© Daisy Fraser
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Thanks so much for all the helpful reviews. Really useful advice coming through. However, please be kind and offer advice rather than simply say eg 'Characters flawless. Nothing to improve' then give 3s!! That looks a bit like earning a reading credit for little effort.
Many thanks and Happy Writing to all.
‘It all happened so fast,’ said one of the witnesses later; a delivery boy clambering up the basement steps of the Craigfield Gentlemen’s Club.
Only a few minutes before, behind the railings of one of Edinburgh’s private gardens, nannies had been enjoying a gossip while their charges played. A tall, young boy dressed in a sailor-suit threw a stick for his white West Highland terrier. Children’s laughter, the yapping dog and a murmur of chat filled the chill February air. The steady cobble-clop of the milkman’s horse disappeared towards the Fountainbridge depot.
The horse’s hooves were gradually drowned out by the deep, rhythmic purr of an engine. A gleaming Royal Enfield motorcycle and sidecar came into view. The leather-clad driver was huddled over the handlebars in a long flying-coat, helmet, gauntlets and goggles; a fur collar upturned against the damp.
The shining eyes of the boy in the sailor-suit followed the motorcycle as it motored past the park. Distracted, he misjudged his throw and tossed his stick over the fence. The excited little dog scampered after it through the wrought-iron gate and ran straight into the path of the motorcycle.
A horn blared out as the driver was forced to swerve. Out of control, the motorcycle mounted the pavement, travelled up the front steps of the Craigfield Club, narrowly missing the delivery boy’s bicycle, and went on through the front door into the grand, marbled hallway.
As the motorcycle careered through the door, the low hum of talk was shattered by the engine-throb filling the hallway. Gentlemen jumped away then turned in disbelief to see the ‘cycle’s front wheel crash into the concierge’s desk. The impact threw the driver face down onto the chequer-board tiles of the hall floor.
Everything stopped, with only the motorcycle engine active, blowing steady steel-grey fumes into the air.
Then members’ senses were restored and they assumed command.
‘Give him some air!’
‘Switch the thing off!’
The concierge found the key in the ignition and switched off the engine.
‘Get that helmet off his head. Lord Cathcart, Sir. You’re nearest.’
Lord Cathcart peered at the prone driver's body. He eased away the helmet and goggles carefully avoiding the bloodied lip. A collective clamour sounded throughout the room.
‘A lady?’ said an astonished voice.
‘In a gentlemen’s club,’ said Lord Cathcart and leaned in closer, to scrutinise the dazed driver. Then he suddenly jumped back as if stung.
‘Good grief. Cressida?’
The girl, her split lip now starting to swell, half-opened her eyes.
‘Hello, Father,’ she whispered through blood-stained teeth. Then her eyelids fluttered and closed.
Lord Cathcart’s jaw dropped and his face turned puce with anger.
Cress Cathcart was aware of a buzz of activity going on around her as she was gently lifted onto what she assumed was a stretcher. She could feel shooting pains across her chest but she gripped her lips together to avoid crying out.
As she was carried along, with not a little puffing and panting from the stretcher-bearers, the echoing hall full of mens’ deep voices receded. The sounds were replaced with the noises of doors opening and closing, followed by a muffled, upholstered calm of what she guessed must be an office. Layers of pipe-smoke hung in the air.
‘On the sofa. Over there,’ a man’s quiet voice said. ‘I’m sure Doctor Grant is somewhere in the building. I saw him earlier in the smoking-room.’
Cress felt strong hands under her shoulders and calves as she was lowered onto a padded surface. A blanket was draped over her and the wool tucked under her chin.
‘I am afraid the police have arrived so I must speak to them.’ Cress recognised her father’s matter-of-fact tones. ‘If someone would let me know when the doctor has finished and I shall come back to fetch my,’ he paused, ‘daughter.’
‘Very well, Lord Cathcart,’ the quiet voice replied before taking Cress’s hand and checking her pulse. ‘She will be fine for a couple of minutes. I shall go and look for Doctor Grant right away.’
As she heard the snick of the closing door, Cress’s eyes snapped open. With some difficulty she pushed herself up to a sitting position. Listening for a moment, Cress heard the sounds of club business carrying on beyond the door and the ticking of a clock on the mantel.
She swung her feet onto the floor and stood up, gasping as a spasm of pain went through her collar-bone. Steeling herself, she crossed to the door and turned the key, locking it fast.
Turning to the desk, Cress scanned the mahogany surface and walked over to it before flicking through the pile of papers sitting on the blotting-pad. She couldn’t see what she was looking for. As she bent down to the desk-drawers, a twinge of pain caught her unawares and she gasped and paused for a second before carrying on.
The Club Secretary, summoned to the scene of the accident, had neglected to lock up before leaving his post, Cress thought, thanking him. Her breathing came short and steady as she hunted through each drawer. She arrived at the last; the deepest one at the base of the desk and slid it open.
The green metal tops of several hanging-files appeared, all with typed labels in alphabetical order. Cress saw what she was hunting for - a file marked ‘Membership’. She was just about to lift it out when Cress heard someone rattling the door-handle.
‘Miss Cressida,’ called a concerned voice. ‘It’s Sprocket, the Club Secretary here.’
‘Drat,’ Cress whispered. She snatched the Membership file from the drawer and, limping across the room, knelt down and slid it under the sofa. Then, spotting her motorcycle gauntlets on a chair, she threw them after the file. Standing up, she crossed with stiff steps to the door.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she said in a feeble voice, as Sprocket entered the room. He reminded Cress of a weasel with his bright black eyes behind spectacles perched on a pointy nose. ‘I felt a little vulnerable when I came round and no-one was here. I hope you don’t mind my…’ as she spoke Cress teetered. Sprocket sprang forward to grasp Cress’s elbow as he steered her to a chair.
‘Not at all, Miss Cressida,’ said Sprocket with concern. ‘Here is Doctor Grant come to check you over.’ The doctor, a large man with a heavy beard and wearing an Inverness cape bowled into the room. He walked straight over to Cress and pulled up a chair.
‘I shall leave you to it,’ Sprocket said, as he bent to lock the drawers of his desk. Then, making a shallow bow, he closed the door behind him with a quiet click.
‘I hate to make a fuss,’ Cress said. ‘I really do feel so much better already.’
Sitting down on the chair next to the patient, Doctor Grant took her pulse while looking at his pocket-watch.
‘No aches or sprains?’ he asked her.
‘Nothing to write home about. Honestly. A day or two of rest and some calf’s foot jelly and I’m sure I’ll be as right as rain,’ Cress answered.
Doctor Grant carried out a gentle examination; bending both her arms at the elbow, then listening to her chest with a stethoscope.
‘If you are absolutely sure,’ the doctor placed his hand on Cress’s shoulder in a friendly and reassuring way. ‘You must have had quite a shock.’
‘It is true. it was a little jarring.’ Cress nodded and smiled weakly.
‘I saw Lord Cathcart deep in conversation with Lord Cooper as I left the dining-room so I daresay he’ll be tied up for some time. You know how they are once they get their heads together on land values?’ Dr Grant said as he got to his feet. ‘I shall call for your father’s chauffeur and have him take you home.’
‘That would be most kind. I’m sure Morrison will be in the servants’ hall playing cards as usual.’ Cress was relieved. Once the doc left the room she would have a moment to get hold of the hidden folder. But, instead, the physician lifted the receiver of the candlestick telephone on Sprocket’s desk.
‘Hello…hello. Concierge? Yes, Doctor Grant here. Would you please ask Lord Cathcart’s driver to bring the car round. Thank you.’ He hung up and sat down again to wait with his patient.
‘Reminds me of the time I fell off a horse and broke my collar-bone,’ Cress said by way of small-talk. But at that very moment she had recognised the symptoms and realised that she may have done just that.
‘I’d taken Grandpa’s horse without permission, you see, for a quick hunt. And I had fallen at a hedge. The funny thing was…,’ as she spoke the doctor turned to put his stethoscope away and Cress took a sharp intake of breath as a shaft of pain went through her, ‘because I was out without his say-so, I had to pretend there was nothing wrong. Sat at the dinner-table for days without letting on until finally it got better. No-one ever knew.’
‘There are old hunters and there are bold hunters,’ said Doctor Grant leaning back on his chair. ‘But there are no old, bold hunters, eh?’
‘Oh, you mustn’t make me laugh,’ said Cress as she tried to stop herself as another spasm of pain went through her.
There was a low tap at the door and a figure in dove-grey chauffeur’s livery walked in. Morrison; tall, reassuring Morrison, thought Cress. She would much rather have him here in a crisis, than her undoubtedly furious father.
‘Morrison; stepping into the breach as usual,’ said Cress as he made a little bow, clicking his heels together.
‘Now, now, Miss Cressida,’ said Morrison. His eye twinkled. ‘What’ve you been up to this time? I've told you before you should leave the driving to me.’
With Morrison and Doctor Grant on either side, they guided Cress through the door and into the hallway. Cress caught sight of Sprocket talking to the concierge. She halted.
‘I seem to have left my gloves in the secretary’s room,’ said Cress.
‘I can go,’ said the chauffeur.
‘That is kind of you, Morrison. But I think I must also excuse myself for a moment.’
‘Oh, I see.’ The chauffeur blushed as the penny dropped. But they also exchanged a knowing look.
‘I should have thought of it,’ said Doctor Grant, taking command of the situation. ‘There is a, um, convenience further down the hall from Sprocket’s office. On the left.’
It was the work of moments for Cress to dart back into the secretary’s empty office and kneel to grab the file and her gauntlets from under the sofa. At that moment she heard a voice ask: ‘Is everything alright, Miss?’
Cress gulped and stood up, turning to gather her thoughts.
‘Ah, Sprocket. I forgot these.’ She was brandishing her gloves and smiling. ‘Silly me.’
As she made her way out past Sprocket Cress waved her gloves in his confused face. With the other hand she held the Membership file behind her back. ‘Thank you so much for all your help. Most kind. I shall be telling my father how efficient you are here.’
Sprocket flushed with pleasure at the thought of the recommendation.
Cress spotted Detective Constable Fitzroy ‘Fitz’ Mackay as soon as she got to the gate of the park. She could see his floppy fair hair from a distance. Without making a display of seeing him, she set off towards him, hanging onto a large carpet bag.
‘The Honourable Cressida Cathcart,’ he said as Cress stopped in front of him, stuffing his handkerchief into the pocket of his Macintosh and tipping the brown fedora back off his face. ‘As I live and breathe.’
‘Lucky you are able to breathe,’ said Cress allowing Fitz to take hold of her chin in one of his large hands.
‘Doesn’t look too bad,’ he said, turning Cress’s head to examine the bruises.
‘Ouch!’ she winced. ‘It’s the bruised collar-bone that’s the bugger.’
‘When you said your father would get you into his club,’ said Fitz, shaking his head, ‘I thought you meant for lunch.’
‘Oh no,’ Cress replied with alacrity. ‘No ladies permitted. Ever. Not even for luncheon.’
As she spoke, Cress took the Membership file from her bag and held it out to Fitz.
‘Though I had intended to get flung out on the club steps. Not actually run right into the actual old hallway.’
As he took the file Fitz handed over an envelope. ‘The usual fee, plus some details of the next assignment.’
‘The Portobello Home for Waifs and Strays will be most grateful.’ She dropped the packet into her bag.
‘Remember to destroy the page once you’ve absorbed all the details. Bit of bread works wonders.’
Cress’s hand reached up to her throat at the thought of swallowing balled-up paper.
Fitz waved the file. ‘And with this we will have even more background before we get started on phase two.’
Cress looked at her shoes.
‘What is it?’ asked Fitz. ‘Oh no. No. You can’t back out now.’
‘I really didn’t think it would be so, well, so soon.’
‘But we’ve discussed it. Our sources say they plan to move this month so you have to get in, to find out who the agent is.’ Fitz was marching back and forth now, his hat in one hand, while his other ran through his hair in tense. ‘We’ll take it from there and find out what exactly they’re planning. But we need a name.’
‘Who are ‘they’, anyway?’ Cress asked with a frown.
‘The same ‘they’ who nearly obliterated the British in the trenches. The Germans. And specifically those who are unhappy about the reparations agreements. That’s who. Besides which you already agreed to go under cover.’
Fitz plunged his hands into his pockets.
‘You’re the best hope. How many young women were in Paris at the Peace Conference who also know their way round Scotland?’
‘I was only on the margins, Fitz. I was running around delivering messages. That’s all. I can’t believe I’m the only suitable person.’
‘Those are the orders I’ve been given.’
Cress chewed the inside of her cheek.
‘I don’t know, Fitz. I have no idea about going under cover, nor any clue about what a housemaid does. Servants are just there. At the end of a bell.’
‘You can’t let us down.’ He grabbed her by the arms and looked directly in her eyes.
‘Ouch. Fitz. That’s not helping.’ Cress glanced over at an elderly woman who had just come through the garden-gate, followed by a stooping butler carrying an umbrella.
‘I’m sorry.’ He let her go and took out a cigarette and lit it, flicking the match to the ground.
‘I would have to get some training or practice or something,’ said Cress eventually relenting. ‘Else it’ll be obvious from the first second that I’m a fake.’
‘Yes, yes. I’m working on that,’ Fitz paced, waving his cigarette around.‘Thing is, it’s always worked perfectly before. Proper address. Stationery. All that. In case anyone decides to check up.’
‘Why don’t you get the woman at the bureau to do this, then?’
‘Veronica’s, well, I’m afraid she’s no longer with us.’
‘Your aunt?’ Cress asked tentatively.
‘The woman who was hit by a tram? That was awful.’
Fitz jaw was set tight as he refused to meet her eye.
‘So now my cousin’s meant to start running things. I’ll have to somehow persuade her without telling her, if you see what I mean.’
‘I’ll think about it, Fitz,’ Cress sighed, feeling very tired suddenly. ‘I’ll have to get back. Can’t be late for tea or the Old Volcano will blow his top again.’
Fitz watched her back away towards the gate.
‘I’ll be in touch,’ he called out.
Cress waved and was gone.
‘Why ever would I put a stop to all this motoring nonsense?’ demanded Cress from the sofa, addressing her father who was pacing back and forth on the drawing-room rug. ‘You’d never have said that to Teddy,’ she added, sweeping her fingers gently across the purple-yellow bruise on her temple. The skin discolouration along with a savagely grazed cheek-bone and swollen top lip were all evidence of the recent accident.
At this mention of her brother her father’s shoulders slumped before Cress saw him revert to his angry composure.
‘Your brother; God rest his soul, always acted with the greatest decorum,’ said Lord Cathcart. ‘Why, he died serving his country. Along with the millions of men who lived through Hell and went to their deaths in the North Sea or the Flanders mud just so you could enjoy these freedoms you take for granted.
‘While you, you are becoming one of those damned women with a personality. Just like your mother.’
Cress reverted to her customary silence. She was a great believer in the power of the pause, allowing others to carry on talking.
‘Why must you bring shame on the family in this way? Remember our motto… ‘Nihil probare’ - Nothing to prove. Well, as far as I can see, you, my girl, still have much to prove about being a Cathcart.
‘This is all the fault of giving a girl an education,’ he said. ‘I never supported the idea of your going to a school. A governess was good enough for me. But I was persuaded otherwise and now look where we are. While you live under this roof you will take heed of what I say.’
‘If you keep on at me then I jolly well won’t be under your roof,’ said Cress. ‘I shall go to Africa. I hear Kenya’s a riot.’
Her father was fighting to keep his self-control by this stage.
‘You seem utterly unaware that with the right to your allowance comes a responsibility. To wit; appropriate behaviour. It’s high time you were reined in.’
‘But…’ Cress, sensing a pronouncement was in the offing, sat up straight and placed her cigarette-holder onto the brass ashtray next to the tea-tray.
‘My mind is made up.’ Lord Cathcart tugged sharply at his starched cuffs. ‘If you cannot act in a fitting manner I see no alternative but to begin finding a suitable mate.’
Cress felt sick.
‘That’s not fair. You said you would wait ’til I was twenty-six.’
‘Unfair? I'm afraid it is the only way I see of bringing you to heel.’
Cress threw herself back onto the cushions and folded her arms. Then a wave of nausea swept over her as this movement reminded of her bruised collar-bone. A tense silence descended on the room.
Then, Cress would never have believed it had she not heard it with her own ears, he went on: ‘You may think that it appropriate for you to be involved in running family matters; the estates and so on.’
Cress was sitting bolt-upright hanging on his every syllable, her hopes rising.
‘But it is simply not acceptable. A daughter’s duty is to secure the family position through good marriage. The less ladylike you appear then the more remote will be the chances that you can find a suitable husband.’
Cress was silenced for a moment as she digested this edict. Although her fate seemed certain in the short-term, she was astonished to hear her father had perhaps an inkling of what her potential role could be.
At the same time, Cress realised that her father’s idea of ‘suitable husband’ and her own varied enormously.
‘I suppose that means subjecting me to a round of pointless activities like flower-arranging and dress-fittings,’ Cress sighed.
Her father was about to answer when the door opened and Lady Cathcart, the second, an elegant and yet nervy woman in her thirties, entered. Behind her followed a thick-set older woman in a grey nanny’s uniform who was leading a plump toddler by the hand.
‘Oh God,’ thought Cress at the sight of her step-mother, yet managing a rictus grin which did not quite reach her eyes.
‘Come along, Jocelyn. Come and say Good Morning to Papa,’ said Lady Cathcart.
‘There he is; the Boy.’ At the sight of the child, Lord Cathcart’s face lit up.
‘Hello, Cressida,’ said Lady Cathcart, wafting past on billows of Guerlain.
Cress stood to leave, suddenly feeling like an outsider looking in to someone else’s life. But she was forced to stand and loiter, waiting to be dismissed. While he made a fuss over his young son, Cress stood half-leaning against the back of the sofa. Her eye caught the console-table which was full of silver-framed family photographs.
There was the studio-shot of young Teddy, her late brother smartly turned-out in his 51st Division officer’s uniform; Teddy on horseback, and another of him in tweeds with a broken shotgun over his arm next to his father and his shooting pals; there was the wedding day of Lord Cathcart and his second wife; a studio portrait of Lady Cathcart in pearls; Lady Cathcart’s Edwardian parents; and several of Jocelyn as a babe in christening robes held by Lady Cathcart, lying on a picnic rug, sitting on a pony.
Among them all there was only one picture of Cress from a sitting for Country Life Magazine’s ‘Girls in Pearls’ picture-feature. ‘Dog of the Week’ Teddy used to call it. Cress smiled at the memory of nudging him hard in response.
The sitting had been suggested by her mother. There were no pictures of Sylvia, the first Lady Cathcart, also known as the ‘Bolter’ after rapidly exiting her marriage. The last Cress had heard she was in Kenya. Somewhere called Happy Valley.
‘Nanny, would you?’ Her step-mother pointed to the glistening drool on her son’s chin. Nanny ran forward with a piece of muslin to mop up. Cress took advantage and swiftly lifted her photograph and placed it at the front of the table in A? prominent position.
‘Cressida, dear. I wanted to talk to you about some tuition I have organised,’ Lady Cathcart turned to her step-daughter with a bright grin.
‘I was actually just going to run down to the mews to check on Monty - to see if there is much damage. He took quite a bash when we, er, arrived at the club.’
‘You won't have any time for that ghastly motor-bicycle for the foreseeable future.’ Lady Cathcart smiled again but missed making connection with Cress's eyes. As usual, Lady Cathcart was looking over Cress’s shoulder, to see if there was something more interesting going on. She was doing it now, her gaze falling vaguely beyond Cress.
‘Just a moment.’ Lady Cathcart broke off and slipped past Cress and reached out to the side-table. She picked up the christening portrait of baby Jocelyn and placed it directly in front of Cress’s picture. ‘There. That's better. Now, remember Percival Gull?’
‘How could I forget Dull Gull?
‘If you have nothing pressing this week I have a luncheon planned.'
Cress, sighing, turned to leave. And then her step-mother added salt to the wound.
‘By the way, I have something planned to keep you busy while you're stuck indoors recuperating. That nice Miss Nash is dropping in later.’
Cress waited until she got outside the drawing-room onto the landing before leaning over the banister and groaning loudly then uttering a silent: ‘Why me?’
‘A wee bitty slower. You have it. Gliding smoothly,’ called a quavering voice.‘Hold the head high. Remain vertical from the hips up. With a moderate stride and feet pointing in a straight line. There we are. And now - turn.’
Cress, who had been made to forego her usual trousers for a dress, frowned at these directions as she attempted to walk in a straight line along the edge of the dining-room carpet. The simple act was rendered more difficult because there was a copy of ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ wobbling on her head. This, as all ladies were aware, was the sure way to keep the posture correct. Cress would rather be reading the book.
The trembling voice belonged to Miss Nash, an elderly spinster, employed in the attempt to bring Cress ‘to heel’.
‘Break her spirit’, more like, Cress thought to herself.
Miss Nash, though, could never quite get used to dealing with gentry. Although later when she regaled her mother with the tales of Young Miss Cressida, she would be sure to play the authoritarian tutor who wouldn’t put up with any nonsense.
As Cress tried to turn, the book slipped off her head. Cress caught it neatly in her hand.
‘That is certainly an improvement on last time. At least two steps without letting the book fall. Lord Cathcart will be so pleased with your progress. If you’ll just excuse me a moment.’ As she spoke Miss Nash went over to the black handbag and pulled out a handkerchief.
Cress took advantage of the pause and grabbed three oranges from a nearby fruit-bowl and began juggling with them, just as Teddy had taught her. She had just started whistling: ‘What’ll I do (…when you are far away)’.
‘Miss Cressida!’ came the shocked tones of Miss Nash spinning round. Without missing a beat, Cress calmly caught the oranges and put them back in the bowl one by one.
‘My grandmother told me once,’ said Miss Nash, ‘that a girl who whistles will never marry.’
‘Really?’ Cress asked, perking up at this news.
The tutor gathered herself.
‘And I hardly think that juggling is a suitable…,’ she searched for the word, ‘past-time for a high-born young lady.’
‘But it is for a high-born young man, is it? My brother taught me all I know about keeping my eye in.’
‘That’s as may be, Miss Cressida, but, unfortunately for you, young ladies are not free to live by the same rules as young gentlemen.’
‘I had noticed.’
‘Now. Back to work. Our next lesson is to sit down.’
‘Sit down?! I’ve been doing that since I was an infant.’
‘Sitting down gracefully is an important social skill for a lady. Watch me as I touch the back of the knees to the front of the chair, keeping the upper body erect as we lower onto the chair, back straight throughout.
‘Once seated slide to the back of the seat. Do not, I repeat, do NOT lean on the back of the chair.’ As she spoke, Miss Nash carried out the movements with perfect poise. ‘And knees together, ankles crossed to one side, sitting tall. Like so. Not sprawling like a floppy rag doll. Now, Miss Cressida. Your turn.’
Cress chucked herself unceremoniously onto an armchair, crossed her legs and stretched out for the cigarette box. She lit a cigarette and then threw the match which landed slap-bang in the centre of a brass ashtray.
‘Miss Cressida. I’m afraid I can try to teach you all the poise and grace your father wishes…’
A maid entered and stood to the side of the room.
‘Miss, there’s a telephone call for you.’
‘Saved by the bell,’ Cress said reaching over and crushing out her cigarette. ‘Who is it?’
‘The gentleman said to say it’s Uncle Angus.’
Cress became extremely still for a moment.
‘That will be all, Miss Nash,’ said Cress.
‘But,’ confusion filled Miss Nash’s face. ‘Won’t you be back?’
‘I expect not. Luncheon with my - with a friend beckons,’ Cress rose. ‘Brown will organise a car to take you home to - Morningside, I think it is, Brown.’
A short while later Cress was seated in the Edwardian glory of the Café Royal. On the other side of the white tablecloth sat a gentleman with patrician looks.
‘I’ve already told Fitz,’ Cress, said laughing. ‘I can hardly go to the Borders yet. Not after getting bashed up and everything. I have to get better. Do you see?’
‘But do you see?’ answered the gentleman in quiet tones. ‘DC Mackay has already explained to you that we are dealing with an imminent deadline. The operative is due to carry out some major plot some time next month, March. So I regret, dear girl, that there simply is no time for you to ’get better’.
‘I don’t feel like it yet.’
‘And I am certain your father does not feel like having his daughter dragged through the courts.’
Cress felt her high spirits evaporating.
‘What do you mean? That business in Paris? I told you that was all a misunderstanding. Everyone makes mistakes.
‘Besides which you said that would all be disregarded if I helped you get the file. And I did.’
‘You did, for which I thank you. But that was only the beginning of your - what shall we call it? Your atonement. Yes, that is an elegant term. Traitor, on the other hand, is rather an ugly word. And you do know, I suppose, the penalty for treason?’
Cress, the light now completely gone from her eyes, rubbed the back of her hand up and down her throat.
Cress silently lit a cigarette with shaking hands.
With the universal gesture, Uncle Angus silently requested ’the bill’ from the maitre d’.
‘I cannot possibly have anything to do with running a bureau. Ebbsolutely not,’ said Kitty Mustard, in her contorted Morningside accent.
She marched into an entrance-way off Broughton Street as Fitz followed. On the wall was white, painted lettering which said: 1st Floor, THE NEW TOWN BUREAU Domestic Services, Care of Children, Chaperonage, Shopping for the Colonies, Research Work &c.
Once they were in the office Kitty strode over to the window and pulled up the blind.
‘I mean I didn’t ask for all this,’ Fitz’s cousin frowned as she waved an arm over the room’s sparse furnishings; the desk, a pair of mismatched hard chairs, a filing-cabinet standing sentry over its unseen contents, the threadbare rug.
‘It was a big surprise. In some ways it would have made more sense for Ma to leave the business to you. You were always sitting in corners together chatting away about this and that. Weren’t you?’
As she spoke, Kitty unbuttoned her black coat and hung it on the coat stand. Underneath she wore a black mourning dress. Every item she wore was black, her thick red hair the only colour. She lifted an empty box and began packing.
‘Hold on there, Cath,’ said Fitz raising both his hands. ‘What about all those hired-hands, the staff that are on the books? I mean to say, what will you do about them?’
‘It’s not Cath any more, remember? I prefer it if you call me Kitty.’
‘You can hardly leave all those workers out in the field. Can you, Kitty?’
‘In the ‘field’, you make them sound like a herd of cows. If they’re out ‘in the field’ then they’re already in work. I suppose they’ll go to other agencies when their engagements end.
‘Besides, even if I was in the slightest bit interested, where would I start?’ Kitty poked a tottering pile of documents in the tray marked ‘In’. I never had a clue what Ma did here every day. Working her fingers to the bone.’
‘Who’ll buy my caller herrin’,’ came a fishwife’s cry, carrying up from the street.
Kitty crossed the room to look out of the window onto Broughton Street. ‘I mean to say, look at that poor woman,’ said Kitty, pointing out of the window.
‘Hm-hmm?’ queried Fitz whose attention was focused on casually flicking through the top of the stack of papers.
‘That creel of fish must weigh a ton. She’s probably only about twenty-five but she looks forty. That’s what working for a living does to a woman. And what does caller herrin’ mean, anyway?’
Then he went over and leaned against the filing-cabinet and with a finger slid open the top drawer and glanced inside.
‘Fresh herring,’ said Fitz breaking off his search to come and stand at the window to make his own assessment of the woman. ‘You must have heard Newhaven fishwives calling out their wares often enough to know what it means?’
‘Newhaven? No wonder she’s worn out,’ said Kitty. ‘More than two miles’ walk all the way up from Newhaven Harbour to the city-centre. And carrying that load on her back,’ said Kitty, shaking her head.
‘You know, a lot of people depended on your mother and her work,’ Fitz was now standing in the centre of the room, hands in pockets. ‘I’m not certain you’re taking this entirely seriously.’
‘It was such a tiny operation. I don’t think it affected that many people, did it?’
‘You have no idea how many,’ Fitz muttered under his breath.
‘No-one is taking on servants any more. They’re all in factories and shops. Mind, I hope there are maids when I’m married. Much more use to me than placing powdery chaperones.
‘I shall quite enjoy ringing a little bell and having someone come and answer my every beck and call. Better than taking down lists of shopping for Colonial wives.’ As she spoke Kitty lifted up a notebook with the title: ‘Colonies’ written across the front, She dropped the jotter into the box.
‘All the more reason for you to keep the place going, wouldn’t you say? At least then you know where to find your staff when you’ll need them.’
Kitty was going through the half-dozen books lying on top of the filing-cabinet.
‘Look - Mrs Beeton’s Hints for Housewives,’ Kitty brandished the book. ‘I remember this from house-wifing classes.
‘Listen,’ Kitty began reading aloud. ‘She says: ‘The modest virgin, the prudent wife, and the careful matron, are much more serviceable in life than petticoated philosophers, blustering heroines, or virago-queens.’ Isn’t it good?
Kitty put it and the other books into the packing box.
‘Being in an office, well, that was fine for Ma. She loved business dealings. But it won’t suit me. I mean, it’s not very alluring to a gentleman suitor for a young lady to be in trade. Is it?
‘And, I can tell you first-hand that work distracts you from your husband and children. And surely that is the main purpose for a lady’s life, don’t you think? This lady certainly knew all about it.’ Kitty tapped Mrs Beeton’s book.
‘I don’t think it is respectful towards your mother’s work,’ said Fitz. ‘She was providing security - work, I mean - for a lot of people.’ As he spoke, Fitz lifted the corner of a threadbare rug with his toe. He then pulled the entire mat back and walked across the floorboards tapping his foot as he went.
‘And isn’t all that husband-hunting just like work?’
‘It’s not funny. It’s all very well for you,’ Kitty said, sitting down hard on the desk chair. Then she almost immediately fell off it again, never having seen the swivel kind before. ‘You won’t have to find someone to support you for the rest of your life. It’s a question of survival.’
‘Only one out of ten girls can hope to marry now, you know?’
‘Are you listening, Fitz?’
‘Yes,’ Fitz was lighting a cigarette.
‘That’s what our headmistress said on Leavers’ Day: ‘The war has made more openings for women than there were before. But there will still be a lot of prejudice. You will have to fight. You will have to struggle.’ You see; fight and struggle. Just to find a husband.’
‘I think she meant in life and in work you must struggle,’ he said. ‘Look - from what Auntie Ronnie told me, it’s quite straightforward running this place. She would find situations for household staff like chaperones, ladies’ companions, all that sort of thing. And the staff would pay her a bit and the employers would pay her a bit.
‘I think it would be ideal after all those ‘home-keeping’ classes. And don’t forget - there are still bills to be paid while the office is in Aunt Ronnie’s name. Frank Mackenzie downstairs still wants his rent. Then there’s the coal-merchant. The electricity.’
Fitz handed Kitty several envelopes.
‘What are these?’ she asked, confused.
‘Oh Lord. What happens if we don’t pay?’
‘They put your, or rather your mother’s, name, in their window until the bill is paid.’ Fitz dropped the envelopes onto the desk and dusted his hands together.
‘Poor Daddy. That would do him in. I don’t think he’s ever going to get over Ma’s death.’
‘I could find some work for the bureau - while you decide what you want to do. Would cover those costs.’
‘Such as?’ Kitty asked.
‘Oh, I don’t know. You could go into training perhaps.’
‘I don’t understand, Fitz. Train someone to do what?’
‘How to be a maid. With all your housewifing classes and whatnot.’
‘I always thought they learned on the job.’
‘Oh they do, yes. I daresay. But what I have in mind is for a -,’ Fitz paused, ‘performance. And she wants it to be convincing.’
‘What are we talking about here? Country house with an army of staff? Suburban wife who wants one person to do everything?’
‘Somewhere in between.’
‘And is she a parlourmaid? Chambermaid? Lady’s maid?’
‘I’m impressed, Kitty. You see, you're a natural.’
‘Well, I did always get high marks.’ Kitty looked smug.
‘She only needs the basics - this girl, how to set a tea-tray, bed-making, blacking the hearth.’
‘The grate, Fitz, we black the grate,’ she corrected him. ‘I don’t really know. I do have quite a few socials this week.’
‘And these?’ Fitz waved the bills in Kitty’s face.
She batted them away, looking pensive.
‘Hmm, as long as it won't take long.’
‘Oh no. She's a fast learner.’
Kitty had stood up by this stage and was powdering her nose.
‘Where you off to now?’ asked Fitz.
‘I have an appointment - ‘Fight and Struggle’, Fitz. I have to put my face on.’ She applied a small amount of colour to her cheeks and held the mirror away to admire the effect. ‘Mrs Augustus Humphrey’s Art Appreciation lecture.’
‘What?’ asked Fitz.
‘Mrs Humphrey - you must have met her.’
‘That battleaxe. Is she still on the go?’
‘Oh yes. She brings together young people for their own improvement. Besides which, we all have to better ourselves in life, don’t we?’ As she spoke Kitty pulled out a string of pearls from her handbag.‘Would you mind?’
Fitz took the string and fastened it.
‘How about if I find you someone to help you with the place,’ he said, ‘just until you know what you’re going to do?’
‘I don’t have anything to pay them with.’
‘Don’t worry about that. It would be quid pro quo - in exchange for training the maid.’
‘Well, let me think about it all,’ said Kitty pulling on her coat and lowering the blind.