© Daisy Fraser
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A few minutes before it happened all seemed quite as every other day.
Inside the railings of one of Edinburgh's leafy private gardens unsuspecting nannies in small grey knots enjoyed their weekly gossip, their charges playing on the well-kept paths and lawn.
One young boy, tall in a sailor-suit threw a stick for his white Westie. 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 deep rhythmic purr of an engine drowned out the sound of horse’s hooves. A gleaming Royal Enfield motorcycle and sidecar came into view. The leather-clad driver huddled over the handlebars wearing a long flying-coat, helmet, gauntlets and goggles; a fur collar upturned against the damp hid the driver’s face.
The shining eyes of the boy in the sailor-suit followed the motorcycle as it rumbled past the park. The stick meant for the dog flew over the railings. The excited little dog scampered after it, through the wrought-iron gate and straight into the motorcycle’s path.
A horn blared. The driver swerved and the motorcycle mounted the pavement, travelled up the front steps of the Craigfield Club, narrowly missing the delivery boy and crashed on through the front door into the grand, marbled hallway.
As the motorcycle careered through the door, the hum of chatter was shattered by the engine's throb. Gentlemen jumped, or were shoved, out of the way. Then they turned in disbelief to see the ‘cycle's front wheel slam into the concierge's desk.
The impact threw the driver off the seat to land face down on the chessboard tiles of the hall floor.
Everything stopped for a second; the motorcycle engine, blowing steady steel-grey fumes into the air.
Then members came to their senses.
‘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 the helmet and goggles off, carefully avoiding the bloodied lip. A collective clamour sounded throughout the room.
'Is it-?’ asked one voice.
‘A lady?’ said another in astonishment.
‘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 bleeding lip now starting to swell, half-opened her eyes.
‘Hello, Father,’ she lisped through blood-stained teeth. Then her eyelids fluttered and closed.
Lord Cathcart's lips whitened as his jaw tightened with anger.
Cress Cathcart, her eyes still closed, heard the buzz of activity around her as she was gently lifted then lowered. Pains stabbed her chest but she gripped her lips together to avoid crying out.
She heard puffing and panting from the men carrying her, men's deep voices ebbing away as they left the foyer. Then came the noises of doors opening and closing, followed by a muffled, upholstered calm of what must be an office. Pipe-smoke hung in the air.
‘On the sofa. Over there,' a man said calmly. ‘I'm sure Doctor Grant is somewhere in the building. I saw him before in the smoking-room.’
Cress felt strong hands under her shoulders and calves placing her onto a padded surface. A blanket was draped over her, scratching 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, well, my daughter.’
She could hear the barely-hidden outrage and hardened her soul. ‘Thank Heavens he doesn’t know the rest,’ she thought.
‘Would you wait with her a moment? Lord Cathcart? Lord -?’ the voice broke off. Cress guessed her father had left the room. ‘You will be fine for a minute or two,’ the voice said kindly while patting her hand. ‘I shall fetch Doctor Grant right away.’
On the snick of the closing door, Cress's eyes snapped open. She pushed herself up and listened; nothing save the soft tick-tick of the wooden Napolean Hat clock on the mantel.
Throwing aside the blanket she stood, gasping as a spasm of pain went through her chest. Then crossing stiffly to the door, she twisted the key and turned to took in the room with its mahogany desk, fire burning in the grate, the buttoned chaise-longue and discarded blanket.
She walked over to the desk and flicked through papers on the blotting-pad. Nothing.
Cress tried the top drawer. It slid open. She searched through bottles of ink, India rubber bands, fountain pens. Not what she wanted. Working quickly, her breathing short and steady, she opened each in turn.
The deepest drawer at the base of the desk opened smoothly revealing the green metal tops of several hanging-files. Flicking through them, Cress soon saw what she was hunting for - the file marked ‘Membership’. She was just about to lift it out when the door handle rattled loudly.
‘Miss Cressida,’ called a concerned voice. ‘It's Sprocket, Club Secretary.’
‘Drat,’ Cress whispered. She snatched out the file and, limping across the room, knelt down and slid it under the sofa. Then, thinking ahead, she threw her motorcycle gauntlets after it.
‘I'm so sorry,’ she said in a feeble voice, as Sprocket entered the room. He reminded Cress of a mole; bright black eyes behind spectacles perched on a pointy nose. ‘I felt a little anxious when I came round and no-one was here.’ As she spoke Cress teetered. Sprocket sprang forward to steer her to a chair.
‘Not at all, Miss Cressida,' said Sprocket kindly. ‘Here is Doctor Grant come to check you over.’ The doctor, a large man with a heavy beard, wearing an Inverness cape, bowled in and placed a wooden box marked with a red cross onto the desk. He walked straight over to Cress and pulled up a chair.
‘I shall leave you to it,’ Sprocket said, bending to lock the drawers of his desk. After making a shallow bow he left.
‘I hate to make a fuss. I really do feel so much better already,’ said Cress.
‘No aches or sprains?’ Doctor Grant took her pulse while looking at his pocket-watch.
‘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.
‘It is very nourishing broth, they say,’ the doctor pointed out. ‘Can’t stand it myself. Much prefer a stiff brandy. But I wouldn't prescribe that to you.’
Cress was longing for a stiff drop of something but she said nothing.
Doctor Grant checked her over, then listened to her chest with the stethoscope he had taken from the wooden box.
‘You must have had quite a shock.'
‘It was a little jarring.' Cress nodded and smiled as brightly as she could.
‘Shall I call for your father's chauffeur and have him take you home?’
‘That would be kind.' Cress was relieved. Once he left she would get hold of the hidden folder. But, instead of leaving the room, Dr Grant lifted the telephone receiver.
‘Hello…hello. Concierge? Would you please ask Lord Cathcart’s driver to bring the car round. Thank you.’ He hung up and sat down again to wait.
‘Reminds me of the time I fell off a horse and broke my collar-bone,’ Cress said to fill the silence. ‘I’d taken Grandpa’s horse without permission, you see. And I fell at a hedge. Thing was…,’ as she spoke the doctor turned to put the stethoscope away, ‘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 in his chair. ‘But there are no old, bold hunters, eh?’
‘You mustn’t make me laugh.’
There was a low tap at the door and a figure in dove-grey chauffeur’s livery entered.
‘Morrison; stepping into the breach as usual,’ said Cress as the driver made a little bow.
A few moments later, with Morrison and Doctor Grant on either side of her, Cress was guided through the hallway. She caught sight of Sprocket talking to the concierge.
‘I seem to have left my gloves in the secretary’s room,’ said Cress, realising this was her only chance.
‘I can go.’
‘That is kind of you, Morrison. But I think I must also excuse myself for a moment.’
‘I should have thought of it,’ said Doctor Grant. ‘There is a convenience along from Sprocket’s office. On the left-hand side.’
It was the work of moments for Cress to dart back into the secretary’s empty office, grab the file and her gauntlets from under the sofa.
‘Is everything alright, Miss?’
Cress gulped at the sound of Sprocket’s voice. She slowly stood, gathering her thoughts.
‘I forgot these.’ She was waving her gauntlets and now smiling.
Making her way out past the secretary, she fluttered her gloves in his mole-face. There was no option but to hold the stolen file behind her back and hope he didn’t notice. ‘I shall tell my father how efficient you are.’
Sprocket flushed at the thought of the recommendation.
A short while later, clutching a carpet bag, Cress found the address on Broughton Street. She looked closely at the painted lettering advertising: THE NEW TOWN BUREAU Domestic Services, Care of Children, Chaperonage, Shopping for the Colonies, Research Work &c. 3rd Floor.
At the first floor she stopped at a glazed door and knocked. She heard footsteps ring on the bare wooden floor and the door was flung open.
‘The Honourable Cressida Cathcart, as I live and breathe,’ said a sandy-haired young man, still wearing his Macintosh.
‘Lucky you are able to breathe,’ said Cress allowing DC Fitz Mackay to take hold of her chin in one of his large hands.
‘Doesn’t look too bad,’ he said, turning her head and peering at the injuries.
‘Ouch.’ Cress winced. ‘It’s the bruised collar-bone that's the bugger. Let me in, Fitz, would you?’
‘When you said your father would get you into his club,’ said Fitz, stepping aside to let her pass, ‘I thought you meant for lunch.’
‘No ladies permitted. Ever. Not even for luncheon.’
Cress spotted a fly-blown mirror hanging behind the door and went closer to look at the damage. She knitted her brows at the sight of her puffy lip, the purple bruise on her temple, and savagely grazed cheek-bone. Though she would be the first to admit that there was definitely more cheek than bone. She glanced at the violet eyes and the black hair she’d inherited from her mother with no interest.
‘So this is where you plot and plan,’ said Cress to Fitz as she turned to cast her eye round the room. She took in the sparse furniture; a desk of papers and candlestick telephone, a steel filing cabinet, one wooden chair and a round metal stool which looked as if when you turned it the seat would rise or lower.
Cress watched as Fitz locked the door she had just come through then lifted the mirror away from the wall and took out a key from behind it. He crossed the room towards another door in the wall near the window which Cress knew was an Edinburgh press.
Unlocked and pulled the door open wide. Inside Cress could see were five or six shallow shelves. The shelves were filled with a selection of books, a stack of tea-towels, a set of four cups and saucers with a milk jug next to them, and other bits of office flotsam and jetsam.
As she watched him, open-mouthed, Fitz reached in and took hold of the second shelf and pulled. The whole interior of the cupboard shifted and, just like another door, swivelled out on its hinges revealing a wall. Fitz pushed on the wall and it gave way, swinging away from him. He then walked through the new doorway.
‘Bring your bag,’ he called out to her.
Doing as she told she went back to pick up the carpet bag and followed him. She found herself standing inside another, smaller room - an office where she placed her bag on a side-table while Fitz switched on the lights. The room was dark due to the blind drawn over the windows.
The room contained a large roll-top desk with its lid down, another filing cabinet, and couple of chairs and looked like a messy office with dusty papers and files on every surface. Not in fact unlike the room next door.
Fitz gently pulled the secret doors closed behind Cress then went to the desk which he unlocked before rolling the lid up and out of the way. Inside was a mess of files, papers and notebooks.
He leaned over and took hold of a paper at each end of the mess and stepped back. With him came the whole collection of documents which lifted up in one piece, revealing the completely empty desk-top.
‘Hand me that, would you, please,’ said Fitz pointing to a ratchet-like bar similar to those used to change the height of a tennis net. She handed it to him and he placed it into a slot on the side of the desk and began to turn.
The edge of the table-top slowly started to lift and turned over 180 degrees. Attached to the underside appeared various pieces of up-to-date office equipment; a modern typewriter with the name ‘Corona’ along the bar, a telegraph machine and a square telephone.
‘My goodness. How impressive,’ said Cress, taking the Craigfield Membership file from her bag and holding it out to Fitz who took it from her.
‘I had intended to get flung out on the club steps,’ said Cress. ‘Not actually run right into the jolly old hallway.’
As he took the file Fitz handed over an envelope. ‘The usual fee.’
‘The Portobello Home for Waifs and Strays will be most grateful.' She dropped the packet into the bag.
Fitz waved the file. ‘And with this, is the first piece of the jigsaw.’
He opened the file and placed it on a table in the middle of the room. He ran his finger down the list of names on the first page.
‘Morton, Morton. That’s our tip-off - man name of Morton at The Craigfield is our target. This is the quickest way to find his address.’
Fitz carried on searching, turning the pages faster and faster until he finally ran out of pages. He immediately went back to the first page.
‘It has to be here. I’m sure of it.’
Eventually after checking three times Fitz slammed the file shut, picked it up and hurled it across the room. Hitting the wall pages showered the floor.
‘Fitz!’ Cress walked over to gather up the spilt pages. She sat down with the bundle on her lap and started to put them in order as she cast her eye over each page.
‘It’s no use,’ said Fitz. ‘You saw me look through it. I don’t understand. Maybe it’s a different club.’
‘It’s not a name.’
‘What do you mean? Of course it’s a name,’ said Fitz, rolling his eyes in exasperation and flapping his arms about.
‘Yes it is a name, but not of a person. It’s the name of a house. Look.’
Fitz flew across to look at the page she was holding out to him.
‘Morton House!’ You little wonder,’ Fitz laughing, lifted Cress’s face by the chin. ‘You bloody little wonder. Now, where is this house?’
He peered at the page. ‘Near Melrose.’
‘The Borders - that should make a nice trip away for someone,’ said Cress.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Fitz.
Cress said nothing but got up and started looking through her bag.
‘Oh no. No. You can't back out now,’ he said, arms open wide.
‘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. ‘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 undercover. ‘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 around Scotland?’
‘I don’t see what that has to do with it. I was only on the margins, Fitz - just running around delivering messages with other Girl Guides. 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 undercover, nor any clue about what a housemaid does. Servants are just there. At the end of a bell.’
‘You can’t let everyone down.’ He grabbed her by the arms and looked directly in her eyes.
‘Ouch. Fitz, that’s not helping.’
‘I’m sorry.’ He let her go and took out a cigarette and lit it with a match.
‘What would it entail?’
‘You mean an undercover domestic?’
‘It’s worked before - with this place as the address, proper stationery. All that. In case anyone decides to check up.’
‘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.’
‘Who used to do it?’
‘Veronica Mackay - the, um, former owner.’
‘The woman who was hit by a tram? That was awful.’
Fitz jaw was set tight as he refused to meet her eye.
‘I’ll think about it all, Fitz. Really I will,’ 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.’
Cress let herself into the imposing townhouse on Abercromby Place. She quietly closed the front door behind her and stood in the panelled hall, listening.
As she made her way stealthily up the stairs and along the first-floor landing past the library and the drawing-room, she could hear nothing but the faint clatter from the basement kitchen. The absence of his fulminating tones meant either her father was out or, more likely, he had taken refuge in his study and was sulking.
Cress recalled the last ‘discussion’ after she had disgraced the family in her father’s opinion.
‘Why ever would I put a stop to all this motoring nonsense? You'd've never said that to Teddy.
‘Your brother; God rest his soul, always acted with the greatest decorum. Why, he died serving his country. Along with the other millions of men who lived through Hell and went to their deaths in the North Sea or the Flanders mud.
‘You, you are becoming one of those damned women with a personality. Just like your mother. Remember our motto - Nihil probare - Nothing to prove. Well, you, my girl, still have much to prove about being a Cathcart.
‘If you keep on at me then I jolly well won't be under your roof,' said Cress. ‘I hear Kenya's a riot.’
And on it would go, round and round, until her father had to resort to his usual threat of finding her husband. At which point Cress, her throat constricting at the thought of losing her freedom, would somehow escape.
Now on the second floor of the house where the family bedrooms were. Sun streamed down from the cupola and her spirits rose as she thought about ordering a comforting tray of tea with some of Cook’s fresh scones.
Suddenly the door to the nursery floor flew open and Cress was met with the sight of her step-mother. After her came a square woman dressed in nanny uniform carrying a plump little boy.
‘Ah, Cressida. Just in time for tea. Come along,’ said Lady Cathcart, not waiting for any response.
Cress's heart sank and she had no choice other than to turn and follow the threesome back downstairs.