ten)
Sunday, August 22, 1938
Keith missed Denis Conlon’s arrival at the Pilot’s Reception, but he wasn’t surprised.
“Best laid plans, Drake.” He told me, with an airy shrug “I was supposed to greet everyone at the door, but I kept gettin’ called away to deal with this or that minor emergency.” He took a long, slow draught of his beer, “S’pose I should have seen it coming, it was the first one after all.”
“Truth be told, you probably got off easy, mate.” I pointed out, and Keith nodded uneasily. That first year, the Schneider Cup Pilot’s Reception was more of an Apollonian, than a Dionysian rite. Lively, but nothing that would make the papers. (And certainly not something TOO racy to make the papers....as was the ‘37 Pilot’s Reception, by several accounts.)
Later, when Keith was making the rounds with Lucy, he finally spotted Conlon, standing at the bar, in lively conversation with a tall, well dressed elk.
“I’d no idea who that elk was, but there was something vaguely familiar about him. Big bloke, in a double-breasted suit, perfectly pressed. had this very high forehead, and these dark, penetrating eyes. I thought I’d seen him going about with some the British Team once or twice, but I wasn’t sure. But then. Blimey if he and Conlon didn’t grasp each others shoulders before the old fox went on his way. However it was they knew each other it was more than just a casual acquaintance.”
One of the nicer things about being the organizer for the Schneider is the right to introduce yourself to anyone you wish at the Pilot’s Reception, and so, letting Denis get away for the moment, Keith and Lucy made a beeline towards the elk.
“Hullo there,” my friend said, offering him a paw, “I’m Keith Lawton, organizer for the Schneider Cup.”
The elk immediately set down his drink and stuck out a hoof, “Ahhh, Mr. Lawton. A pleasure to make your acquaintance. Barnes Wallis, Professor Barnes Wallis, Vickers Limited.”
On hearing this name, my mouth dropped open so far, I’m surprised I was able to get it shut again.
“TH-THE Barnes Wallis?” I stammered. “The bloke who designed the R-100?” (Now the Republic.) “The same Barnes Wallis who was once Her Grace’s mentor?”
“The very same,” Keith answered, folding his arms like a Red Indian chieftain, “And if you think that’ll floor you pal, wait’ll you hear what he told me next, “ 'I understand Denis Conlon is running a plane in the Schneider.' ”
“If another plane pulls out before the first qualifying run, yes he’s got a slot.” Keith answered cautiously, not because he didn’t want to listen to another litany of why he should let Conlon into the race, but because... ”There was just something about the way he said Denis’s name.”
“Oh, splendid, excellent.” Wallis answered, signaling, ‘same again’ to the barkeep, “Good to see him out and about after such a long interlude.”
It was Lucy who finally asked it.
“D’you know Mr. Conlon, then?”
Professor Wallis responded to this throwing his head back and laughing, then he picked up the Pink Gin the barkeep had just brought and raised, it as if in salute.
“I should do, I worked with him at Vickers, or rather he saved my fur a couple of times while I was there.”
“Oh HO!” I said, holding out MY glass for a refill, “The plot thickens, eh? What was Mr. Conlon’s position at Vickers then?”
“Troubleshooter,” Keith answered as he, poured for me,”that’s what Professor Wallis told me, said any time some bloke at Vickers had a problem they just COULDN’T solve, up would go the cry, ‘Send for Sherlock!’ That was Conlon’s nom de guerre round the place.”
“Sounds like he was rather popular.” Lucy had observed, and the response from Professor Wallis was a vigourous nod.
“Oh quite so. Mrs. Lawton. Whenever Mr. Conlon was called in to help with a problem you see, he was never overbearing, never condescending. His method rather, was to help you see for yourself the solution to your difficulty.”
“Like he did with Professor Casadonte.” I observed, and Keith and Lucy both nodded as energetically as Barnes Wallis must have done.
“Right-o mate,” said Keith, “an’ now you know why Conlon had been so eager to help out Sophia with her plane...it’s what he DID.”
I raised my glass in their direction.
“Well, that’s certainly true, mates...but I think there may have been another reason as well. Denis Conlon wasn’t the first Schneider-Cup hopeful to show up out of nowhere with a home-built racer, was he? There was someone else, did it a few years before, as I recall.”
I watched Keith and Lucy exchange bewildered looks, feeling quite satisfied with myself. Served him right for stringing me along like that. Then Keith turned back to me.
“Right mate, I give up. Who was....? YIP!”
He slapped the side of his head, saying something unprintable.
“Of course...why didn’t I ever...? Sophia Casadonte Bianco, 1929.”
“Right.” I nodded, “And she was only 17 at the time, as well. According to Her Grace, there were a lot of folks thought that was much too young to be entering the Schneider Cup, especially for a female...but Sophia went ahead and did it just the same -- took home the third place ribbon with it, too. So how much y’want to bet that Conlon didn’t get at least part of the inspiration to try the Schneider himself from her effort?”
Once more, Keith and Lucy were looking at each other...but this time with much quieter expressions...and I could tell that somehow, I’d missed the mark.
Then Keith cleared his throat and went on with the story
Professor Wallis knew quite a bit about Denis Conlon’s background, information which he happily dispensed to my friend. Born in Spiddal, Ireland, in county Galway, Conlon had studied engineering at the University of Edinburgh, where he’d excelled. After graduating, he taken a position at Vickers, where he’d risen rapidly in the ranks, becoming the company’s chief troubleshooter at the age of only 27.
“An especially great achievement, when you consider the prejudice against the Irish that was so common in those days.” The Professor had added solemnly, and then grinned, almost impishly, “he was quite the fixture round Vickers by the time I joined, just mad for speed. I remember in 1909, he bought a wrecked Napier 60 motorcar, straightened it out, and then modified it to go even faster than the production model. When Mr. Napier heard about it, he tried to hire Conlon away from Vickers. Sherlock turned him down of course, but politely. He was quite the loyal vulpine to his company, even though he loved that motorcar. Every Friday in the summertime, when the whistle blew, his wife would bring it round Vickers, sometimes along with their sons and off they’d go into the countryside. I remember one time seeing them pass by me, and calling after them, ‘Where y’off to then, Denis?’ ‘We’ll know when we get there!’ he called back, and away they went for their weekend holiday.”
“So, he DID have a family.” I said, pricking up my ears. Conlon had never struck me as the lonely bachelor type.
“That he did,” Keith answered, nodding, but with an odd expression on his face; he looked...wistful? “But getting back to my conversation with Professor Wallis, Conlon had started out in Vickers’ shipbuilding division, and become interested in airplanes just before the Great War.” He lifted an ear, “And when the war came, guess who got put in charge of building the Vickers Vimy?”
At the mention of this aircraft, the terrace became very quiet, even the crickets seemed to be toning it down. There’s not an Australian aviator worth his wings who doesn’t know, and revere, the name of the Vickers Vimy, the airplane that won the first Britain-to-Australia air race, back in 1920. (And, sorry Mr. Lindbergh, it was a Vimy that had made the first crossing of the Atlantic by aircraft, the year before that.) If Denis Conlon had been the driving force behind THAT aeroplane, well there was no other word to describe him except ‘genius’.
“Remember those flight goggles of Conlon’s that I told you about? “ Keith was saying, “The old battered pieces he refused to give up for some newer ones? Well, now y’know why, mate. They were the ones Arthur Brown had used for the Atlantic Crossing. He later presented them to Denis in gratitude for his work on their plane.”
I just nodded at this; it was one of those occasions when there were TOO much you could say in response. But now, a lot of things were starting to fall into place...leaving behind even more unanswered questions. Why had a fox with THAT kind of background found it necessary to nearly beg his way into the Schneider Cup? And why had he never mentioned his family? For that matter, where were they?
And the Vimy....the Vimy. There was something else about that plane, something that for the life of me, I couldn’t recall just then
As if reading my thoughts, Keith went on.
“That was when the Professor said something rather odd to me, pal. He said,’Mind you, after what happened, no one was surprised when Mr. Conlon asked to be put in charge of the Vimy project, demanded it, really. And Vickers agreed at once. Even company directors are not completely heartless.’ ”
I started to respond, but Keith quickly raised a paw.
“I know mate, I know...but when I asked Professor Wallis what he meant, he just sort of tugged at his collar and said, “I’m sorry....I thought you were already aware. And, errrr, if you’re not, then I fear it’s not for me to say.”
I let out a growl of frustration, and Lucy let out a short, derisive yip.
“Oh f’ heaven’s sake, brother....you know the Professor was talkin’ about, it’s obvious, isn’t it?”
I tried, I really tried to keep my tail from curling up under my chair, but it was a losing battle. Of course I knew, who wouldn’t have known? It was the war of course, what else could it have been?
I decided a change of subject was in order.
“Rather surprising a bloke like that weren’t called in to consult on the R-100 project.” I noted. I knew that he hadn’t; Her Grace would certainly have mentioned it.
‘He might have been,” Keith answered, nodding, “But he’d already resigned Vickers and gone back to Ireland by then. Wasn’t eligible for a pension yet, but they gave him one, just the same. Apparently his work had began to slip, and they were more than happy to see him go quietly, ‘before he made a truly horrid mistake’, was how Barnes Wallis put it to me.
That was pretty much all that Keith got out of Professor Wallis on the subject of Denis Conlon.
“He was beginning to get a bit uncomfortable about it, so I thought I’d best let it drop. Besides, I had enough to chew on as it was. Besides that, the band was just striking up You’re The Top, Lucy’s favourite song from that year, so off we went to the dance floor, and....” He looked sideways at Lucy, “well, why don’t you tell it, luv?”
She was only too happy to oblige.
“We danced through You’re The Top and Cheek to Cheek, but sat out The Cockeyed Mayor Of Kaunakakai. Then the band took a break...and who d’you think it was got up an’ sat himself down behind the piano? Our own Mr, Conlon, along with his three crewmates, Paddy Martin on horn, and the Donnelly brothers on tenor and baritone sax. Then Conlon did a three beat start and off they went.”
“It was an older tune,” Keith chimed in, “but a good ‘un, just the same...and the lads were all excellent players, especially Denis Conlon. Truth be told, he was better than the BAND’S piano player. Then Paddy put his horn down an’ began to sing, as fine an Irish tenor as ever you’ll hear.”
Was a musical boy
On the cruiser Alabama
He was there at that piana
Like a fish down in the sea
He would rattle off some harmony,
Ev'ry night out on the ocean
He would get that raggy notion
Start that syncopated motion lovingly,
No one could sleep
Way out there on the deep
When Billy cut loose out at sea.”
I couldn’t help letting out a small, yipping laugh.
“Good heavens...the Oceana Roll? That’s a ragtime tune, mate....goes all the way back to 1911.”
Sometimes, you just KNOW you’ve said the wrong thing; both Keith and Lucy gave the sort of look usually reserved for especially untalented street performers. Finally Lucy said, “Maybe, but it weren’t a ragtime number the way they played it brother, they up an’ MADE that tune swing...an’ anyway, you’re missing the point. Now you know what Conlon and his crew did to earn passage for the Lady of Nimes to the Spontoons.”
I wanted to slap myself, but settled for letting my tail curl up my chair again. It must not have gotten by Keith, because he came straightaway to my rescue.
“We waited until Conlon had finished, then went over to talk to him.” He chuckled, “First thing he said when he saw us coming was, ‘We’ve got permission, Mr Lawton.’ ”
“Oh, no worries, Mr. Conlon.” Keith reassured him quickly, “and I must say, you and your boys play wonderfully.”
“Hear, hear!” added Lucy, “Where d’you learn to play then?”
Conlon’s response was more than a little surprising, he looked as if he’d just been caught with his paw in the ‘till. “I learnt it from me da, actually. He were a Music Hall pianist...it’s why our family was always movin’ round when I was a pup, following on wherever there was work, Dublin one year, Glasgow the next, London for a couple more.”
“Did you ever play professionally y’self?” Keith asked, “before coming to the Spontoons I mean.”
Conlon looked away again, and Paddy Martin gave Keith and Lucy a warning look. Conlon saw him and lifted a paw speaking softly, “Whyn’t you take Mike an’ Mick to the bar for a moment?”
Reluctantly, the gopher nodded his consent, and motioned for the two stoats to follow him.
“Ye’ll be all right then?” Keith heard Mike Donnelly saying to Denis, laying a paw on the old fox’s shoulder as he passed.
“I'll be fine, you just run along.” Conlon told him, and then waited until they were gone before turning to speak to Keith again.
“I saw yer chattin’ up Professor Wallis back there, an’ I suppose he must have told yer about me havin’ worked at Vickers, am I right?”
“He did.” Keith and Lucy both nodded, “Said you were in charge of the Vimy Project.”
“Aye, it’s that I was.” the old fox responded, “But I might never even have gone to university, if it hadn’t been for me da. I wanted to play piano, same as him, but he wouldn’t hear of it. ‘Not you, Denis, not a pup as clever as you. You’ll not be chasin’ round music halls all yer life, doin’ whatever odd job there is in between. You’ve got the smarts to go out an’ make somethin’ of yourself, son -- an’ by God, that’s what you WILL do if I’ve got to sit on yer head for the next ten or twenty years.’”
He stopped, chuckling at the memory.
“An’ that’s just about what he did. Woe unto this poor fox if me father caught me at the piano when I was supposed to be doin’ me studies. But even he couldn’t stop me from knockin’ round the ivories all the time. An’ when I went away to university, I found it was a good way to earn a bit of extra money between classes. Even Da couldn’t object to that one. And after a bit, I began to start savin’ up a little. Some of my mates and I had decided that for graduation, we’d celebrate by having a holiday in the south of France.”
“He stopped an’ looked away then, Drake.” Keith was saying, “An’ I could almost read his thoughts. For just that one moment, this wasn’t the Spontoon Aero Club.....it was somewhere on the Cote D’Azure.”
Then Denis returned his attention to Keith and Lucy.
“But before that could happen, me da was killed in a railway accident. Ma had passed away two years earlier, so now there was no one to hold me back. So it was, I took me savings an’ headed for the south o’ France; officially, it was a leave of absence, but me, I knew otherwise. I was never goin’ back to school, never.”
(Of course, he did go back, but even I wasn’t about to point out something that obvious.)
“I didn’t speak a word of French,” Conlon went on, “but I got hired playin’ at a bar in Nice within’ five minutes of steppin’ off the train. Weren’t there a month before this casino owner from over at Cannes heard me an’ hired me away at twice what I’d been earnin’ at the bar. Then a cabaret owner snatched me away from there, and on and on it went.”
He played a short, impromptu ditty, smiling softly.
“I thought I’d found the best life a young fox could have, I did. Fine champagne, pretty girls...out every night until dawn, an’ no shortage of funds either. Every night it seemed, some rich fur who’d had a few too many was throwing a fifty or even a hundred pound note at me, if I’d just play this or that tune for ‘im.”
He stopped, putting his paws on top of the piano, a deep look in his eyes.
“Until....one mornin’ at the Club Divinitee in Monte Carlo. They had just finished tunin’ up me piano, and I was puttin’ her through the paces, when...well, yer know how sometimes, you just know that someone’s there? ‘Sorry, we’re not open yet,’ I said, turnin’ round in me seat.” He stopped, his black eyes becoming large and liquid. When he spoke again, his voice was as hushed and reverent as that of pilgrim beholding a vision, “An’ that was the first time I saw her. She weren’t the most beautiful vixen I’d even seen, folks...but ohhhh, if she wasn’t the finest; one look, an’ my heart was doin’ backflips on me.” He closed his eyes, inhaling deeply of the memory, “Even now, I can still remember the way she was dressed. Had on this blue cotton sun dress, decorated with what I thought were little, white flowers....but they were actually little hummingbirds. She was a slim little vixen, not at all the buxom type I usually fancied, but for all that I couldn’t take me eyes off her. Had the reddest fur I’d ever seen, and these green eyes you could bo an’ get lost in forever.”
“Oh, mes apologies, Monsieur.” She said, “But you play just so exquisitely...”
“According to Denis,” Keith glanced sideway at Lucy for a second, “That was a far as she got before her breath got tangled up her throat,. Whatever had hit him, it had hit her as well.”
“I wanted to say somethin’, anythin’” is what the old fox said to Keith, “but I couldn’t make the words come. So I just turned round an’ started playin’ again. Right away, I wanted to kick meself out of the room. ‘Nice goin’ there, Denis, turning yer back on her like that. Now, she’ll walk right out the door, an’ you’ll never see her again.’”
But when he looked over his shoulder, the vixen was still there, gazing at him with a rapt expression.
So Denis banged the piano shut and spun round in his chair.
“Would yer like to come and have lunch with me, then?” he blurted.
She immediately said yes.
“Her name was Jeanne.” Conlon’s smile was like caramel as he recalled it, “Jeanne Lessigny. She was in Monte Carlo with her parents, on a short holiday. Her da held the mathematics chair at Universite Montpellier, up at Nimes.”
I don’t remember what Keith said next, the words playing over and over in my head drowned him out..
“Nîmes....The Lady Of Nîmes....”
Conlon saw her every day she was in Monte Carlo. When she went home to Nimes, he began taking the train to see her at every opportunity.
“Of course, that couldn’t go on for long without Jeanne’s parents finding out.” Lucy’s smile was half impish, half sad, “And as y’ can imagine brother, they did NOT approve of their daughter’s new beau. The next time Denis showed up in Nîmes, Jeanne wasn’t there to meet him...but her father was, with folded arms, an’ a none-too-friendly look on his face.”
“I was petrified, but I weren’t surprised.” Denis said, when he told Keith and Lucy about it, “Honestly, I was wondering what took him so long to find out about me. And I’d always known he wouldn’t like me. No daughter of his was goin’ to take up with any piano-playin’ scruff; that was what he’d say when found out she and I were seein’ each other. Yer could put that in the bank.”
“So what did you plan t' do, if and when that happened?” Keith asked him.
Conlon winced as if he’d been caught out in a riddle.
“Nothin’....I had no idea what I was goin’ to say to him if we ever met. But what I DID say was that I was only workin’ in Monte Carlo for the summer; in the fall I’d be goin’ back to University in Edinburgh, where I was studying for me engineering degree.”
“Did it work?” Keith asked, and Denis lifted a wry brow.
“Almost didn’t. Professor Lessigny just crossed his arms an’ looked at me like I were a cockroach ‘Ah, an engineering student, is it? Then pray Monsieur, solve the following equation for me, yes?’
Fortunately for Denis, Professor Lessigny was tough, but not nearly the martinet that his own mathematics teacher, Dr Ewan Galesford had been.
“First time in me life, I ever blessed that old buzzard’s name.” Conlon snickered as he recalled it, “but the fact of the matter was, I might have been lying when I said that, or I may not have been. The last I’d heard from the University of Edinburgh had been a note saying I’d best be getting myself back right quick if I still wanted to attend...and that had been more than six months ago. It was very possible I might show up an’ find the doors barred, but I were determined to do it, all the same. Yer see,” he looked away again for a second, “Jeanne really WAS too good for the likes of any piano player, I’d known that, soon as I laid eyes on her. I’d just never really accepted it until that moment.”
So Conlon went back to Edinburgh, and got in ‘just under the wire’ as he put it to Keith, throwing himself into his studies with a zeal, he’d never displayed before. He eventually graduated near the top of his form
“I had two years to go before I could get me degree. That’s a long time for any girl to wait, make no mistake. But Jeanne waited, she waited for me. We were married at St. Peters’ Church the month after I got me degree.”
He straightened up slightly and began to rummage in his vest pocket.
“Week after that I was hired on at Vickers. Professor Wallis, I’m sure, told you all about...Ah, there ‘tis.”
He pulled out a small, leather case, which he flipped open and handed to Keith. “That’s a picture of me an her together, right after we met.”
“There was actually two pictures in that case.” Keith said. “The first one showed Denis in a straw boater and pinchback suit, standing at the waterside with a pretty, little vixen on his arm, young thing, wouldn’t have been more than seventeen. Like he said, she was a slender girl, but still very beautiful; even in an old tintype photo, you could see what lovely eyes she had.”
“What was the second picture?” I asked.
“Same thing.” Keith told me, “but a much newer photo, taken much later. It showed Denis and Jeanne in the same pose as before, and taken in the same location, only now they were older, of course. Even so, Jeanne was still quite lovely...and Denis looked every bit the rakehell he had in the first picture.”
“One thing I should mention.” Lucy put in, “Those old tintype cameras always reversed the image when they took a picture...and that made it appear as if the couples in the two photographs were looking at each other. It were quite the effect as I remember.”
“Yeah, that it was.” Keith scratched at his nose, “But there was something in the background of that second picture. I couldn’t quite make it out, it was hidden behind Denis and Jeanne, but it made that picture look VERY familiar. I could swear I’d seen it somewhere before.”
“Where were these taken?” he had asked the old fox. “Monte Carlo?”
“Aye.” Conlon answered, pointing, “The first was taken when we met, as I told yer a second ago. T’other one was taken when we went back for our silver weddin’ anniversary.” He gazed at the picture, eyes misting, brushing it lightly with the back of his fingers.
“That was in the spring of 1914, the last good time we had together....before...”
He coughed quickly and turned away, shoulders hunched and quivering. Lucy and Keith just stood there, not sure what to do. Keith finally reached for a pawkerchief, but Lucy waved him off with a warning paw. When Conlon turned around again, his cheeks were damp, but his head was high...and his voice had steadied itself.
“I know what ‘tis you want to ask me, but won’t, folks.” He said, smiling sadly but fondly at the same time, “Jeanne’s gone now....lost her in a Gotha raid, just before Third Wipers”
“Gotha raid....” I breathed, feeling my eyes widen. So that was why Conlon had insisted on taking over the Vickers Vimy project; the Vimy had originally been conceived with an eye towards retaliating against the Germans for the Gotha attacks.
“Did y’ have any children, then?” Lucy asked, not knowing what else to say.
“We had three.” Denis answered, his voice softening to just above a whisper, “Lost Bert and Johnny in the trenches. Lisa passed from distemper when she was 11.”
Lucy and Keith just looked at each other for moment. To lose the love of your life was one thing, but....
“Oh, I’m so sorry...” she started to say, reaching out to pat the old fox’s arm. To her considerable surprise, he batted her paw aside.
“None o’ that, Missus!” He said, turning round in his seat to face her, with an almost stern expression on his face, “D’you know how lucky I am to be Denis Conlon? For all that’s happened, I’ve had a good life, an’ no regrets. How many of us are there that can say we found our pearl of great price, the one femme ye love so much, she’ll make ye want to turn yer life round for her?”
That was when Keith stepped forward.
“And I’ll never forget what he said,” Lucy looked at him for a second, rubbing at an eye with the back of a finger, “‘I’ll tell y’ who can say that, mate....me. When I met Lucy, I was livin the life of an Outback rover, carefree as y’ please, just me, me partner Drake, an’ our aeroplane...goin’ where we wanted, when we wanted, no one to tell us what to do, an’ livin’ as we pleased. Never imagined doin’ anything else wi’ me life and never wanted to.’” Her voice began to tremble “And then he took my paw and said, 'But the first time I laid eyes on Lucy, forget it mate, if it came down to a choice between her or the Outback --- and I knew it was goin’ to come to that, even then --- if that was the choice, it were goin’ to be Lucy, no question and no hesitation. An’ it’s the happiest choice I ever made in me life.’ Then he looked Denis straight in the eyes, ‘So, I DO know what y’ mean, Mr. Conlon...an’ I’ll thank you NOT to speak to my wife so shortly.’”
“So what did he do?” I asked, taken aback, though I shouldn’t have been. My friend has never stood still for anyone talking out of turn to Lucy, not even me.
It was Keith who answered.
“He stood up an’ bowed to her, would y’ believe?” he answered with a snicker, “and then apologized to both of us for what he said, ‘Then y’understand Mr. Lawton, an’ I hope you’ll forgive this old fox his trespasses.’ So, what could I do? I shook his paw and told him there was nothing to forgive.”
I grinned and shook my head. Crikey, this fox was like the Mouse ride at Blackpool; just when you’d think he was about go off the edge, he’d make a sharp turn on you.
“Pal,” I said, raising my glass for no good reason, “ you must have wanted more than anything right then to say, ‘blast the rules,’ an’ make an extra space in the lineup for him.”
Keith just grinned back at me, but his was lopsided.
“Well yeah...that was how I felt right then, mate. But by the middle of next morning, what I wanted more than anything else was to strangle the old duffer.”
(Sophia (Casadonte) Bianco and Giuseppe Casadonte are the intellectual property of Stuart McCarthy.)