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Cotton Fields

Chapter Text

Alec walked into the pub, blinking his eyes in the glare of electric lights and clouds of cigarette smoke.

The bartender, who was drafting beer, raised his hand. 'Blimey, Licky,‘ he roared. 'Yer still alive? Ye got us all thinkin' you’d gone to the Argentine after all.‘

'And good evening to you, milord,’ Alec grinned. ‘Had to get some things sorted. But I’m here now to spend some of me hard-earned pennies on your horse piss.’

‘First one’s on the 'ouse,’ the bartender promised. ‘To celebrate that yer back, son.'

A little later, Alec was sitting at the bar, contentendly sipping watered-down beer and joining in the gossip from the other men present. They all shook their heads at the idea that that Austrian bastard with the bogbrush mustache might expand his empire. But still, any move from the Continent would surely turn the good boys from Britain into cannon fodder again. Back home, their wives were complaining about the staggering food prices. Many men had fled their families for a few hours now to drink and to pretend things had not changed. Shillings and pennies, secretly saved from the weekly dole, were spent on beer here. Yes, that would mean a few slices of bread less for their loved ones, but by God, women and children never understood what a man needed.

'You´re still doin'good, I recken,´ one feller said to Alec. 'New suit and shirt and tie an´ all. Give us a round, ye can 'ford it.'

Alec only had some change on him for a railway ticket, a meal of fish and chips and three or four pints. Carrying more money in quarters like these was asking for trouble.

He and Maurice had lived in a semi-detached house in Reading for years now. Alec was on his lover´s payroll as an assistant. The very word sounded grand. All he had to do was take care of Maurice´s wardrobe, cook the meals, wash and polish the car and type some business letters. He could still afford factory-made cigarettes and second-class train rides. This job was the best one he´d had so far. He loved Maurice all the more for it.

In order to fool the tax man or any nosy pig who might turn up on their doorstep, they had separate rooms. But of course, they always shared a bed, which was delicious.

Whenever Maurice was away from home, travelling the Continent or America for business, Alec would always return to this street in Walthamstow where the pubs provided some distraction from boredom. As Maurice´s employee, he had taught himself clear, impeccable English by reading snotty newspapers and listening to the wireless in his leisure time.

He had even taken to dressing like a modest Londoner. Many men with a background like his own wore checkered jackets and velvet waistcoats in clashing colours, showing that they had dough and were willing to spend it. The middle class youngsters who claimed to have a heart for the working masses consequently dressed in short woollen overcoats, knitted scarves and caps. Of course, they dropped their h´s, driving their parents to despair. Alec didn´t want to be like the former or the latter. He was Alec Scudder, a man who had left school at fourteen to start work, but also a war veteran who earned good wages in spite of the bad times, which was not lost on his mates.

'Yer a bleedin´ miser, denyin' us what´s rightfully ours,' a man complained. 'Come on, one pint of horse piss for each of us ain't gonna kill ye, son.'

'Nah,' Alec shrugged. 'I don´t keep a tab here and I need bus fare to get back to the station.'

There were roars of laughter, followed by good-humoured insults which made him grin, while he hid his idée-fixe that he was not like them, or rather no longer like them. They liked him, but they also despised him for having risen above their ranks.

I´ll finish this glass and then I´m off to the Stone and Chisel, he thought, looking around if there was a table he could move to.

The pub was full of men and young girls talking loudly and smoking and playing cards. For some odd reason, a dark corner of the room stood out. He detected the silhouette of a woman there, dressed in a thick coat and still wearing her hat as if it were bleeding winter. No one else was sitting at her table and she was absorbed in a newspaper.

He could see her lift a teacup to her lips. There was no pot.

'Never seen her around,' he whispered to the bartender. 'Who is she?'

'Dunno,‘ was the answer. 'She came in at three and she’s only had two cups of tea. Must be one of them tarts looking for a warm place to stay until it’s time to roam the streets again.’

Alec checked the wristwatch that Maurice had bought him in Geneva long ago. It was going on nine o’clock now. The woman must be poor and hungry. He jumped off the stool and straightened his tie. ‘Check the bird out if you must,’ his friend cackled. 'But don’t come to me complaining if you find she’s nicked yer precious lil’ Swiss timepiece, mate.‘

He walked up to her table and, as she did not look up from her newspaper, discreetly cleared his throat. 'Pardon me, Miss,‘ he said softly. 'This chair taken?‘

Their eyes met. Hers were light-brown with a faint greenish glow. The brim of her worn hat did little to conceal the bruise on her forehead. The first look she gave him was full of panic and revulsion. Then her chapped lips slowly curled into a smile. ‘Please join me,’ she murmured. ‘I’d be delighted.’

He sat down, introduced himself and asked her if she would have a drink with him. She chose tea. ‘Anything with it?’ he offered, doubting if sandwiches could still be ordered at this hour. She shook her head. ‘No, thank you. Tea would be lovely.’  

As he sat opposite her, sipping his second glass of beer while she took pains not to gulp down her drink too hastily, the few words she spoke hit him like gunfire. Her speech was neat and clipped, not like that of a woman pretending to be more than she was, but of a lady of modest means. Her overcoat, once a glorious fashion item from before the onset oft he Great Depression but shabby and threadbare now, accounted for it as well. She wore no rings on her fingers. A well-known trick used by married women who supplemented their husbands‘ dwindling wages by selling themselves.

'What’s yer name, sweet?‘ Alec asked her.

He had done this countless times before. Girls that had been kicked out of their parents’ homes for meeting lads who were not of the same faith, chorus dancers who had lost their jobs at music halls, tarts fleeing from their abusive pimps. On a few occasions, he had pitied these lost souls and bought them meals and paid for a night at a boarding house. He could not do this now. In fact, it was too dangerous for him to be seen in a place like this. Maurice would be furious if he found out. But Maurice was not at home anyroad. He had left in his car that morning to visit some friends of his in the countryside.

‘My name is…er…Bella,’ the lady said sweetly. ‘Bella Briggs.’

‘And I’m Alec, as you know,‘ he smiled, determined not to relapse into East-London dialect again. 'Have you anywhere to go…Miss?’ Women like her did not want to be reminded of their married state.

‘I’m afraid not,’ he heard. As his money was running out, he decided to take her home with him. Maurice would rage like a bull if he found out, but then again, the master had taken off in his shiny Daimler and would not return for days.

Bella accepted with suppressed glee. He could tell from the glow in her eyes how happy she was to have finally found a suitor for the night.

 

Chapter Text

Clive was sitting on a sofa at the bay window, smoking and straightening his hair and flicking specks of dust from his suit and constantly rearranging cushions.

Tony was reclining in a comfortable chair next tot he fireplace, unable to enjoy the wicked daydreams he had cherished for some time now because his lover’s nervous state was contagious.

‘Stop fidgeting, Clive,’ he snapped. ‘You’re driving me mad.’

‘Oh please, don’t worry,’ Clive laughed. Typical, Tony thought. He’s going on forty-eight and I’m only thirty-four, so why would he listen to me?

He closed his eyes and conjured the vision that had grown so dear to him. They were expecting a guest who was due to arrive shortly. A man who would telephone from the railway station asking humbly if he could be picked up. A fellow in dire straits, barely scraping by on his meagre office clerk’s wages who would enter the premises of Hetton Abbey like a tourist – full of admiration, slightly envious, annoyingly polite like a servant placating his master after accidentally breaking an antique china dish. The man would turn up in his Sunday best, a tweed suit patched at the elbows and elaborately polished boots with cracks in the leather showing. He would be more than pleased to stay in Avalon, a room in a deserted wing of the house. The electric wiring had become a death trap after a leakage and he would have to walk down three hallways to he next lavatory. But to a poor sod like him, it would still feel like heaven.

‘Well, I believe he’s here,’ Clive said as the faint rumbling of a car engine could be heard outside and Tony froze. Ambrose, the butler, came in and asked if the gentlemen needed him.

‘No, thank you,’ Clive smiled. ‘Mr. Last and I can manage.‘ Damn you, Tony thought, Ambrose is in my service, not yours.

It was Clive who opened the front door, letting in a startling beam of afternoon sunlight. Tony followed and blinked at what had materialized on the vast drive of his mansion.

It was an enormous car, albeit a two-seater, sparkling with pearl-grey paint and chrome, of a German make and fitted with a more powerful engine than any previously designed motorvehicle.

Presently, the driver got out and looked around, blinded by the light and then by Clive’s mesmerized gaze. The man had manners, for he quickly shed his black leather gloves and addressed Tony, the host and the lord of the manor, first. ‘Good afternoon, Mr. Last,’ he said in a summerlike baritone voice. ‘How wonderful to meet you! It’s an honour to be invited to your beautiful mansion.‘ As they shook hands, Tony looked into a pair of deep-set dark-grey eyes framed in gold-rimmed spectacles. ‘Well, the pleasure is all mine, Mr. Hall,’ the host said. Clive laughed and remarked that only first names were appropriate, calling the guest Maurice and embracing him warmly.

A little later, tea and refreshments were served in the drawing-room. Tony watched Maurice take dainty bites from sandwiches and gingerly lift a china cup to his lips. The man was about six feet tall, broad-shouldered and dressed in a navy-blue tweed suit with a poppy on the lapels. Pocket watches had gone out of fashion after the war, but he still had one, its modest gold chain barely visible on his waistcoat. A veteran who had bravely led his cavalry troop into a decisive battle as a lieutenant at Arras. A man who deserved respect and who had good taste. Tony abhorred wristwatches.

So this was Maurice Hall from Reading, who had been Clive’s best friend in their days at Cambridge. A rather shady person. He never got a university degree, but he had risen to wealth, or else he would have travelled down by train. Perhaps he had borrowed the car to impress Clive. He need not have done that.

Tony now let his eyes wander to his lover, who was sitting on the edge of his chair, talking and laughing with rosy cheeks and crumbling biscuits and spilling ashes. He and his college chum were now exchanging memories of the good old days. Their stay in Italy in 1911 for instance. ‘You may not know this,‘ Maurice said to Tony as he slowly filled an ebony pipe with tobacco. ‚But Clive and I shared a room in Florence. It was divided into two cubicles with a bed in each of them…We thought this wonderful at first, but after the first night, we found out that the wall was paper thin…I’d never known until then I was a loud sleeper. Clive took to nicknaming me Snorice after that…Oh, how I suffered!’

All three of them burst out laughing. Well, the man has got a sense of humour, Tony thought. He’s nice, so I have no choice but to accept him. My goodness, why isn’t he plain and scantily dressed and unkempt and ugly? I could easily have turned him out with a white lie then.

In between peals of laughter, Clive coughed. He pressed a handkerchief to his mouth. Tony cast him a worried look. His lover was prone to chest infections, a remnant of the war. Maurice put down his pipe and fixed Clive with an equally apprehensive gaze. ‚I say, old sport, are you all right?‘ he asked softly. Clive nodded and drew a few shuddering breaths. Then he rose and took a thin cedar stick from a box on the mantelpiece and held it in the fire. When it was burning, he handed it to Maurice, who thanked him with a nod and then lit his pipe. While smells of fragrant harvest season afternoons filled the room, Tony watched the guest again, feeling that the circle had closed at last.

Old sport. Maurice must have taken that from The Great Gatsby. Yes, you look like how I picture myself in about fifteen years, Tony thought, with darkened blond hair and grown heavy from living lavishly after wartime poverty, and my greatest fear has been that I could never be you. But I’m not, thank heavens.

This idea grew stronger as the day wore on and they had a stroll in the park and supper in the dining-room after that. Maurice told stories about his business trips to the Continent, painting lovely pictures of the wine areas along the Rhine and the Moselle and pronouncing the name of every town in impeccable German.

When the guest got to the visits he’d made to various cities in America, from Pittsburgh down to Savannah, Tony could not but smile with satisfaction at the man’s implicit revelations.

The world’s greatest nation was under prohibition and Maurice knew much about wine and spirits. He had obviously risen to staggering wealth by doing illicit business, because the restrictions had only caused counterfeit distilleries overseas to flourish. So that was it. Maurice Hall from Reading spoke German fluently and he drove a Daimler. He must be a mobster and a spy. This man was a picture-perfect version of Jay Gatsby.

It was Clive who lit a fuse over after-dinner coffee by ordering the maid to move Mr. Hall’s luggage from Avalon to Brussels.

This room was sternly furnished and had a wireless, a telephone extension and an ensuite bathroom. When Tony was still married to Brenda, it was she who had decided to name it after the capital of Belgium, a city they had both deemed tasteless for the way it tried to copy Paris and for how it only showed a Low-Country dullness. It had been a lasting joke between him and her whenever they were expecting a guest who was too honourable to be banished to an abandoned wing and too unremarkable to qualify for a stay in a luxurious room like Asgard or Galahad.

 

Chapter Text

Tony was the first to retire, claiming he was rather tired. He bid the two other men goodnight and went to his room. Since he had taken to sharing a bed with Clive, they both slept naked so as not to lose any time whenever they felt like making love. Not tonight, Tony thought, and so he put on pyjamas and crawled into bed.

Tossing and turning between the sheets that smelled so alluringly of Clive, a blend of spicy sweat and salty fluids and shaving lotion, he kept remembering passages from Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. I’m on to you, Mr. Hall, he thought. Just like that tycoon, you rose from rags to riches with the sole objective to finally conquer your Daisy Buchanan.

Clive has been paralyzed with happiness all evening, as if he hadn’t seen you in years, whereas you visited him on Pendersleigh not long ago.

Clive Buchanan. It has a ring to it. Who am I? Myrtle Wilson? I hope not. Oh, Clive, I could strangle you now for falling into this trap so dim-wittedly. But what could I expect? My lover stems from a patrician family with only a few drops of blue blood from his maternal great- grandmother, a baroness. My lineage is far better than his, for I am a nobleman whose female relatives made their débuts at court before the war. I nearly lost Hetton Abbey but it’s mine again, thanks to Clive’s unrelenting actions in court. I am the king of this castle. Whoever disagrees is very welcome to pack his bags and leave.

It was well after midnight when he woke up to familiar movements. He was lying on his side and felt Clive slide under the sheets and crawl up to him, soft and naked and smelling of tooth powder and shaving lotion. Tony cringed as Clive’s hard member brushed his lower back. ‘What’s this now?’ he heard. ‘Take off those rags, will you?‘

‚Leave me alone,‘ Tony murmured. He lay awake until dawn, listening to Clive’s regular breathing and watching the lace curtains move softly in the breeze that came in through the window.

***

Alec knocked softly on the door of his own bedroom. ‘Come in!’ he heard.

He walked in, juggling a tray with a teapot, a cup and a plate of dry toast. ‘Good morning, dear,’ he smiled. ‘Did you sleep well?’

Only when he had put Bella’s breakfast on the nightstand did he dare to look at her. She was leaning in the pillows with the blankets drawn up to her chin. Since she had arrived with no clothes except the ones she was wearing, he had given her an old undershirt and a pair of long johns of Maurice’s the previous night. These clean things had been in a box that was supposed to go to the Salvation Army. Luckily, he and Maurice had forgotten about this, or else Bella would have had nothing to wear in bed. Maurice was a large man, so it was not surprising that the shirt sleeves slid back when she held out her hands to accept a cup of tea.

Her forearms were covered in fresh scars, bruises and round, red spots he recognized as cigarette burns. He gasped. ‚Who did this to you, love?’ he asked.

‘My landlord,’ she answered calmly. You’re lying, poor thing, he thought. It was your husband. Oh, not only him. Some customers of yours who took out their anger on you.

‘You should call the police on him,’ Alec said as he sat down in a chair next to the bed, seething with suppressed anger.

Bella shook her head in panic. ‘No, I couldn’t,’ she whispered. ‘It would only cause more trouble.’

‘Did he evict you?’ Alec asked. She shook her head again and then nodded. So it wasn’t your landlord, he thought.

Minutes passed in silence. Alec wrecked his brain to look for a solution. He could not let her stay here. If she was reported missing, the police would look for her. It would be best to send her away this afternoon. There was enough money in the safe downstairs to get her a railway ticket and plenty of meals at station buffets and new clothes. The very idea was beastly. He had seen her walk with difficulty, weak from exhaustion, despair and probably malnutrition. What she needed was a place far away from London where she could rest until all the bad things had blown over. It left him clueless.

‘Is your maid up yet?’ he then heard. He looked at her and saw her smile at him. Whatever had happened to her had not fully stripped her of her ladylike nature.

‘There is no maid,’ he grinned awkwardly. ‘I am one, in a way…My master is out visiting friends in the country.’

Now she blushed and told him she had assumed that this house was his and that he had servants. She went crimson when he offered to clean her dress. Its once navy-blue wool had faded to a shade of greyish purple. She had put it out to air from a hanger on his wardrobe, but even from where he was sitting he could detect the musty smell that came from it. ‘It’s no trouble at all, love,’ he said, dispensing with polite words to point out that he was used to servants’ work. ‘I wash Maurice’s underthings too, you know. He won’t have them cleaned by a laundry service, so I get to do it.’

She raised her eyebrows in disbelief. He scolded himself inwardly for spilling his beans by mentioning his master’s first name. ‘Maurice Hall is my employer,’ he then said. ‘And…he and I live together in his house. I mean, really live together…I slept in his room last night so you could have mine.’

Her eyes went cold with revulsion. She drew a few shuddering breaths. ‘I’m sorry, love,’ he smiled. ‘I thought you would have guessed as much by now.’

To  spare her any further embarrassment, he quickly took the dress and the stockings she had hung over a chair and left the room.

He went to the pantry and rubbed the skirt with some cold water and a few drops of vinegar. When he rinsed the sponge under the tap, the water ran rusty brown. It must be blood. A women’s thing. He wondered if she was in pain, apart from the sufferings caused by some nameless wankers. Her stockings smelled of old cheese. He rinsed and rinsed and wrung and when he was done, he hung them over a kitchen chair next to the dress in front of the radiator to dry.

He was about to make himself some breakfast when the telephone rang in the room behind the lounge that served as Maurice’s home office. It’s bloody Sunday morning, he thought, but then again, pigs are always on duty. ‘Hall residence, Scudder speaking,’ he said into the receiver. The voice on the other end of the wire calmed him instantly. ‘Good morning, love.’

‘Blimey, Maurice!’ Alec grinned. ‚You‘re up early…Not going to church, are ye? Ha ha ha…Did you have a good trip? Car all right…? That’s grand…Anyone with you now…? What, a bedside telephone? Yer a snotty one, darling…So how are things on stinking old Pendersleigh…? What…? Hetton Abbey…? Yeah, I heard of it, the owner got eaten up by missionaries in Peru or the likes…What…? Durham, that miserable old bastard, living there? Come on now, Maurice, that’s rubbish…Lord Anthony Last…? So he didn’t end up as some clergyman’s tea in the jungle then…Are you daft? Of course I don’t believe you, that’s a cinema story…Oh well, fair enough…Come again…? Not in a million years, mate…Mr. Durham did not save me from prosecution, his friend Bingham-Wylde from the Old Bailey did…I sent him a thank-you letter, that should be enough…No, I’m not coming down to pay my respect, why should I…? This afternoon? I told you, I won’t…couldn’t make it anyroad, I’m fixing something here…You promised Durham I’d come…? Well, that does it…You and I are going to have a serious talk when you get back, mate…I’ll wire you then…Yes, I will, but on my terms…Fair enough, love, you run along to the breakfast table then and I’ll get back to me washing…Yes, on Sunday morning, why would you care…? Well, bye for now.’

 

Chapter Text

The maid served the gentlemen fried eggs, rashers, kidneys, toast and jam and poured them large cups of coffee. When she left the morning room, Tony felt a leaden blanket descend upon him. He was alone with Clive and Maurice now.

Hetton Abbey had turned into a middle-class house in a matter of hours. The previous night, the two other men had spent ages talking in the drawing-room. Clive had sprung the outcome of their conversation on Tony before breakfast. Alec Scudder, who had once been in Clive’s service as a gamekeeper on Pendersleigh and who had become Maurice’s lover after that, would come to visit. Clive had relayed an invitation to him without consulting Tony first.

Maurice had deemed it proper for Scudder to come and thank Clive in person for the help he’d offered in a matter that would otherwise have become a court case.

Tony clung to his own reluctance. Scudder was technically a servant, so he would not object to staying in a spare staff room in the attic. Clive, however, had insisted that this man share a bed with Maurice in Brussels. It would not have mattered all that much had the new guest been of the same standing as the host. Having a servant sleep in a place designed for passing gentry was the largest faux pas imaginable.

Maurice’s presence made it impossible for Tony to lay down the law on Clive. However, Tony would not relent until he saw Scudder safely installed in a room in the attic.

‘What a lovely morning,’ Clive said when they were having after-breakfast coffee on the back porch, wearing their overcoats. ‘It’s still cold, but spring’s a-coming.’

The daffodils and the hyacinths were blooming abundantly in the garden. The wind carried their perfume everywhere. Yes, this was not a day to stay inside.

‘Why don’t you take Tony for a ride in your car?’ Clive suggested to Maurice. ‘I’d like to get some correspondence done before luncheon.’ It sounded like: go out and play in the garden, Daddy has some important things to do.

‘A splendid idea,’ Maurice said. ‘Oh, Tony, I would truly be honoured if you came with me. I’m afraid I haven’t seen much of Hertfordshire until now…You could show me the sights.’

‘It would be my pleasure,’ Tony smiled. ‘If only to get a feel of marvelous German engineering. I know next to nothing about cars.’

Clive’s sweet laughter stressed this fact. Tony owned a T-Ford which he drove with despairing caution, turning corners gingerly and getting palpitations at the mere sight of a distant cyclist. Clive himself, ever so clumsy on horseback, mastered his own sporty Sunbeam tourer like a professional. It was one of the many things that made him so alluring.

Feeling lost, Tony followed Maurice to the garage and waited until the gardener had opened the doors. ‘Top down?’ Maurice asked, grinning wickedly at Tony’s dumbfounded look. ‘Of course not, we’d catch our deaths.’

A little later, they were slowly rolling towards the main gate. The walnut-paneled dashboard was a maze of buttons, levers and gages. There was even a radio, a very rare thing in Europe. Maurice kept one hand on the wheel and fiddled with the other. Presently the car was filled with ragtime tunes. They had left Hetton Park by now and the driver gently pushed the pedal. ‘Ima take the train to Georgia, to the place were I was born,’ he crooned along with a song. ‘Cotton fields be waitin’, oh Lord, I’m comin’ home.’ His baritone voice was pleasant and he sang with an alluring Southern drawl.

Tony alternately watched the landscape the man at the wheel, the contours of his face with the long eyelashes behind the spectacles and the nobly shaped nose and the slightly parted lips.

The windows were closed and the interior breathed smells of shaving lotion, peppermint and pipe tobacco. Rows of houses sped by, then cottages and fields, and after that, pinewood forests.

‘I’d like to smoke now if you don’t mind,’ Maurice said. ‘Would you know of a spot where we can take our despicable habit outside?’ Tony pointed to a side road and Maurice swerved into it with one motion of the steering wheel. They hobbled on over an unpaved track until they found a clearing. Tony was the first to get out, aching to fill his lungs with fresh air.

'Blast,‘ Maurice growled, rummaging through the glove box. ‘No matches…Well, no pipe then.‘ He got out and closed the door. ‚Please have one of these,’ Tony offered, holding up his gilded cigarette case. ‘Most kind of you, old sport,’ Maurice said warmly. They lit up using Tony’s fuel lighter and then strolled away from the car.

‘Clive has a wonderful sense of things,’ Maurice remarked when they had reached a path that led into the woods. ‘He knows that my staying at Hetton Abbey is distressing to you, Tony, so he suggested that you and I go out without him. He wants us to get to know one another better, I presume.’ His eyes behind the spectacles glistened. ‘Please don’t deny that you’d rather see me vanish into thin air…But never you worry, I shan’t outstay my welcome. As soon as Scudder has had an audience with his benefactor, he and I will go back to Reading.’

Don’t go, a voice in Tony said. He masked this by asking if Scudder was all right now. True to his profession, Clive had barely disclosed what had happened to his former gamekeeper.

Tony and Maurice had stopped near a pile of freshly sawn logs to light cigarettes. ‘I was visiting business associates in Duisburg at the time,’ Maurice said. ‘I can only relate what Alec told me.’

Tony now heard how Alec had been caught by the police while he was walking two young men to a bus stop in Walthamstow. These two wanted to spend the night together, but the police had attacked them and Alec had pleaded with the servants of the law not to hurt his friends, which had gotten him arrested as well.

Maurice was smiling sourly now. ‘Can the leopard change its spots?’ he went on. ‘I’ve warned Alec for years not to frequent conspicuous places, but to no avail…When I’m not around, he gets bored and takes the train to London to ‘ave a pint wi’ ‘is mates.’

Tony laughed. Maurice mimicked the East End dialect splendidly. And in spite of the sad tale he had just told, he was smiling again. It made him unexpectedly handsome.

I never wanted things to take this turn, Tony thought. Yes, I wanted to talk, but not about this. After all, what’s Scudder’s saga to me? ‘I can never be him,’ he heard himself say.

Maurice raised his eyebrows. ‘I beg your pardon – who?’ he asked.

Tony felt his legs grow weak. He stumbled to a pine and leaned against its trunk. The smells of resin and needles and freshly sawn wood were intoxicating. He mechanically offered Maurice another cigarette, lit one up himself, dropped his lighter and talked.

Maurice Hall, always Maurice Hall, Clive had loved him at Cambridge and then married Anne and had divorced her and had taken on male lovers and faced Hell, for one reason, and one reason only – Maurice Hall, who had cast his spell again as soon as he had gotten out of his car the previous day. ‘I expected a man past his prime,’ Tony said. ‘A colourless person in his forties, clever but not a scholar…A good, old friend of Clive’s, nothing more…’

‘I’m not a scholar, that much is true,’ Maurice said consolingly. ‘I was expelled from Cambridge in my second year and was only readmitted after apologizing to the Dean. I was denied the privilege of attending lectures for extra credit…So I chucked it after my third year. Well, I got a degree after the war…A military scholarship on account of my brave actions on the Western front.’ He laughed gleefully. ‘I was this short of earning a medal from the kingdom of Montenegro as well…Oh Tony, are you laughing now? Yes, you are…I  was only jesting! Dear me, we’re both scholars, aren’t we? The advocates of American literature. I simply adore Fitzgerald’s writing.’

‘I can tell, Lord Gatsby from Reading,’ Tony grinned. Now it was Maurice who laughed with a musical sound that set Tony’s blood on fire.

‘I was a bootlegger,’ Maurice then said. ‘In the first years after the war. Scotch whiskey in barrels with pesticide labels on them, shipped from Edinburgh to Baltimore…Many Americans prefer that over their own brands from Tennessee and such…I chucked it as soon as I had enough means to establish a legal business. And so I started exporting tweed to the Americas and importing French wine to Britain.‘

‘Clive never told me you got a degree after all,‘ Tony discovered. ‘Why wouldn’t he?’

‘Discretion,’ Maurice said matter-of-factly. ‘He deliberately omitted it to you so as not to create a miraculous image of my person…He loves you, Tony. He doesn’t want you to think any better of me than can be justified…Because, my dear, I’m just an old man who can never be you.’

My dear, Tony thought, feeling his heart race. My dear, why?

‘When I met him on Pendersleigh a few months ago,’ Maurice went on, ‘we had tea in the Blue Room. I remembered it as a cold, dreary place when I stayed there on college holidays…But how it had changed…I saw a picture of you on the mantelpiece, I could not but notice an uncanny resemblance to myself when I was younger…with one tiny distinction…You are a hundred times more attractive than I, and even if you weren’t, the vigour of youth would have been sufficient.’

‘You are beautiful,’ Tony stammered.

‘Hang on a minute,’ Maurice mumbled, digging through the pockets of his overcoat. ‘Ah, there…’ He produced a gilded flask and unscrewed the cap. ‚Here you go,’ he then said to Tony. ‘It’s Armagnac, not boozelegger’s brew…They say that alcohol doesn’t solve problems, but then again, neither does tea…Your laughter is so charming, old sport…Take a swig, you’ve earned it.’

Tony swallowed a few sips and felt a warm fire spread in his chest. Maurice drank too and looked at him. ‚Look at you now, you’re glowing,’ he whispered. ‘In fact, that reminds me of…’

Maurice now told Tony how Clive had talked about his new lover in the Blue Room. Clive had been nervously happy, more than he had ever been at even his most gleeful moments at Cambridge. Blushing like a bride at the altar, he had shown the signet ring with Tony’s initials on it. ‘You gave him a wedding band,’ Maurice now said. ‘He loves you.’

Tony was still leaning against the tree, grateful for its rough comfort and staring into Maurice’s eyes. They kept silent for minutes. Then Maurice stepped up to him and put his hands on the trunk, dangerously close to Tony’s shoulders.

‘I can tell you want to kiss me,’ Maurice said. ‘Please do. No one will see us.‘

Their lips met, hesitantly at first, but as Tony felt the fire flare up in him, his arms slowly wandered over Maurice’s back, drawing him closer. When their tongues met, Maurice shivered and pulled him away from the tree, clasping him and then sweetly exploring his cheeks and his neck, sending a delicious shock through his loins when his mouth reached the sensitive spot under his left ear.

‘So that’s what Clive comes home to every night,‘ Maurice whispered. ‘You, waiting in the drawing-room and then rushing to him to kiss him like you kiss me now…’ Tony feverishly sought Maurice’s mouth again and it was only then that he felt the other man’s arousal, fierce and unrelenting like his own. ‘You’re beautiful,’ someone murmured, it might be his own voice or Maurice’s, but then a ray of sense hit them and they drifted apart.

‘Let’s go home,’ Tony said. ‘No one need ever know about this.’

Chapter Text

Bella’s clothes were still drying in the kitchen. It took Alec some pleading and cajoling to get her out of bed and to have her put on Maurice’s old dressing-gown over the undershirt and the long johns. ‘Don’t worry, no one will see you,’ he smiled. ‘Maurice and I don’t want people ringing our bloody doorbell anyroad, and you deserve to know why. I’ll tell you over breakfast. You must still be hungry.‘

As she sat eating scrambled eggs, rashers, tinned beans and more toast in the dining room, he kept her company, smoking and sipping coffee and disclosing what had happened to him a few months earlier.

As usual, when his lover is away on business, Alec is in and out of pubs in East End. He knows the places where men meet and he goes there, too, not to look for a fling but to enjoy their company and to console them when they are in trouble.

One night, a boy accepts a pint from him and they get to talking. The lad is a strapping one, definitely of a better breed than the others present. His name is Joseph and he has just turned seventeen and he has been expelled from Eton for doing something unspeakable. He arrived by train that afternoon and his parents live in London but he’s too scared to face them yet. The boy calls himself someone of the wrong kind.

A young man named Pete, an acquaintance of Alec’s from the Stone and Chisel, joins them at their table. After a few pints, Joseph and Pete are head over heels in love. ‘Yer spending the night at my flat,‘ Pete  promises him. ‚And I’m coming with ye when ye go an’ see yer parents tomorrow. No one will hurt me precious Joseph.’ ‘Careful, son,‘ Alec admonishes. ‘The lad’s underage and I won’t even mention what will happen if the pigs find out more about the two of ye.‘ He might just as well have addressed the furniture.

When the pub closes, the happy lovers set off for the next bus stop with Alec in tow. They run straight into Joseph’s older brother who is accompanied by two policemen. The boy refuses to go home. A row ensues and the men of the law teach him and Pete a lesson with their bats. ‘Please don’t,‘ Alec yells. ‘This gentleman is only seeing the boy off on the bus, they’ve done nothing wrong.’ The pigs tell him to mind his own business. ‘I won’t,’ Alec says. ‘Please don’t beat these fellows, they’re not attacking you or anything.‘

It ends up with Joseph being taken to the police station for questioning, Pete being arrested for attempted seduction of a minor and Alec for obstructing the execution of the law.

Alec is released the next day to await court procedures. As soon as Maurice gets back from Germany, he goes to see an old college chum of his who is a solicitor. This feller recommends another lawyer, Mr. Horatio Bingham-Wylde from Wembley. This man says that Alec’s action is too futile to be treated in court, but his arrest proves that he’s one of many men who got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The authorities just chase any man who so much as gets within a twenty-yard range of certain public houses. It also means that but for Bingham-Wylde, some judge would have convicted Alec at random and his antecedents would have been checked. It would have been the end of him, Maurice and Maurice’s business.

‘So that’s why you can’t stay here, love,‘ Alec now said to Bella. ‘I’ve got a clean slate, but God knows how many people saw us together last night. The police may be here any minute now. Perhaps it’s best that you stay in my room. Any bastard who’ll ring my doorbell will get my boot in his face. I’ll bring you some of Maurice’s books to read.’

They talked some more. Alec would have preferred to see her leave that afternoon, but she was still too weak to travel. Everything would have to be done the next day, though, because then he himself would leave for Hetton Abbey.

***

Like the night before, Tony was the first to retire to his bedroom. It was going on eleven o’clock. Clive and Maurice stayed in the parlour to chat and sip brandy.

He slept fitfully, haunted by fragrant dreams in resinous woods. At two, he woke and felt that Clive was lying beside him. In the moonlight coming in through the window, Tony could see that his lover was wearing pyjamas like himself and lying on his back, breathing calmly.

Tony bent over to kiss his lover’s lips, gingerly at first, but then with more pressure as he detected a faint taste. Not only of the familiar tooth powder, but also of autumn harvest afternoons – pipe tobacco.

Tony felt a devastating fire rise up within him and bit Clive’s lower lip. Clive stirred and uttered a sound between a whimper and a giggle, his breath smelling of brandy as he exhaled softly.

So you’re drunk and who are you dreaming of now, Tony thought, I’ll make you feel presently who you are dealing with, and he ripped open Clive’s pyjama shirt. Several buttons popped off loudly, the elastic band of the bottoms snapped as Tony pulled them down, wriggling out of his own night clothes at the same time.

Clive still did not wake up when Tony entered him slowly, but he relaxed and became fluid as his lover gradually intensified his thrusts. He only moaned a few times, with a sound that Tony knew so well. Minutes later, Tony erupted, sending convulsive shivers through Clive’s body and causing him to sigh languidly, ‘ooooohhhhh’, and then his eyes flew open.

Tony was lying on him, breathing heavily and slowly waking up from his lecherous nightmare and battling a growing feeling, thinking: I’m so sorry, I should not have done that, please forgive me, my love, my only love, and then Clive’s voice sounded clear and full of subdued bliss. ‘I say, that was heavenly.’

Defeated, Tony rolled off Clive and closed his eyes, pretending to fall asleep. I can’t even get my point across, he thought. Whatever I try to establish is received with unexpected pleasure. I’m always taken for granted.

Chapter Text

The equerry that had once accounted for the fame of Hetton Abbey in Britain had long become a thing of the past. The relatives that had ruled the estate while Tony was in Brazil had deemed hunting a cruel pastime and sold all the horses.

Upon his unexpected return, Tony had felt no inclination to mount again. His little son had died in a riding accident. But he had bought a gelding and a mare, two siblings, Arabians with an impeccable pedigree, to spite his wicked cousins.

He had grown to like King Solomon. The animal would neigh in appreciation whenever it heard him enter the stable with carrots, turnips or other treats.

King Solomon’s sister had Queen Victoria’s Hindustani title as the ruler of India for a name: Kaiser-i-Hind.

While a gardener was saddling the gelding, Tony watched Maurice approach the mare. ‘Be careful,’ he said to his guest. ‘She’s prone to kicking and snapping.’

Maurice smiled and held out his hands wrapped in driving gloves so that she could sniff them. She gave him a look with wise, brown eyes and neighed softly. ‘Good morning, Kaiserliche Hoheit,’ he whispered. ‘How regal and beautiful you are…! Whoa, don’t nudge me, that’s not ladylike…bad horsie!’

Kaiser whinnied loudly. She appreciated the joke. Maurice laughed too, with an alluring sound that made Tony’s knees weak. ‘I’d saddle ‘er for you, sir,’ the gardener said to the guest. ‘Trouble is she won’t  ‘ave it…’

'I’ll give it a try,‘ Maurice smiled. ‚If you’d show me where you keep her gear…I’m rather good with horses, you know…A remnant from my stint as a cavalry lieutenant in France.‘

‘I wor wi’ th’ fifty-seventh regiment,‘ the servant said proudly. 'Plenty horses there…Seen all at Langemark.’

The gardener was being rather too chummy to Tony’s liking. But whenever the war was brought up as a subject, he knew he was not to interfere. Any man who had been there would bond instantly with a fellow veteran, no matter how different their former ranks or their respective backgrounds were.

Presently, Tony and Maurice mounted the horses outside the stable. The host asked the guest if he was all right. Maurice was dressed in a tweed hunting jacket, flannel sports trousers instead of riding breeches and a pair of old boots that another visitor had accidentally left years ago. ‘And no cap and your everyday spectacles, Maurice, are you sure it’s safe?’

Maurice nodded and smiled and the horses set off in a slow trot, past the stables and up the path that led to a meadow beyond. Quite unexpectedly, Kaiser was calm and serene until they reached the open field. Her nostrils quivered and she pranced slightly.

‘Stroll on,’ Tony told King Solomon, who merely pricked up his ears and then started cropping grass. Kaiser scraped her hoofs and shuddered. ‘Ah, well, I ought to step on your pedal a bit, oughtn’t I?’ Maurice sang to her. Then his smiling eyes met Tony’s. ‘Well, if you would lead the way, old sport? I’ll follow.’

King Solomon reluctantly raised his head and trotted on like a carthorse on strike.

Clippity-clop, Tony thought, I’m riding the finest gelding in the county but the animal is bone-idle today. Kaiser pranced again, lifting her forelegs and digging them into the soil. Maurice remained all but still in the saddle, holding the reins and laughing. Then he gently spurred her and uttered a brief yell that was presently answered by the starlings in the trees.

Man and horse became a rush, a whirl in the cold spring air, undulating against a green background. King Solomon neighed loudly and finally broke into a run to catch up with his sibling. As he dug his heels into the horse’s flanks, Tony observed the figure yards away from him, riding with a slightly arched back and keeping the reins taut, presently flying effortlessly over stone walls and hedges. Centaur, Tony thought, oh no, a faun on a winged stallion, an Apollo no longer young but matured into true beauty, for youth lacks the profundity that makes a man truly blossom like an autumn rose, come to me, Maurice, come to me, have all of me, I’m yours.

‘You can keep her,’ he heard himself say. ‘She’s yours.’

Maurice was riding up to him now at moderate speed, sitting erect in the saddle with flushed cheeks and loosely holding the reins with gloved hands, the Daimler emblems on the soft black leather clearly showing. ‘Beg your pardon?’ he called out.

Kaiser had now stopped next to King Solomon and was nuzzling her brother, as little affected by the strenuous run as the rider. ‘Look, she’s checking if he’s all right,’ Maurice breathed.

‘But what did you just say, Tony? ‘She’s yours?’’ He burst out in a delightful fit of laughter. ‘I know you’re a generous host, but please don’t overdo it…Where would I put her? In my drawing-room in Reading? Alec would throw a fit…The garage is already taken, I can’t leave my car outside after sunset…’

Tony pulled the reins to make King Solomon turn around. The two men were facing the path leading towards the stables now. Kaiser moved closer to nuzzle her brother again.

‘Maurice, you’re looking absolutely regal,’ Tony said, gasping for breath. Maurice gave him a puzzled look with a slight hint of amusement in his grey eyes. He was older, he had seen the world, the younger man beside him must endear him. This was leading nowhere.

Still panting, Tony grabbed the knob on Kaiser’s saddle, prompting her to shift closer and rub flanks with her brother. Then he slang his arms around Maurice, sought his mouth and found it, meeting a tongue as willing and hungry as his own. Maurice shivered with pleasure and ran his gloved fingers over Tony’s cheeks, kissing him wildly and whispering while the leaves of the poplars sang in the wind until a faint wave of alien energy blew their way.

They drifted apart and saw a small, slim figure walk towards them with nervous strides, waving at them and shouting something unintelligible. ‘Good heavens,‘ Maurice sighed.

‘I’m dreadfully sorry to interrupt your ride,‘ Clive said out of breath when he had stopped near them. He held up a brown square of paper and looked at Maurice. ‘This just got delivered,’ he went on. ‘I assumed it was an urgent matter and the maid is busy preparing luncheon, so I decided to look for you myself.’

Maurice dismounted with a single, elegant motion, took the wire and opened it. As he read, the glow on his cheeks disappeared. ‘Damn this,’ he said through clenched teeth, crumpling the paper and stuffing it into his pocket. ‘Alec will be arriving on the two o’clock train…’

‘That’s allright,’ Clive smiled. ‘We were expecting him anyway, weren’t we?’

‘He writes that he’s bringing a friend,’ Maurice said. ‘No further details…Whatever is he up to? It’s not like him to take along someone who’s not been invited.’

Back on his patch of righteous anger, Tony set things straight. ‘I suppose one of Scudder’s acquaintances is looking for a position here…I’ve had many applications…all from men from the City who lost their jobs at factories or offices…I’m sorry, but I have no openings here.’

‘It might be one of my business associates,’ Maurice remarked. ‘Alec runs into them in London all the time. It might be a gentleman from Baltimore or Washington wishing to see Hetton Abbey…It might even be someone from Germany…In any case, not a person looking for a job.’ He sighed. ‘But still, I think it’s bad form to spring an unexpected guest on a splendid host like that…Tony, old sport, I’m dreadfully sorry. I shall talk to Alec about this.‘

‘Nothing can be done,’ Clive said, checking his pocket watch. ‘It’s a quarter to one. Scudder and his friend must have boarded the train already.’

It’s my fault, Tony thought. When I was still married to Brenda, people I’d only briefly met at a club in London would pop in for a visit then and stay for days. The decent ones would announce their arrivals by telephone in time, the ill-mannered would wire when they were already on their way, leaving my wife and me no opportunities to feign illness or absence. In fact, Hetton Abbey already was a dovecote then, with people flocking in and out and eating our food and hunting our game and making a mess in our bathrooms.

After a very quick luncheon with no dessert or coffee, the three men set off for the station.

Since Maurice could only take along one passenger in his two-seater, Tony would follow in the Ford. ‘I’m coming with you,’ Clive said to his lover. ‘And I’ll drive. You’re a bundle of nerves. Why, for heaven’s sake? We’re not receiving a dignitary, are we?’

***

Alec stepped onto the platform, put his suitcase on the ground and then held out his hands to Bella, who grabbed them and slowly shuffled down the two metal steps.

Three figures emerged from the clouds of steam that came from the engine. A gentleman in platinum-rimmed spectacles, a grey tweed suit and modern hat worn askew led the way.

He was smiling, but when he got closer, his face turned into the unrelenting mask Alec remembered so well. ‘This is a pleasant surprise, Lady Rex,’ he said, managing a half-pleasant expression. ‘I’m delighted to meet you.‘ Then he laughed, something he had barely done in old times. ‘Well, Scudder, my good man, how do you do? I say, it’s been ages…’

Alec touched his cap like he had done as a gamekeeper on Pendersleigh before the war.

‘Thank you, Mr. Durham,’ he said. ‘It’s an honour to be invited, sir.‘

The train whistle howled, the doors were closed and the engine spewed out more smoke as it started to move. By now, the second gentleman became visible, a blur in the clouds and the noise, but then Alec blinked and felt his knees weaken.

This man was slightly taller than Mr. Durham and definitely younger, in his thirties, also wearing a hat but with tufts of golden-blond hair showing over his ears and brown eyes with  greyish rings around the pupils, wide-open and bewildered like a deer staring into the headlights of a car. His pink lips were slightly parted as if he were silently crying for help.

A young man, deliciously inexperienced and in need of two strong arms to hold him, the spitting image of Maurice, but unlike him, a blank page begging to be filled with sweet lines.

Remember me name, son, Alec thought, ye’ll be screaming it later…I shouldn’t feel this, I’m with Maurice, but damn you, if I don’t get a taste of you I’ll be sorry about it for the rest of me life.

‘Brenda,’ the man said to Bella. ‘I was not expecting this.’ He shook hands with her as if she had a contagious disease and then with Alec. ‘Welcome, Mr. Scudder,’ he said in a toneless voice.

‘How do you do,’ Alec greeted him absently, too puzzled to come up with a more original phrase. The man had called Bella Brenda. It was not uncommon for women who did so-called immoral things to use false names, but it hurt in a way. Alec had grown to like her a mighty lot and he had expected her to be as honest with him as he had been with her. His disappointment vanished as soon as he laid eyes on his Maurice, who looked stunning in his navy-blue suit and matching hat. Alec smiled at him as he shook hands with Brenda, but then their eyes met. ‘Hullo,’ Maurice said curtly, his eyes flashing with anger. What’s amiss now, Alec thought.

‘Let’s go home,‘ Lord Anthony said to no one in particular, and then to Alec: ‘I take it you’re Mr. Hall’s chauffeur? Miss Rex can ride in my car.‘

Miss Rex, Alec thought, what a silly name, more suitable for a German shepherd.

Maurice detected the onset of a smirk on his lover’s face and shut him up with one toxic glance. I’m getting pretty bloody sick of this, Alec wanted to roar, but he looked at Lord Anthony and said: ‘They say all young gentlemen learn how to drive…Well, I never learned to…It seems more natural not to handle anything with an engine.’

And by golly, it worked. His lordship managed a smile with heavenly lips.

Chapter Text

‘You’ve caused immense trouble,’ Maurice said to Alec when they were in the Daimler. ‘I have lain awake many nights fearing you would be dragged away by the police in London, but this is the bloody limit…You shoved Lady Brenda back under Lord Anthony’s roof on purpose, didn’t you? Or did she put you up to it? She gave you money for it, didn’t she?’

‘I never knew that Lord Anthony actually knew her,’ Alec said, feeling clean for those who are unaware of sin are innocent.

‘They were married once,’ Maurice said, gripping the wheel fiercely as if he wanted to steer the car into the next ditch. ‘All of London knows that. Don’t tell me you didn’t.’

‘No, I didn’t,’ Alec said, feeling amused. ‚I never visit places where I would come across people posh enough to gossip about rich country folk.’

Then he remembered Brenda’s shabby overcoat and the blood on her dress. A righteous anger seized him. He would not take it out on Maurice, who was daft in his own way.

‘Listen,’ he said. ‘I saw her in a pub in Walthamstow the day before yesterday…She had been there for hours and she had only enough money for two lousy cups of tea…I took her home because you told me not to go anywhere near one of those boarding houses…I could not have paid for a room for her anyroad, I only had a few shillings on me…So I took her home and gave her my bed and the next morning I saw bruises and cigarette burns on her forearms…And you can tell that’s not the only thing amiss with her…So I decided to take her as far away from London as possible…Yes, she was a bit shocked when I told her I would take her to Hetton Abbey, but she didn’t say no and I believe she even liked the idea…’

He could tell from the look on Maurice’s face that he wasn’t buying it.

‘And I wanted her out of our house,’ he said. ‘Or else the pigs would have found her, and you and I would have landed in a world of shit, mate.’

‘I can see that,’ Maurice nodded, stepping on the pedal.

***

Tony’s head ran wild with ideas during the ride home and the reception by the Ambrose couple and the maid in the hall. He wanted to rush back to his car and flee, to Scotland or the Continent. He feverishly pondered on the costs of travelling further – to any place where Hetton Abbey was as known as little as an undiscovered planet.

He had thought it only natural that Clive had been the first to meet the guest at the station. After all, Scudder had been in his service on Pendersleigh before the war and this man had come to thank him in person for saving him from an unjust conviction.

It was Beaver, despicable John Beaver who had stepped onto the platform, older now, but still the same dark-haired Londoner who had not lost his alluring smile or the warm glow coming from his brown eyes.

Numbed with terror, Tony had then overheard Clive greeting the woman who was standing beside Beaver. The coat she had on was familiar, rather wide as it had been in fashion years ago, but it had done little to hide her condition. She was expecting.

Tony had gone out of his way to send her monthly sums sufficient for her to live comfortably on, hoping that this would hold her over until she would find a job. He had thought her capable of doing anything, but not this – returning to Hetton Abbey pregnant with someone else’s child.

Being a man, he could not guess how far along she was, but it was clear that she was too heavy to be sent on her way again. When he heard the dark-haired man’s voice which was considerably deeper and more subdued than Beaver’s, he found some comfort in the fact that this was indeed Alec Scudder and not Brenda’s former paramour, but it did not eradicate the muddle he was in now.

***

Alec had heard from Maurice that Hetton Abbey boasted thirty-five fully furnished bedrooms. The house was so large that Pendersleigh could easily have fitted into a single side wing.

He took an instant liking to old Mrs. Ambrose, the butler’s wife who wore a black dress and a white apron and a lace-trimmed bonnet. She looked like a sweet grandmother doll and welcomed Brenda as if she were an old friend of hers. The nice woman conferred with Mr. Durham over sleeping arrangements and they both agreed that Vancouver would be very convenient for the lady. This room lay a few doors down from Brussels, where Alec and Maurice stayed.

When Tony ordered the maid to bring tea and refreshments, Brenda asked humbly if she could be excused. She was feeling rather tired from the journey and preferred to have her meal in her room.

Alec understood and, quite frankly, he didn’t give a shit. He was not as daft as people said he was. When he had sat down opposite her in the pub, he had immediately seen that she was in the family way. It was a very normal thing to him.

He had grown up in a house with a mother who had her last child after his older sisters, who lived with them or close by, had already given birth to their first babies. Women grew peculiar as soon as they got pregnant, given to fits of stinking rage over a mislaid key or crying over a broken china figurine, throwing up and saying they had no appetite for boiled spuds and cabbage at tea and tiptoeing to the larder at night to stuff themselves with pork pies or plum tarts.

As a young lad, he had heard many whispered conversations between women, his mother included, at night, when they believed that he and his younger siblings were asleep. ‘We canna ‘ford it, we can barely make ends meet as it is.’

And then another baby would be lying in the cot, filling the house with the stink of shitty nappies and sour milk and everybody would gush over it and make coo-coo noises and cuddle it and forget all. A newborn was always a reason for joy.

He also knew the downside. Sixteen-year old girls, knocked up after a jolly night at the fair or a few hours with their masters. Those from good families were sent to convents or charitable organizations to have their babies, who were then adopted. Those with no money became unmarried mothers, which gave them no opportunities to get good jobs. Of course, the blame was never laid on the girls. They were only pitied. The blokes who had caused all the trouble were frowned upon. After all, you could avoid a lot by using rubbers. Anyroad, those men plainly ignored the fact that they had ever sired children out of wedlock.

No wonder that some women looked up so-called doctors to get rid of it. He’d heard stories about knitting needles and infusions with tepid soapy water, which very often caused lethal hemorrhages. People were prepared to take any risk so as not to have to feed another mouth in times when money was always tight.

He was proud of himself for taking Brenda to a place where there was more than enough dough to go around. She would never have to consult a quack or leave her baby on the doorstep of a church.

Oddly enough, Mr. Durham insisted that he join the gentlemen in the drawing-room for tea and refreshments. He cast Maurice a helpless look, but Maurice only smiled as if to say: it’s allright, they won’t hurt you.

And so he found himself sitting in a chair that was too soft to his liking, smoking a cigarette Mr. Durham had offered him and answering questions about life in Reading. It was only proper for a guest to show interest as well, so Alec asked Mr. Durham if all was well on Pendersleigh and Lord Anthony if there were hunting parties in Hetton Park. Their answers were lost on him, because the nobleman kept smiling beautifully at him, making him feel hot and uncomfortable. Then he saw a signet ring on Mr. Durham’s left hand, quite like the one his lordship was wearing. It had the effect of a cold splash of water.

So you finally got one, you old fart, Alec thought as he watched Mr. Durham light another cigarette. You were too stupid to get Maurice when you were a young man at Pendersleigh. I got Maurice in the end. Hard cheese, Mr. Cambridge. But congratulations anyroad, your sweetheart is divine, and he’s a nobleman and far more up your alley than Maurice who’s only middle-class…Up your alley, o golly, that’s a good one…

Maurice laughed now. ‘Good grief, Alec, what’s so funny?‘

Alec steadied his saucer so as not to drop it. ‘I just remembered something someone told me. A very amusing story.‘

The gentlemen wanted to know all. And so he delivered the anecdote he’d heard from an American business associate of Maurice’s from Oklahoma. A group of merry travelers on horseback had been on an outing in the desert, taking a large cart with provisions with them. They had set up camp next to a stream. One horse wouldn’t drink from it. One of the men then emptied some bottles of Coca-Cola into a bucket to see if the animal would like it. It did and drank all very greedily. When it was done, the men sat down around it in a circle to see what would happen next. And then the horse had let out an enormous belch.

The three gentlemen sniveled with laughter. ‘Dear me, how horrid,’ Lord Anthony chuckled. ‘You are a wonderful storyteller, Mr. Scudder.’

His lordship then told something he’d heard from one of his former stable hands who had fought in the war. Soldiers on leave had once fed a mule a whole bucket of rum. The animal had drunk it and had spent the rest of the evening tottering around like a circus horse, to the amusement of everyone present.

Mr. Durham laughed, but he also gave his lover some funny looks, perhaps because the story was too inappropriate. Maurice only chuckled with his pipe clenched between his teeth.

Something was in the air. Alec did not like it. When he was asked to join the gentlemen for supper in the dining room later, he politely declined and asked if he could have his meal with her ladyship in Vancouver. ‘How wonderful of you to want to keep her company,’ Maurice said. Lord Anthony went ashen in the face and only nodded.

 

Chapter Text

Lady Brenda’s face lit up when she saw Alec step into her room, followed by the maid and Mrs. Ambrose who each carried a tray of food. She was sitting at a table, wearing an old, clean dress that must belong to the housekeeper.

As they ate, they chattered about the journey and what they had read in the newspapers.

When coffee was served, Alec mechanically reached for the pack of Lucky Strikes in his breast pocket, but then he remembered that cigarette smoke made pregnant women nauseous. ‘Please have one,‘ she said. ‘I don’t mind…And please don’t call me Lady Rex…My name is Brenda, dear…I think it’s time I told you about myself. You deserve to know why what you did for me was the best thing I could hope for, and the worst at the same time.’

Brenda Rex marries Anthony Last in 1924. She’s nineteen and he’s twenty-two, an Oxford graduate and now the lord and master of Hetton Abbey. Their son John Andrew is born in 1925. Tony is happy, he loves her and the little boy, but she secretly thinks life on the estate is boring. In 1931, she meets John Beaver, who is a year younger than her and the son of a widow who runs a decorating business in London. She is happy now and even rents a one-room flat in the City to spend time with her paramour. She’s in this place when her husband hosts a hunting party at Hetton. Their little son falls of his horse and gets a blow from the hoof of a gelding that had been right behind him. The boy dies instantly. He’s only six years old.

Brenda and Tony are numbed with grief. Hetton becomes unbearable to her. Two days after the funeral, she travels back to London and requests a divorce. John Andrew’s death has severed the already brittle bond between her and her husband. She wants to marry John Beaver. When Tony informs her that he will only pay her five hundred pounds a year in alimony, her lover leaves her. The young man, who has never had a proper job, had hoped for a better settlement. He’s soon seen at the side of a very rich, forty-year-old widow at parties in London.

Tony wants to delay the divorce proceedings to force her to accept his conditions in the end, so he leaves for Brazil in 1932. He joins a group of people to explore an uncharted part of Amazonia. He simply disappears, sending no more messages. In 1933, the Brazilian federal police are presented with a wristwatch that was entrusted to a search party by a Barbadian who lived in the jungle. The men have also seen a freshly dug grave near this man’s hut. Anthony Last has died, probably from dengue fever or dysentery.

Tony’s relatives inherit Hetton Abbey. Brenda marries Tony’s friend Jock Grant-Menzies. It saves her from perishing in poverty in the streets of London. She’s well-off again now, but Jock, whom she deemed sound, soon grows tired of her and takes in a seventeen-year-old mistress. He wants to divorce her.

Penniless and lacking any solid qualification to secure herself a job, Brenda takes a room in a boarding house. And then, in 1933, she reads in the newspaper that Lord Anthony Last, who had been proclaimed dead, has returned from Brazil. He has engaged Mr. Durham, a solicitor, to get Hetton Abbey back.

He’s not forgotten about Brenda, so he sends her money and even Mr. Durham gives her some from his own funds.

Brenda can afford to sit in tearooms now and imbibe some of the life she’s left behind.

She meets men. One of them is so smitten with her that he suggests that she live with him at his flat. He’s not very rich, he’s a clerk of some sort in a government office, but she’s happy. She dislikes the pamphlets and newspaper clippings he shows her.

He’s quite taken with the German concept of a New Order where useless human beings are being pushed aside to grant the Superior Race more space. He runs a circle where the exemplary Third Reich is discussed and uses her income to have the texts translated from German into English and to buy drinks for his friends. Soon there is barely any money left for food. There are endless parties at the flat, she is made to dance with the men, they are drunk and want more from her than just a waltz. Whenever she refuses, her lover explodes with rage. He rewards any caustic remark from her to his friends with kicks and blows as soon as they have left. The landlord complains about the noise and the mess. Brenda wants this man to save her, but he’s bloody sick of it and wants the couple to leave.

‘You leave,’ Brenda’s lover says to her. ‘I’m not the baby’s father anyway. Off you go.‘

When she won’t, he kicks her again and lights several cigarettes and grabs her arms.

She leaves.

‘That was on Thursday afternoon,‘ she now said to Alec. ‘I only had enough money on me to buy some stale scones and a few cups of tea. I spent one night on a hard sofa in a homeless shelter, all the beds were taken. The woman running it turned me out the next day when my lover showed up at the doorstep, threatening to beat me again. And so I fled to Walthamstow and walked the streets, all through the night and well into the next day until I nearly collapsed and went to a pub. I had spent my last pennies on a cup of tea when you spoke to me.’

‘I thought you were a…’ Alec said hesitantly. She laughed. ‘A tart? Oh no, I could never disgrace myself like that.’ Then her face grew serious. ‘But still, if you hadn’t saved me, I could very well have resorted to selling myself…I am convinced that Tony does not like having me here. That’s the downside. But I’ve got a roof over my head now. I couldn’t begin to tell you how grateful I am to you, and to Maurice as well.’

‘It was no trouble, love,’ Alec said. ‘You’re at Hetton now. Lord Anthony is a generous man. He’ll help you. And so will Mr. Durham.’

‘What’s Mr. Durham got to do with all this, then?‘ Brenda asked. ‘He’s only a friend of Tony’s.’

You’re blind, bless you, Alec thought. Yet, he thought it funny. ‘Lord Anthony and Mr. Durham are lovers,’ Alec grinned. ‘They both wear matching signet rings…It’s a peculiar notion. I worked on Pendersleigh before the war and the other servants told me how Mr. Durham and Maurice had been all over each other when they were still students at Cambridge. It’s surprising how Mr. Durham finally took the plunge and got himself a lover. He was too stupid and too scared to grab Maurice and flee when he was younger. That’s what Maurice and I did in the end. Thank goodness for that…Are you allright, love?‘

Brenda had gone pale now and was shivering. Alec rose from his chair and pushed an electric button to ring for the maid. ‘Get yerself into bed,‘ he said. ‚You’re not looking well now…But I’ll be along tomorrow to see how you are doing.’

He kissed her on the forehead and left the room, drawing a few breaths before he opened the door to Brussels and then sighing with relief as he saw that Maurice was not there.

 

Chapter Text

When Maurice had retired to his room, Clive said that he wanted to talk to Tony in his office. They left the drawing-room and went to the small library that had been Clive’s domain ever since he had come to live on Hetton. ‘Let’s have some more brandy,’ he smiled, and he presently poured two glasses. Then he sat down at his desk and offered Tony a cigar. Tony abhorred them. Clive grinned as he remembered this and apologized for being fog-headed.

He waited until Tony had lit a cigarette and then got out a box of matches.

‘I expect you have been thinking about how to handle this situation,’ he said to Tony.

‘I have,’ Tony sighed. ‘Brenda is very welcome to stay here until after the birth of her baby. As soon as she’s back on her feet, I shall have a talk with her. I intend to rent a small house in the North for her where she can live comfortably. That is, if she wants to. If she doesn’t, then honestly, I wouldn’t know what to do instead.’

‘The ‘instead’ is not to be treated lightly,’ Clive said, snipping the end from a cigar and striking a match. ‘But I suppose you are quite aware of that, too.’

Tony was at a loss. Clive noticed and gave him an almost fatherly look as he lit his cigar. ‘You haven’t a clue, have you?’ he grinned. ‘Oh, very well, I am a solicitor, you’re not.‘

Before Tony could speak any further, Clive explained in simple terms what could happen.

The divorce proceedings had been paused when Tony had left for Brazil. Before a judge could grant a dissolution of his marriage to Brenda, he had been proclaimed dead by Brazilian and British authorities, Brenda had become a widow. She had been able to marry Jock Grant-Menzies. After that, Tony had unexpectedly returned from Brazil alive.

Since he and Brenda were never legally divorced, her marriage to Jock had become null and void. The courts had held official documents proclaiming that Lord Anthony Last was no longer alive. Brenda could therefore never be prosecuted for committing bigamy.

Jock had wanted to divorce her, but this had so far not been finalized, and quite logically so, since it was sufficient to request an annulment of their marriage, which was less troublesome than a divorce.

'I didn’t  know this, I really didn’t,‘ Tony said a hundred times over.

‘It’s good that you do now,’ Clive smiled sadly. 'Because technically, Brenda is still entitled to live here as your wife. You have no legal argument to deny her this right.‘

Clive drew from his cigar, pensively watching the wads of smoke float towards the ceiling.

‘This is too vast a change for me to handle,’ he went on. ‘You have a sense of responsibility, Tony, more than any man I ever knew…You love me, but this will put an end to everything you and I have had…It saddens me, more than words can say, but I will not stand between you and your goals…’

‘I love Brenda,’ Tony cried. ‘But no longer like a husband loves his wife. I only want to help her to move on…You know whom I love now, don’t you?’

Clive took his cigar from his mouth and cast Tony an amused look. ‘I do, dear,’ he said. ‘But what did I see from a distance this afternoon? You and Maurice, side by side, on horseback on the forest path….Please let me finish, Tony…I won’t hold it against you. Maurice cast his spell on you…That’s allright, it’s how I remember him. I could not resist him in my younger years either…’

You surrendered to him, too, Tony thought. I tasted pipe tobacco on your tongue.

Before he could hurl this at Clive, he heard: ‘It doesn’t signify. Whatever happened was completely eclipsed by what I saw you do today…You were riding, Tony, even though you’d sworn never to mount again after John Andrew’s gruesome accident…And you even told Scudder that amusing tale that used to fascinate your son, the one about the mule that had drunk a bucketful of rum…I truly believed you’d never mention it again because it bore too many painful memories, but you did.’

Clive’s eyes were sparkling now. ‘You’ve turned a corner, my love…I am so very proud of you. The old Tony Last has risen from the ashes. I can’t but feel very happy for you…‘

They sat there in silence after that, smoking and sipping brandy, until Clive crushed out his cigar and announced he would sleep in his own bedroom from that night on.

***

Alec was sitting on a chair at the dressing table, smoking and thinking a million thoughts. When the door opened, he nearly dropped his cigarette. Maurice walked in, carrying a tray with a bottle of brandy and two glasses. He put it on a nightstand and smiled. Then he walked up to Alec and took him in his arms. ‘I’m so dreadfully sorry for snapping at you in the car this afternoon,’ he said. ‘I was in a muddle, I didn’t mean any of it…Will you forgive me?’

Alec felt himself dissolve into warm spring air as he welcomed his lover’s caresses. ‘You’re so incredibly good and helpful,‘ he heard. ‚You’ve got a heart of gold…I wouldn’t want you any other way, my love.’

They undressed and put on their pyjamas and dressing-gowns. Then Alec performed the ritual that marked the end of every day since they had moved to Reading: he filled Maurice’s pipe, lit it, drew from it and handed it to him. Then he poured two glasses of brandy.

They  sat down on the sofa, toasted and talked about Brenda. Maurice was happy to hear that she was doing allright by the looks of it. ‘But being here with you makes me even happier,’ he said. ‘That’s why I wanted you to come to Hetton Abbey. We’ve been apart too often over the past few years. Soon I will no longer travel the Continent for business. We may be in for another war. Let’s pray that will never happen…You are seeing Mr. Durham tomorrow, and after that you and I will go straight home.‘

Alec felt mighty tired when they finally went to bed. Maurice was still very awake, kissing him all over. ‘Lie still if you’re sleepy, I shall do all the hard work.‘

And so Maurice made love to him, slowly, sweetly and deliciously, sending him into a drowsy state in a far-off corner of the world where the greenwood rustled and flowers blossomed.

 

Chapter Text

The maid knocked softly on the door of Vancouver. ‘Come in,’ Brenda said.

The servant told Alec that Mr. Durham was ready to see him in his study.

‘Well, here goes nothing,’ Alec grinned at Brenda. ‚I’ll be back to have lunch with you and to play some more animal snap if you’re in the mood.‘

Brenda laughed. She had taught him the card game that morning and they had both found it incredibly boring. It was all they could do to prevent themselves from thinking too much.

The maid led Alec into a room downstairs that had walls lined with bookshelves. Mr. Durham was sitting at his desk, looking as if he’d barely slept the night before but smiling all the same. ‘Good morning, Scudder, how are you today?’ he asked. ‘Would you like a cup of coffee? Sugar, cream?’

The gentleman poured and then gestured for Alec to sit down, picking up a mahogany box as he did. ‘Would you have a cigar?’ Alec said ‘No, thank you’ and presently Mr. Durham held another case under his nose. Egyptian cigarettes.

Alec got a few questions – had he slept well, was Mr. Hall allright, and then Mr. Durham lit a cigar and said: ‚Let’s talk business now. Mr. Hall told me that you wanted to see me.’

Alec nodded and delivered the lines he had learned by heart. ‘I wished to see you so that I could thank you in person for the good things you did for me, sir. Mr. Bingham-Wylde has been most helpful, and I owe it to you that he decided to take on my case…Mr. Hall and I will forever be thankful for that, sir.‘

‘Don’t thank me,‘ Mr. Durham said pleasantly. ‘After all, you already wrote me a very nice letter. I still keep it in my desk. It’s just that I think it very unfair if anyone gets punished for a crime he did not commit…Well, I need not elaborate on that, my good man, you know that…But something else is on your mind…Please tell me, is there anything I can help you with?‘

This was what Alec had hoped for. ‘It’s Lady Brenda, sir,’ he said. He told his former master about how she had been sulking in Vancouver ever since her arrival. She had asked the maid many times if his lordship would come and see her. She had even sent him a note, to which he had not replied.

‘Well, I suppose Lady Brenda needs to rest,‘ Mr. Durham remarked. ‘And Mr. Last will do what is in his power to help her. I’m afraid I can’t interfere, I’m only a guest here.‘

‘You’re not, sir,‘ Alec said. ‚Pardon me for speaking out of term, but I know about you and his lordship.’

Mr. Durham grew crimson. ‘What’s that to you, Scudder?‘ he snapped.

‘Nothing,‘ Alec answered, feeling slightly amused until an unpleasant memory hit him. 'It’s just that I saw bruises and cigarette burns on Lady Brenda’s forearms.’  Mr. Durham gasped. ‘And she had no money on her when I met her,’ Alec went on. ‘So I took her home. I cleaned her dress a bit and I found blood on it…Something has to be done.‘

‘Mr. Last will have a doctor from London drive up this afternoon,’ Mr. Durham said coolly. ‘Lady Brenda will be in  very good hands…But what is all this to you?‘

‘A lot,’ Alec said, straightening his shoulders. ‘You may not realize this, but there are plenty of women out there who don’t know what to do when they’re expecting…You’ve seen the pictures in the newspapers, haven’t you? Men on the Bowery in New York who lost their jobs and who carry signs saying: I’m a father of three, I will work for money…It’s no different in London. Do you know what some women do to get rid of their unborn babies? There are doctors who put an end to it…It’s not that they don’t want children, they just can’t afford them and neither can their husbands if they’re married…’

‘You’re taking things quite out of context, my good man,’ Mr. Durham said, looking mighty tired now. ‘Lady Brenda will want for nothing.’

‘That’s not enough,’ Alec said. ‘Do you believe that money is the only solution? She needs someone who cares about her, someone who will talk to her and listen to her…You can convince Lord Anthony of this. He’ll listen to you.’

‘That’s quite enough, Scudder,’ Mr. Durham said. ‘You stated your opinions. I won’t bear any grudge against you for the way you behaved. It’s inherent to your nature. I thank you most kindly for your time. If you would be so good as to leave now, I have some telephone calls to make. Luncheon will be served in half an hour.’

‘That’s allright,’ Alec said, stubbing out his cigarette and rising from his chair. ‘I’ll tell the maid to take my tray to her ladyship’s room.’

***

‘You can speak frankly to me,’ Tony said to the doctor, who was sitting opposite him. ‘Lady Brenda is still my lawfully wedded wife. As her husband, I should like to know how she is.’

The doctor accepted a cigar, lit it and told what he had found. Her ladyship was recovering from injuries inflicted on her. The baby was developing quite well and there was no cause for instant alarm, even though she had lost some blood a few days earlier. ‘How far along is she?’ Tony asked. ‘About eight months,’ the doctor answered. ‘Given the burden she had to bear before she came here, there’s always a chance of her going into premature labour. But I saw no signs of that.‘

‚Is there anything I can do for her?’ Tony wanted to know.

‘Yes, there is,’ the doctor smiled. ‘I suggest you give her some attention, talk to her, read to her, amuse her a bit. She’s been rather melancholic ever since her friend left. I don’t know who this man is, but we can thank our stars for him. He lifted her spirits in a way that gave her the strength to travel up from London.’

‘I shall see what I can do,‘ Tony said, lighting a cigarette and thinking a thousand thoughts.

 

Chapter Text

By the time Maurice and Alec got home, the shops were closed, so no food could be bought. Alec found a tin of stewed meat and some potatoes in the larder. They had this for dinner and apples for dessert.

Alec enjoyed being within his own four walls with no one to care for but his beloved Maurice.Yet, he felt uncomfortable and said he would not have minded staying at Hetton some more.

Maurice understood. Lady Brenda was all alone now. ‘Her well-being is Tony’s responsibilty,‘ he said many times over. ‘You can’t do more for her than you already did.’

Alec felt that this was not enough. He was ready to put on his coat and rush to the station, weather be damned. ‘I need you at the office tomorrow,‘ Maurice said. ‘You have to type up the new contract for Brampton & Sons and I want last week’s turnover by four at the latest.’

‘Why would you care if I’m in or not?’ Alec snapped. ‘You’ve got Miss Miller to do the work.‘

When Maurice explained that the girl was needed to take minutes at a meeting with Belgian customers, a fuse within Alec blew. ‘She speaks French, I don’t. I get it. I’m no good, and still you sent me to the Argentine on business two years ago. I was gone for three bloody months and I never heard you complaining. I might as well have stayed there, I was supposed to go there in 1913 anyroad, but then I met you and…’

This was really going nowhere. The cabinet in the drawing-room was opened and out came the bottles. Whiskey, brandy, port, Dutch gin. They dragged these things upstairs, changed into their pyjamas and flopped into Maurice’s bed.

Peace descended on them as they drank. ‘I know why you want to go back to Hetton, Alec. You fancy Tony, don’t you?’ – ‘I’ll always be yours, Maurice, but I’d love to have him with some blackberry jam and clotted cream…And you and Mr. Durham, eh? Did you get up to anything interesting?’- ‘Oh, well, we…’ –  ‘Don’t tell me! It’ll make me sick! He’s a good man, but he’s so ugly that he makes onions cry.’ – ‚Come on now, he’s not that bad.’ – ‘No, could be worse…He looks like rubbish but he’s grand.’ – ‘He’s grand indeed.’ – ‘Imagine that divine Tony in bed with him…Golly, I’m going to be sick now…’ – ‘Calm down, my love, you’re just a bit tipsy.’ – ‘I’m drunk, Maurice, love…stinking…’ – ‘So am I. Stinking. Oh blast, we’re due back at the office tomorrow.’ – ‘Let’s give our staff a whiff of booze then…There you go…Cheers.’- ‘And cheers to you, Monsieur Scudder…’ – ‘Brenda is a grand girl..’ – ‘I’m sure she is, Alec, but we’re so drunk now…’ – ‘Stinking.’ – ‘Come to me, won’t you kiss me?’ – ‘I would, my love, if I weren’t so…’ – ‘Stinking, that’s the word.’ – ‘Damn this, Maurice, I love you.’- ‘And I you….stinking.'

***

The next morning, Tony walked into Vancouver and found Brenda lying in bed, having breakfast and reading a newspaper. She nearly dropped her cup when she saw him. The sun rose on her face, which made him shiver.

‘I hope I’m not disturbing you,’ he said. She shook her head. ‘Not in the slightest, darling,‘ she smiled. He sat down on the bed and grabbed her hands, which were cold.

There was something endearing about her. The hideous bruise on her forehead, her sparkling eyes, Mrs. Ambrose’s overly large old nightgown, the napkin she was wearing like a bib.

‘How sweet of you to visit me in your own house,’ she said. ‘I’ve been here since the day before yesterday and you wouldn’t even send me a note…Mr. Durham kept me company last night. He’s ever so nice.’ She nodded towards a volume of Colette’s Claudine on the nightstand. ‘He even read to me. His French pronunciation is heavenly. Well, the book is rubbish, of course, but we had a jolly time.’

Not wanting to think about what Clive might have said to her, Tony told her that the doctor had sent for a nurse from London. This women had splendid references and she would stay at Hetton until after the birth. ‘As soon as you and the baby are fit to travel,‘ he said, ‘I will rent you a house in Northumberland. Of course, I shall see to it that you won’t want for anything. There will be someone with you who can look after the child while you’re out working…As you know, my funds are rather lean, and therefore I can’t promise to provide a lump sum to send the little one to a good public school and perhaps to college after that…But I’ll do my best.’

Her face was sunken now. She blinked her eyes as she looked at him. ‘I want to stay here,‘ she said tonelessly. ‘After all, I am still your wife. I’ve assumed that for some time and Mr. Durham confirmed it last night. You can’t deny me my spousal rights.’

When she saw he was at a loss for words, she bit her lip and sniveled. ‘Ah, I see…So it’s Mr. Durham, isn’t it? Mr. Scudder told me about you and him…You won’t need this anymore, Tony. Of course, I won’t expect you to accept the child as if it were yours, but I’m back and I’m here to stay.’

I should have expected this, he thought. No one can keep her for becoming Lady Brenda Last of Hetton Abbey again.

‘I’m afraid you can’t,’ Tony said. ‘After all, you left me for another man and even married yet another one…I won’t hold it against you, for you acted naturally. You loved Beaver, and then you loved Jock.’

She was crying now. ‘I did,’ she wailed. ‘But I loved you too, Tony…’

‘If so, why didn’t you break up with Beaver, then?’ he asked. ‘I would have welcomed you back here, no questions asked…I would have said: what’s happened is not relevant, let’s look to the future now…That’s me, I am utterly devoid of pride.’

‘You always were,’ Brenda acquiesced. ‘And that’s why you took in a lover. Much older than you, probably married, and a squire…and a man. If you had run off with a tart in London, I would have understood to a certain extent…But not this.’

‘Clive was married once,’ Tony retorted. ‘He divorced his wife five years ago. He’s got a daughter and a son. He once was the master of Pendersleigh, but he signed over the estate to his sister and her husband. Hetton Abbey is his home now.’

Brenda cast him a repelling look. ‘I won’t accept a ménage à trois…It’s  either him or me.’

‘Please accept my offer of a house in Northumberland,’ Tony said, unwilling to ponder on the choice she left him. ‘That’s the best choice for you.’

She wept convulsively. Please don’t, he thought, you’re not to get too nervous, it would be harmful to you in your current condition. Please don’t cry, or else I’ll take you in my arms again and then I’ll whisper words and…

‘No,’ he heard himself say, as if another man who had stolen his voice was speaking now. ‘Too much has happened, to both of us, I’d say. There’s no way back now. All I want for you is to face the consequences of your own actions. But don’t worry, I’ll always be there to help. When you wrote to me that you wanted a divorce, you also expressed the wish that you and I would remain great friends. Well, we will…always.’

He felt like a child now that has discovered the benefits of cheekiness, hurling any phrase imposed on it back into its parents’ faces and finding to its dismay that the Powerful Ones aren’t in the least distressed by this and only scold or laugh at the futile action.

However, it was Brenda who was crying, like a little child struck down by parental logic.

He walked out, looked up the maid in the kitchen and told her to sit with her ladyship for a while. After that, he longed for a cigarette and a glass of brandy and marched to Clive’s study. Clive was not there.

Tony found him in his bedroom, writing a list at his desk.

Clive looked up from his paper, smiled at him and then went ashen in the face. Some incoherent phrases were exchanged, after which Clive rose and announced he would pack and leave for Pendersleigh to grant Tony some time and space to reflect on what could be done.

‘When will you be back?‘ Tony asked. ‘When all this is over,’ Clive answered calmly. ‘But quite frankly, I don’t see that happen anytime soon. The look on your face told me all...I’m off now. I might send for the rest of my belongings in a few days.’

 

Chapter Text

A few days later, it was Saturday now, Maurice and Alec were in their office. Alec was busy typing some French letters Maurice had written. Since Miss Miller was not in, it was Maurice who had to count out the staff’s wages that Alec would hand out to them in the warehouse at one o’clock, the start of the weekend.

‘Whoever could it be?’ Maurice said with a shock as the telephone rang. Saturday was technically not a business day. ‘Hall Import, Scudder speaking,‘ Alec said into the receiver. Then he dropped his pencil. ‘Mrs. Ambrose? Yes, this is Alec Scudder…Oh dear, what’s the matter…? Why are you crying…? My goodness, who could have guessed that…I beg your pardon…? Hullo….hullo! Yes, some static on the line…Has she…? Well, I’m afraid I won’t…‘

By now, Maurice’s face had turned into a storm cloud. Alec held up his hand as if to ward off his lover’s stare. Then he spoke to Mrs. Ambrose again. ‘It will be allright, dear…Why, of course…Yes, straight away…Bye…’

Ten seconds later, he had put on his cap and his coat and snatched the key to the Daimler from Maurice’s desk. Before his lover could protest, he was out of the office and running down the bridge that overlooked the warehouse. He bent over the railing and called out: ‘Tibbs! Hey, Tibbs! Could ye come here for a sec, please?’

Presently, the overseer, a man in his twenties, hurried up the metal stairs and smiled. ‘Sorry to be a pain in the neck, mate,’ Alec said, ‘but I need you to drive me home and then to the station.’

Tibbs, who had been a chauffeur when Maurice had suffered from a sprained ankle, raised his eyebrows. ‘Master poorly again? And what’s the rush? Robbie and Timmy and me was actually hopin’ ye’d have a pint with us at the Horse and Bridle after work.’

‘Not today, son,’ Alec sighed. ‘Something’s up with me family and I have to catch a train to go and see ‘em.’

As they walked to the main exit, a baritone voice rang through the warehouse. ‘I say, Alec, what’s wrong now? I need my car.’

Alec turned around and saw Maurice standing on the bridge, his eyes flashing with anger.

‘You’ll have it back before one o’clock,’ Alec called out. ‘And since Tibbs is missing work here, I’ll reimburse him from me own wallet.’

There were roars of laughter from the other workers. Mr. ‘All wor a good one, but he could be a bleedin’ miser at times too. His own assistant putting him in his place was always mighty funny.

Tibbs, happy that he could drive the master’s splendid car again, stepped on the pedal and off they went. When they stopped outside the house, Alec told him to wait. The overseer was rather like himself, but taking him inside would be inappropriate.

Alec dashed upstairs and packed his suitcase. Then he went to the kitchen and put scones, apples and oranges in a paper bag. After that, he took ten pounds and some change from the safe in Maurice’s home office.

When Tibbs had parked outside the station, Alec handed him the bag and five shillings. ‘There ye go, son. If it hadn’t been for you, I’d have had to walk three bloody miles. Well, I’m off now. Tell Mr. Hall I’ll ring him tonight.‘

Tibbs grinned wickedly. ‘Gotten some girl into trouble, eh? I thought you wor one of the wrong kind.’

The overseer was one of the very few at the company who knew that Alec was more than just an assistant to the master. ‘You might say so,’ Alec chuckled. ‘I’m seeing her this afternoon to tell her to sell the bloody brat to the circus.‘ Then he dug up some more change from his pocket. ‘There ye go, son. To moisten the gossip about this surprising news with the other lads at the Horse and Bridle.‘

***

‘Maurice Hall speaking.’ – ‘Maurice…? It’s Tony Last. Am I ringing you at an inconvenient time?‘- ‘No, you’re not. How are you, old sport? I presume you’re not on Hetton now?’ – ‘No, I’m in London. More precisely, at Bratt’s. Horrid place.’ – ‘So I’ve been told…I say, are you allright?’ – ‘Um…yes…I suppose so…I was wondering if you would do me the honour of having supper with me at the Ritz tonight?’ – ‘That sounds lovely, Tony, but I believe it would be too much for you. Are you stopping in London?’ – ‘I arrived yesterday. Got a room at the club…Plenty of opportunity for the other gentlemen to stare at me as if I were a ghost. Perhaps I am.’ – ‘Dear me, I’m sorry to hear that…Is Clive with you?’ – ‘No, he’s not.’ – ‘Did you drive down?’ – ‘I did.’ – ‘Well, then you’re more than welcome to stop in Reading…I’m afraid supper will be rather bland. Alec is not in and I’m an atrocious cook.’ – ‘That’s allright, Maurice. Are you sure my visiting you won’t be too much trouble?’ – ‘No, quite on the contrary…Have you a pencil and some paper? I’ll give you my address…’

***

Mrs. Ambrose had sent one of the estate workers to the station in a lorry to pick up Alec. He was grateful for this. At least he’d be with a feller quite like himself before he would have to behave like a middle-class gentleman at Hetton again.

‘How are things at the manor?’ he asked the driver as the vehicle sped down the town’s main road. ‘I reckon everybody’s mighty worried.‘

‘Don’t get me started on that, me lad,’ the man grinned. ‘I’m not going anywhere near it if I can prevent it. The whole bleeding place reminds me too much o’ what I saw at Verdun. Worse than them haunted houses at the cinema. His lordship’s cousin left in his car a few days ago. He wor speedin’ like the dead were chasin’ him. Nearly ran over me when he drove to the gate. If he’d killed me, I recken he’d have sued me relatives for damage caused to his Sunbeam. All them toffs are Robin Hoods gone wrong. They steal money from the poor to give it to the rich.’

Mrs. Ambrose was waiting for him in the hallway. She warmly shook hands with him and rushed him to the servants’ dining room behind the kitchen. Lady Brenda’s nurse joined them presently. They had tea, sandwiches and biscuits.

The nurse was a sweet woman in her early fifties, all smiles but with something restless about her. ‘After you left Hetton last week, her ladyship cried and cried,’ she said to Alec. ‘She kept screaming ‘I want Mr. Scudder. Send for him or else I’ll die.’ It’s not unusual for  expecting women to be melancholic and nervous, but they usually want their own mothers or sisters around for comfort…She wouldn’t let the doctor examine her, she threatened to strangle me if I so much as felt her pulse. We had no choice but to ask Mrs. Ambrose to get into contact with you. I’m sorry if it’s any trouble and quite frankly, I wouldn’t know what you could do for her. Besides, I believe it’s even rather inappropriate that you are staying here now. His lordship left for London yesterday and his cousin is visiting his family in Wiltshire.’

Clever move, Alec thought. Mr. Durham pretending to be related to Lord Anthony. Of course he’s not, or else the two of them would be committing a sin far worse than buggery.

Mrs. Ambrose gave him a quick look as she filled his teacup. ‘You’re always in good spirits, Mr. Scudder,’ she grinned. ‘You just thought of something amusing, didn’t you?’

Right then, a piercing cry rang through the house. It reminded him of the helpless whinnying of horses dying on the battlefields or the last screams of comrades who had inhaled the invisible gas in the Polygon Wood.

The nurse flew up from her chair. ‘I’ll check on her now,’ she panted. ‘And I’ll let you know when you can see her, Mr. Scudder.‘

 

Chapter Text

As soon as he stepped over the threshold of the Hall residence in Reading, Tony knew that it would have been more sensible to spend the night at the club.

It was Saturday evening now, a time for leisure and rest, but Maurice was still dressed in his office attire. The host fussed over his guest like a hermit receiving company after years of silence. He insisted that Tony take off his uncomfortable leather shoes and use Scudder’s felt slippers. Then he looked out the window and saw Tony’s car parked along the pavement.

‘You might have left it in the drive,’ he said. ‘The street is rather narrow and you would not want some fool to knock off a side mirror, would you…? Oh, don’t worry, I’ll move it. You look too nervous to touch a wheel anyway…Just hand me the key.’

A few minutes later, the Ford was safely parked inside the gate.

‘You might want to have the clutch checked,’ Maurice said. ‘It’s rather spongy and soon you won’t be able to shift gears anymore…I’ll ring the garage where my Daimler is serviced on Monday morning…Well, how about a nice cup of tea?’

As they sat drinking in the drawing-room, Maurice merely shrugged his shoulders when he learned that Clive had fled to Pendersleigh. ‘It will be Easter soon and I believe he told me that his children will spend their holiday there…Of course, Anne will be with them, too. They’re twelve now and they’ve both been recommended to be enrolled in a boarding school that will earn them better qualifications for college…Clive and Anne have to meet to fill out endless admission forms. But of course, you know that already.‘

Tony didn’t know. Or perhaps Clive had told him and he’d forgotten all about it. He loved Annie and Christopher as if he were their uncle, but their scholastic success was of precious little interest to him.

‘But I can see that you’re lonely now, poor dear,’ Maurice said in a fatherly fashion. Then he grinned. ‘In fact, so lonely that you decided to contend with a stay in a semi-detached house with only two bedrooms upstairs. The other ones are unfurnished. We never entertain guests here. But I do hope you’ll be quite comfortable in my bed. I’ll sleep in Alec’s room.’

Tony took this as a display of middle-class modesty which covered deep-rooted irony.

The meal that Maurice provided stressed his assumption. The host served more tea, and bread, butter, potted beef, hard-boiled eggs and dried fruit with it. ‘Alec is a marvelous chef,‘ he sighed. ‘He became best friends with the cooks in the block. Some of them got Cordon Bleu diplomas. His filet mignon and gratineed cauliflower are to die for, not to mention his creme brulée.’

‘You do miss him, don’t you?’ Tony asked, feeling a melancholic glow rise within him. ‘Quite terribly so,’ Maurice acquiesced. ‘Whenever he’s not here, I pace up and down the room, smoking and drinking, or I play the piano. Luckily, he’s not in the habit of spending nights in London…But he’s at Hetton now. I apologize for him barging in on you in your absence, but I could not stop him.’

Tony dropped his fork. It fell to the floor with a twang. ‘I say, dear, you’re a bundle of nerves,’ Maurice smiled, rising from his chair to get another fork from the dresser.

Dear, Tony thought. What am I now? A child? A pet dog? I disliked it when he old-sported me, but this is worse. Then reality hit him. ‘What?’ he stammered. ‘Scudder went to Hetton? When? Why?‘

‘He took the train this afternoon,’ Maurice said. ‘I assumed Ambrose would have told you. You rang to inquire if all is well on Hetton, didn’t you?’

Tony usually did, but he had forgotten now. Nothing could be done. It would be bad form to ring the butler and have him tell the unexpected guest to leave. Surely Scudder had travelled to Hetton to see Brenda. It made Tony feel inadequate.

He heard himself telling Maurice now how things had been at home. Brenda wouldn’t see him, she barely slept and the nurse had reported that she felt she was dying. The doctor had reassured him that her ladyship was in good health, albeit rather nervous. Tony had found it annoying how she kept roaring Scudder’s name, threatening to harm herself if he wouldn’t come. ‘If you gave in to her every whim, she’d want more and more later on,’ the nurse had warned him. ‘It will pass…It’s quite sufficient to give her whatever she wants to eat. That is actually essential, sir.‘

Tony was sobbing now. ‘The maid got scared of Brenda. She gave Ambrose her notice.‘

He fell silent to nurse the wide current of thoughts that boiled in him, and presently he felt two soft, strong arms embracing him from behind and a kiss being planted on the crown of his head. ‘You’re in a muddle,’ Maurice whispered. ‘Have some brandy.’

The host cleared the table and then got a bottle and two snifters from the dresser.

They toasted and drank. Tony offered Maurice a cigarette. They lit up and let their eyes wander through the room. It was pleasantly decorated with mahogany furniture and pearl-grey wallpaper. The double doors led to a parlour with a rosewood grand piano,

‘Ah, I see what you’re looking at,’ Maurice smiled. ‘How about some music? It will lift your spirits.’

He’s a terrific host, Tony thought, he made a lovely meal, and I’m an annoying guest. I didn’t even bring a gift and he let himself be banished from his own bedroom. This requires a friendly gesture from me.

He was a rotten player, but when Maurice switched on the light in the parlour and opened the flap of the keyboard, he knew there was no way out.

Maurice put a chair next to the piano stool and sat down. Tony blundered through some sonatas by Czerny, all thumbs and hitting the wrong keys and feeling Maurice’s kind eyes on him, like a grandfather praising his untalentled grandchild for playing so nicely.

‘That was lovely,’ Maurice smiled when Tony had finished. ‘But I believe you’re rather out of practice. Shame on you – Clive loves music.’

Clive was even more of a rotten piano player himself, but he collected gramophone records and always had the radio on when he was driving.

‘Let’s have some Ravel,’ Maurice suggested. ‘Would you swap seats with me? Ah, this is going to be a treat. Alec hates classical music. As for this composer, he once said: ‘The only good thing about this feller is that he’s got the same Christian name as you, but the rest is rubbish, mate.’

Tony heard himself laugh now. The Hall residence was a place of mirth.

Maurice sat down and played the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, mechanically and subdued for he must barely have time to practice, but the touch of the virtuoso was prevalent, rising as he got to the Modéré, until he stopped and looked at Tony. ‘I can tell you’re shivering,’ he said worriedly. ‘What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?’

‘Clive and I once waltzed to this,’ Tony stammered. ‘He led me through his study as the wireless played…It was amazing how he could dance so well to the rhythm.’

Maurice ran his fingers over Tony’s chin. ‘I know,’ he whispered. ‘Only Clive can do things like that…He’s a person, but a mood as well. Castles in the sky and spring rains and Mediterranean nights in flowering gardens.’

Maurice decided to play something different. Soon he was striking perfect chords and singing. Tony recognized the ragtime. ‘Ima take the train to Georgia, to the place where I was born…‘ ‘Cotton fields be waitin’, oh Lord, I’m coming home,‘ he sang along. Then his voice broke and tears ran down his face.

***

Mrs. Ambrose came rushing into Vancouver. ‘Pardon me to disturb you, Mr. Scudder,’ she panted. ‘But Mr. Hall wishes to speak to you on the telephone. You might answer it in Brussels.‘

Alec rose from the chair beside Brenda’s bed and grinned. 'No rest for the weary,‘ he said. ‘He’s probably going to scold me for forgetting to polish his boots this morning.’

‘That’s horrid,’ Brenda laughed. ‘Please take your time. I’ll be allright.’

Presently, he was in the room he’d been given for his stay. He sat down on the bed and picked up the receiver. ‘Hullo mate,’ he said, unable to suppress a slight panic. ‚Yes, I arrived safely…Someone picked me up from the station…Lady Brenda is feeling better. She’s had her tea and she laughed a great deal when I told her stories about what I saw in Paris when I was on leave during the war and all the things you and I went through in America last year…Oh, it’s no trouble, Maurice…What? He’s with you? Mrs. Ambrose told me he’d gone to London on business? Well, that’s nice, he’s supposed to be here with his wife, what a bas-…Allright, allright…He’s wearing my slippers now? Wish you hadn’t said that. I’ll have them gilded and framed and hung up over me bed…What? He’s sleeping in yours? Good one, I’ll never change them sheets again. If I lie on them, that’s the closest I’ll ever get to him, God help me…Oh, you played the Raffle tune? And he didn’t get sick? Blimey, not even from your cooking? Send him my regards, will ye…I’m going back to Lady Brenda now…Yes, she’s doing grand, please tell him…Kiss-kiss, my love, don’t do anything I would do, eh? Goodnight, darling.’

 

Chapter Text

Ever since his return from the Swiss clinic where he had spent months recovering from a terrible disease, John Beaver had taken to spending Friday and Saturday nights with his mother at home. The ailment had caused him to lose a lot of weight and hair. He was thirty but he looked fifty. He seldom got invitations to lunches or parties now. Out of utter boredom, he had even accepted a job as a bank teller. His mother thought this was way below his station, but she was proud of him and was clearly happy to have him with her in the evenings.

It was going on ten o’clock now and they had just had tea. The wireless was playing an unimpressive tune. Mrs. Beaver was reclining in a comfortable chair and reading a newspaper. He was sitting at the table, trying to fill out a crossword and planning on submitting it. The prize was fabulous – fifty pounds. His ticket out of London.

He felt her eyes over her reading glasses on him. ‘I met Jane Higgenhurst for cocktails the other day,’ she said. ‘She told me the oddest thing. She had dined with Polly Cockpurse and Hermione Weatherstone a few days earlier, and they told her how they’d seen Brenda Rex at Paddington Station. On a Saturday night, very late, would you believe that? Apparently, she was looking rather shabby. A man was with her. Polly was sure that it was you.‘

John felt saved. ‘Must be a misunderstanding, Mumsy,‘ he smiled. 'As you know, I have not gone out in weeks.’

Her eyes were piercing now. ‘Hermione said that she was sure that Brenda Rex was expecting.’

So what, he thought, bending over his crossword again.

‘John.’ His mother’s voice was like a dagger now. ‘John, look at me…’

‘It wasn’t me, Mumsy,’ he whimpered, knowing how his childlike moods always soothed her. But not now.

‘John, please be honest,’ she said. ‘You wouldn’t…‘

‘No, I wouldn’t, Mumsy,‘ he answered. 'I last saw her in 1932. Really, I wouldn’t even know who she’s with now.‘

The look in his mother’s wise brown eyes told him she didn’t believe him.

‘Oh well,’ she then sighed, folding up her newspaper. ‚I’ll take your word for it then.‘

***

Maurice was sitting next to Tony on the sofa, drawing from his pipe with sparkling eyes.

‘Alec and I were travelling from Baltimore to Charleston in a hired car last year,’ he said. ‘We stopped at a roadside café for lunch. It was full of lorry drivers and coach passengers, not a place I would choose to have a meal, but one just can’t resist steak and fried onions and roast potatoes…Have you ever been to America?’

‘Once,’ Tony said. ‘My éducation sentimentale between two terms at Oxford. I only got as far as Poughkeepsie, my cousin Charles lives there.‘

Maurice nodded in appreciation. ‘I’ve never been to New York State,’ he said. ‘One to nil for you then…Anyhow, Alec and I ordered food and coffee and when we were ready for pudding, he asked if he could be excused. He left the table and came back five minutes later, with bulging eyes and his handkerchief pressed to his mouth. I thought it was car sickness. It only affects passengers – he doesn’t drive, you know. He sat down and whispered he’d seen something grand. In a roadside lavatory, mind you. He wouldn’t elaborate. Only when we were in the car again did he tell me. He’d seen a few lines scribbled on the wall of a stall: Here I sit, broken-hearted, paid a cent and only farted.’

They burst out laughing. ‘Your voice is lovely,’ Maurice hiccupped. ‘But I had to drive and to contend with a sniggering man beside me all the way down to Charleston. I was rather tired when we reached the hotel – and out of breath because I’d been laughing as well.’

***

‘You can see the funniest things on lavatory walls in America, you know,‘ Alec said to Brenda, who was in bed. She laughed again. He had given her all the messages left by desperate travelers. If you want to have a good time, please call…with a telephone number under it. Clumsily drawn pictures of things that had happened or had at least had been wished for in the stalls. And not only about men-and-women. ‘It’s very illegal in America,’ Alec explained. ‘But the heart wants what the body wants. You can’t escape that, love.‘

Brenda grinned and asked him to tell her again about the shows he had seen in the artistic quarters of Paris during the war. Men wearing short dresses and garters and women in trousers walking wide-legged like men, performing acts for a few francs‘ entrance fee.

There was something soothing about this, even though it was plain ridiculous, especially the artists who danced in the nude, claiming to imitate primitive people as was in fashion then.

The war had forever changed everybody’s outlook on the difference in sexes. ‘I believe that’s a good thing,’ Alec said. ‘Some time ago, I ran into a Scotch feller in London. We’d been bunk mates in the trenches at Ypres and we’d had grand times in Paris. ‘Of course things’ll change for the better, lad,’ he said to me. ‘In a few decades, there’ll no longer be boys and girls or men and women – only wankers.’

Brenda was bending over and howling. In between roars of laughter, she told him to shut up.

Then her glee left her. She put a hand on her stomach.

Alec gasped. 'Shall I ring for the nurse?‘ He asked. ‘Might you…‘

She shook her head. ‘No, thank you,’ she huffed. ‘I had this when I was expecting John Andrew. The baby’s not due yet.’

But when the bout of pain had passed, she leaned back into the pillows and asked him in a very sweet voice if he would spend the night at her side. It would make her feel better.

Alec changed into his pyjamas in Brussels and went back to her room. He slid under the sheets, kissed her goodnight and waited for her to turn off the light. When all was dark, he felt her slowly crawling up to him. Her heavy stomach rested against his back, sending faint kicks from the baby up his spine, a comforting feeling like sleeping in a rocking chair.

 

Chapter Text

Tony and Maurice were preparing to go to bed. Scudder’s message had been soothing like a refreshing tonic. All was well at Hetton.

Still, Tony felt very bad about taking his host’s bed. 'It’s no trouble at all, dear,‘ Maurice said. ‘Hang on…I shall sleep with you then. Clive told me you’re prone to nightmares. I’ll take up the bottle of brandy. You can’t spend the night alone.’

Tony changed into his pyjamas in Scudder’s room and then joined Maurice, who was in his own bed, smoking a cigarette and staring at the ceiling. As Tony slid under the sheets, the host bit his lip to suppress his amusement. ‘Dear me,’ he murmured. ‘Imagine Alec not wanting to change the bedding anymore because you’ve touched it. This house will fall apart at the seams soon.’

‘Like my car,’ Tony smiled, settling in the pillows that smelled faintly of lemon. He sniffed. ‘You’re on Alec’s side now,’ Maurice said. ‘That’s his eau de cologne. The original, from Cologne.’ Tony sniffed again. ‘And what’s the other scent?’ ‘Sandalwood soap,’ Maurice murmured. ‘That’s me.’ ‘Heavenly,’ Tony sighed.

Maurice took off his glasses and stretched languidly. The top buttons of his pyjama shirt got undone, exposing skin with a haze of golden blond on it.

Tony had never seen Maurice without his eyewear. He could now make out thick eyelids and surprisingly dark lashes. Then his gaze wandered down again. ‘You’ve got hair on your chest,’ he lisped. ‘I didn’t think you would have.’

Maurice bent over and softly kissed him on the lips. ‘How did you think I would look then?’

‘All smooth,’ Tony said. ‘I mean…like…’

Clive. The name was not mentioned and yet it hung in the fragrant air.

‘What’s Clive like?’ Maurice wanted to know. ‘By the way, will you have some brandy?’

The host poured one glass, which they shared. The mild intoxication made Tony relax even more. ‘I suppose you know how Clive looks,’ he smiled. ‘All over.’

Maurice shook his head and, a little sadly, told Tony how he had only gotten acquainted to Clive’s face and hands. They had been despairingly chaste at Cambridge, only exchanging fleeting kisses when they were alone.

‘So you never slept with him,’ Tony concluded, unbuttoning his own pyjama shirt. ‘I’m sorry, I’m feeling rather hot now…’ Then a delicious, teasing mood seized him. ‘Clive has a smooth chest,’ he went on. ‘And delightful nipples and a bellybutton to die for. When I kiss him there, he goes mad with sheer lust.’

He felt Maurice’s fingers drawing circles on his torso now. When two thumbs slid over his nipples, he shivered with pleasure and instantly explored Maurice’s downy patch of skin with closed eyes. Their lips melted together in an unexpected kiss tasting of brandy and pipe tobacco. They drifted apart and fixed one another’s gazes.

‘Clive is delectably mischievous,’ Tony whispered. ‘He’s ever the gentleman and the fiercest solicitor at the Old Bailey in daytime, but as soon as we’re in bed, he’ll shed his armour and become his own self. He’ll whisper that he’s longing for me and that he wants to feel me deep inside him…It’s heaven, pure heaven. I can only wish that you and Scudder to experience the same.’

Maurice lit another cigarette and laughed. ‘Don’t worry, we do. Well, Alec is rather different. And annoying at times. When I’m in bed, exhausted after a long day’s work, he’ll crawl up to me and growl: ‘Nail me to the bleedin’ wall, mate.’ I can never resist him…Oh, we have our more romantic, intimate moments as well. Just being in each other’s arms, sharing pleasures and baring our souls to one another. Love is a ship, but lust is the engine…How surprising, Tony. You are the man in your relationship. I thought it would be the other way around, because Clive is older.’

‘He is,’ Tony nodded. ‘But we both prefer it like this…I never believed that passion could be so profound…nor that the simple things like sleeping together naked and kissing intimately while we’re having our first cups of coffee in bed in the morning could be so blissful…I take it you’re the man with Scudder? He’s younger than you, isn’t he?’

Maurice nodded absently, but then his eyes grew clear again. ‘Barely,’ he mumbled. ‘He’s forty-five, I’m forty-six…He looks younger, though…I suppose he could have any man in London if he wanted to. But apart from loving and caring, he’s loyal.’

‘He’s a nice fellow,’ Tony agreed. ‘I rather like him, even though the idea of him being smitten with me is disgusting. He’s got you, you’re beautiful, why would he indulge…’

‘Ah, that’s were being older becomes relevant,’ Maurice interrupted tenderly. ‘When you get to a certain age, you get worn out from being decent and reserved for society’s sake. You are more inclined to simply admit that you’ve taken a fancy to someone else…And as things go, it will pass…Come, snuggle up to me a bit…You’re irresistible. How happy Clive must be every time he takes you in his arms…My beauty, won’t you kiss me? Your lips make Clive melt, he told me so himself…’

Tony felt himself weaken as he and Maurice both wriggled out of their pyjamas and drawers.

‘You can have me,’ he whispered. ‘All of me.’ 

'Don’t mind if I do,’ Maurice said, leaning over to take a tin of petroleum jelly from the nightstand. ‘If you let me be the man…I promise it won’t hurt.’

They united again, exploring one another, kissing deeply and one marveling at the other’s visible arousal. Then Maurice slowly lowered his body on Tony’s and gently, ever so gently, slid inside him. Tony enjoyed the feel of Maurice’s heavy physique and his silky chest hair and his soft baritone moans, so unlike Clive but just as wonderful. They made love for hours and then sank into a blissful sleep, in each other’s arms.

Chapter Text

Alec was sitting on the bed in Brussels, wearing a dressing gown over his pyjamas and going through the contents of a box that had been delivered the day before. There were cotton nappies, safety pins, tiny white nightgowns and adorable crocheted jackets and trousers. He found a rattle that broke as soon as he shook it, and then four bottles with rubber teats in various sizes. That was all. He cursed.

There was a knock on the door. ‘Come in,’ he said, and in walked the nurse, looking very professional in a black dress and a starched apron. At this hour, on a Sunday morning. The bloody church bells were ringing. Some people just loved their jobs too much.

‘Ah, the mail order has arrived,’ the nurse said. ‘Let me see if they sent all…’

‘Good morning, Miss,’ Alec squeaked, feeling amused that she had not greeted him first, a sure display of what dear Maurice called ‘bad form’.

‘Well, the clothes are fine,’ the nurse said, fondling the garments. ‘And enough bottles, thank heavens.’

‘No Lactogen, though,’ Alec remarked. ‘Those things aren’t very useful if there’s nothing to put in them, I reckon.’

She gave him a caustic look. He had seen women handle their babies more than he cared to remember. And of course, since he always did the shopping at home, he had many a chance to overhear what housewives ordered at the chemist’s.

‘You’ve got a point there, Mr. Scudder,’ the nurse admitted. ‘But I can still send for it. Just in case.’ Alec knew that too. In this day and age, ladies breastfed their babies instead of leaving them with wet nurses. But then again, sometimes mothers had no milk. He had a notion that this would be poor Brenda’s fate, too.

‘I just spoke to the maid,’ the nurse said, sitting down on a chair next to the bed. ‘She told me you spent the night at her ladyship’s side. I appreciate that you want to care for her, but this is rather unwholesome…If anything’s the matter, she can always ring for me.’

Unwholesome, Alec thought, for whom? Brenda, the baby or me? What a load of rubbish.

‘I’ll spare you the details of why this is so,’ the nurse went on. ‘I suppose you know enough about these matters anyway. Her ladyship should preferably sleep alone until about three weeks after the birth.’

Nice one, Alec thought. This woman probably thinks I’m Brenda’s lover or the poor brat’s father. What does she know? Not a lot. If I told her that I’m of the wrong kind, she’d feed me to the dogs. Why are educated people so stupid?

‘Her ladyship was in a bit of pain last night,’ he said. ‘I thought I should be around in case…’

‘Very kind of you,’ the nurse interrupted him. ‘But really, I tend to her and so does  the doctor. You can read to her if you wish. But not today. She needs to rest.’

‘Stupid ol’ bitch,’ Alec said very softly through clenched teeth as she marched out of the room.

***

Tony and Maurice shaved side by side at the sink in the bathroom. Then they had a bath together, washing each other lovingly with a soapy flannel. After that, they had breakfast with coffee, a cigarette and some brandy to calm their nerves.

The day was pleasantly warm. They went for a stroll in the park and stopped to listen to a military band playing marching tunes. Maurice sang along, using the not-so-appropriate trench verses that had replaced the original lyrics during the war.

They moved on, bought chocolates from a street vendor and talked. Sometimes, they disappeared behind a clump of trees to kiss. When they ran out of sweets, they decided to have luncheon in a restaurant.

When they were having tea at home, Tony offered to prepare supper. He told Maurice how he had learned to cook a bit when he had been stuck in Santarém, waiting for a steamer to take him to Macapá. ‘It would be too much for you, dear,’ Maurice said. ‘All those memories, and not pleasant ones, I presume.’ That was true, to a certain extent. Maurice had seen all the faint pink spots on Tony’s arms and legs, scars from cabouri fly bites.

But Tony was feeling stronger than he had in a long time. ‘No trouble at all,’ he said.

He went to the larder and found rice and tinned stew, some onions and pickled pineapple.

Maurice watched him, drawing from his pipe and with adoring eyes as he prepared a Brazilian dish.

They had a delicious supper with Irouléguy, a wine about which Maurice remarked that it was the only one strong enough to go with spicy food.

Scudder telephoned and asked demurely if he could speak to his lordship. ‘Pardon me to disturb you,’ he said when Maurice had handed the receiver to Tony. ‘It’s only to tell you that her ladyship is very well. Nurse gave her bread and milk just now and she finished the whole bowl.’ ‘ That’s marvelous, Mr. Scudder,’ Tony said. ‘I really appreciate that you keep her company. I’m afraid my car is giving me some trouble. I cannot return to Hetton before it’s fixed, but Mr. Hall has kindly offered to contact a garage tomorrow. Thank you again, my good man, and goodnight.’

Only when he hung up and saw Maurice’s puzzled stare did he realize that he had not told Scudder to give his regards to his wife.

Chapter Text

The next day, Tony drove his car to a garage with Maurice following in the Daimler.

‘A Ford, Mr. Hall?’ the head mechanic said when they had stepped out of their vehicles. ‘And a very old one, too? It might be a bit tricky if it’s the clutch.’ The yard was full of Bentleys, Aston Martins and fancy German makes. ‘Please do all you can,’ Maurice pleaded. ‘Lord Last needs his car very soon to travel back to Hertfordshire.’ This did not impress the man.

‘They can afford to forfeit you as a customer,’ Maurice said as they drove back in the Daimler. ‘They don’t deem you posh enough, I’m afraid.’ This made Tony laugh.

When Maurice had dropped him off home on his way to the office, all went dark.

Tony made some coffee, took his cup into the garden to admire Scudder’s rhododendron bushes, smoked five cigarettes in half an hour and then left on foot to buy more. Maurice had given him a spare key.

The shop was full of housewives and servants talking a mile a minute and complaining about the prices of flour and sugar. When the last tin of Lactogen – whatever that might be – went over the counter, a row ensued. The owner roared at his customers to keep down the bloody racket but became all smiles when it was Tony’s turn. ‘Yes, we sell Lucky Strikes, sir,’ he said. ‘How many packs? Four? Well, there’s enough to go around…Will that be all, sir? Thank you most kindly.’ ‘And no bleedin’ Woodbines,’ a girl in a shabby coat complained. ‘It’s the toffs as get their fags again. Lord knows we needs those more than they do.’

Tony felt relieved when he was walking down the road to Maurice’s house again, holding a paper bag and wondering if he might get robbed, even though this was a sound middle-class neighbourhood.

***

Annie and Christopher were happily going around in circles on their ponies. Clive stood by the fence, cigarette in hand, watching them and feeling endeared at the sight. It was true what people said.  Children grew up rather too fast. It was odd that this glorious afternoon did so little to lift his spirits to a higher level. ‘Look, Daddy, I’m going to jump now,’ Christopher squealed. The pony rather stepped than jumped over a very low barrier. Clive applauded. ‘That’s wonderful, my boy,’ he called out.

He watched his children jump for some time after that, growing increasingly nervous and bored, until Simcox, the old butler’s nephew, came marching down the path. ‘Lord Last is on the telephone,’ he announced without excusing himself for the intrusion first.

‘Uncle Tony, Uncle Tony,’ Annie squeaked. ‘Is he coming to Pendersleigh to watch us jump,  Daddy?’ ‘Well, he might,’ Clive said. The girl’s expression grew sad.

He hurried to the house and then bounded up the stairs to the Blue Room. He picked up the receiver. ‘Tony, my love,’ he said. ‘You finally remembered me…Oh, you’re crying…I wish I were with you, then I’d comfort you…What, in Reading? Staying at Maurice’s house…? Car broken down? Well, that was bound to happen, you are ever so neglectful, dear…What? Tony, you’re going mad…stark raving mad, I’d say…No, I’ll have none of your speech…Have a brandy, have Maurice play the piano for you…Yes, I’ll ring you, but not today…You ought to get yourself together first…What, Scudder is on Hetton now? What a grotesque announcement, did you invite him? Oh yes, I will send for my belongings…Please don’t feel guilty, things develop the way they should…I’ll remain in touch…Give my love to Maurice, will you?’

You already did that, I suppose, Clive thought as he slammed down the receiver.

Chapter Text

Alec was woken from his first sleep by a piercing cry. He sat up in the bed, switched on the light and clutched the little framed photograph of Maurice that he always took with him on travels. A loud wail was heard, followed by a profuse bout of crying.

As he looked at Maurice’s sweet image, tears ran down his face. For the first time since his school years, he found himself praying. ‘Dear God in Heaven, please look after Brenda and her baby. Please let them live.’ He was sure that his friend had gone into labour.

Huddled in the blankets, he listened to the sounds coming from Vancouver. In between moments of dreadful silence, he could hear her calling out a name. His name.

I can’t be with you now, love, he thought. I would if I could, but it’s inappropriate.

There was a knock on the door. ‘Come in,’ he cried.

The doctor stepped in. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you,’ the man said. ‘Her ladyship would like to see you.’

‘I couldn’t possibly,’ Alec retorted. ‘I’m not a doctor like yourself and not a nurse either.’

The man now walked over to the bed and sat down on the chair next to it. ‘I know,’ he said kindly. ‘It’s not what a man ought to do…But her ladyship is in distress. Nurse is rather strict, but I tend to condone the outcome of recent scientific research. It’s very beneficial for a woman in labour to have a friend at her side. It seems that you are the only one present who would qualify as such. Please come with me. I’ll convince nurse yet.’

And so Alec got out of the bed and into his dressing-gown and followed the doctor to Vancouver. What was discussed between the good man and the nurse faded away from his receptive mind as he sat down next to Brenda’s bed and sought her hand. She was recovering from a contraction and looked at him with a brittle smile on her sweaty face. He found a cloth and dabbed her forehead. ‘Alec, my Alec,’ she whispered. ‘Please don’t leave me.’

And he wouldn’t. All through the night he sat next to her, coaxing her into sipping some warm milk to soothe her throat that was sore with crying. There were quiet moments that sent him to sleep until another groan woke him up. Whenever the nurse left to go to the lavatory or to have some tea, he opened up his box of stories. When dawn was near, he told Brenda about the Argentine, where he had been on business and to see his brother Fred, who owned a meat packing plant in Bahia Blanca. ‘It’s really grand,’ he said. ‘Imagine any feller with no schooling like myself being able to buy himself a big house and drive a motor car. And food is ever so cheap there. People stuff their gobs with beef and potatoes and rice as they please. There are always several pies for pudding, not only measly custard…And the weather is always lovely. Not those shitty overcast skies and rain like in good old England.’

‘Lovely indeed,’ Brenda said. ‘You make me envious…I’ve only gone as far as Italy…’

She said no more, for then another contraction hit her and the nurse rushed in, looked under the blankets and said something about dilation - whatever that was. Brenda wailed.

The sun was higher in the sky when cloths and scissors were produced and the doctor asked him to step back. Nobody cared about how he could see all of Brenda now. He had slept with girls as a young lad, but what he saw now was different. It even smelled different – of blood, which reminded him of the trenches. Yet he could not avert his eyes.

‘There we are,’ the doctor said. The nurse rubbed the creature with a wet cloth and fingered its little mouth to remove some mucus and then it uttered a few mewling cries, which soon became loud squalls.

Alec rushed over to Brenda, who was on the verge of fainting. He took her hand and squeezed it. ‘Don’t worry,’ the nurse smiled. ‘Her ladyship is allright.’

‘Would you do me the honour and cut the umbilical cord, sir?’ the doctor asked kindly.

Alec took a pair of scissors with trembling hands and eyes misted over with tears. ‘Don’t worry, it won’t hurt,’ the doctor encouraged him. And so he snipped, like he had done many times as a farmhand tending to new-born lambs.

When the baby was clean and dressed, the nurse put it in his arms. He wanted to ask her if it wouldn’t be better off in bed with its mother, but then he remembered the tale about how women shed contagious fluids after the delivery, which he considered rubbish.

He sat there holding the child. It was quiet and probably asleep. He didn’t notice straight away that the doctor and the nurse had left. When he did, he assumed that they were off to a well-earned breakfast.

Brenda was lying in bed with her eyes closed. He could tell she was awake, though.

‘Would you like to see your baby, love?’ he asked softly. ‘It’s beautiful.’

Her eyes slowly opened. Then she cleared her throat. ‘Take it away,’ she said hoarsely. ‘ I don’t want it.’

Chapter Text

Tony was sitting in Maurice’s drawing-room trying to concentrate on a book when the telephone rang. Maurice, he thought, or no…Clive. My Clive, you were so cross with me the other day, and quite rightly so.

‘Hall residence,’ he said happily into the receiver. ‘It’s Maurice,’ he heard. Then there was a silence filled with sobs from the other end of the line. ‘I sent my secretary to the other room so that I could talk undisturbed…The baby was born an hour ago. It’s fine and so is Brenda. It's a…’

‘Don’t tell me,’ Tony interrupted him, sweating and shivering. ‘They’re both well, that’s what counts…I suppose Scudder rang you at the office?’ ‘He did,’ Maurice answered. ‘He was with Brenda all the time…I couldn’t make much of what he was saying, he was crying like a child. Brenda does not want to see the baby. The nurse had it taken to her own room.’

Maurice then said that it was essential that Tony leave for Hetton straight away. After all, the Ford had been repaired. Tony protested, omitting remarks about how he had come to enjoy staying in Reading -  the elegant house, their wonderful lovemaking.

‘Please go,’ Maurice pleaded. ‘You must be in no state to drive. I’ll be along soon with Tibbs in the Daimler. He’s my warehouse overseer and he was my chauffeur  when I got laid up with a sprained ankle last year. He can manage anything on four wheels. He’ll drive you to Hetton in the Ford. I would have if it hadn’t been for a business meeting I’m hosting here this afternoon…Or rather, even if I could, I still would have Tibbs do it…Would you like me to notify Clive on Pendersleigh?’

‘Please leave him out of this,’ Tony said. ‘It’s none of his business and besides, I suppose he’s busy enough spending time with Annie and Christopher.’

‘That proves how he is,’ Maurice said. ‘You might learn a thing or two from him. Ever since Brenda returned to Hetton, you’ve never shown any interest in her baby. I appreciate your reservations since it’s not yours, but damn it, why are children taken for granted? They are human beings too, you know…I might ring Clive after all. And please have your suitcase ready in about half an hour…Bye.’

***

It was very late in the afternoon when Tony walked into Clive’s study still wearing his hat and coat and quite clueless about where else to go. The fact that Tibbs had driven straight to the nearby station to board the next train saddened him. ‘You can manage a few miles to yer own ’ouse, sir,’ the good man had said. ‘I have to be back at work. Mr ‘All relies on me.’

Tony had given him enough money to have a meal on the way and to take a taxi in Reading.

He felt lonely now, aching for the comfort this room gave him with its faint smell of sandalwood soap and cigar smoke.

Clive was sitting in an easy chair near the window, his hair shining in the warm afternoon light. His eyes behind the platinum-rimmed spectacles were ablaze with love and looking down on a little bundle in his arms. He looked up and smiled sweetly, sending the world into oblivion and reinstating all that Tony had longed for. ‘Come here,’ he whispered. ‘Look at the baby…It’s precious, ever so precious.’ He gently folded back the blanket and held it up for Tony to see.

Tony bent over and looked into a little face, slightly red and wrinkled like that of an old man.

He remembered the ever-prevailing joke at Bratt’s  about how all newborns looked like Winston Churchill, to which he had always agreed.

He could see Brenda’s features around the closed eyes and the nose, very much like John Andrew had been. When he detected some tufts of black hair coming from under a sweet little bonnet, he froze. Who’s the father, he thought. Jock? That atrocious lover, or…Beaver? Despicable Beaver?

Clive handed the baby over to Tony. Now he was holding someone else’s son. It was a baby. It wrinkled his nose now and sneezed softly. ‘Bless you,’ Clive smiled.

Tony felt some pressure on his left index finger. He looked and saw that the baby was holding it, with some difficulty because its hand was so tiny. You want to belong, he thought, you’re someone’s son. What heartless man abandoned you?

‘A strapping little boy,’ he heard himself say. Then Clive smiled again, ancient with knowledge and young with joy. ‘It’s a girl,’ Clive said. ‘A precious little girl…a…’

He could say no more, for now he took off his glasses and clumsily hunted for his handkerchief. ‘Brenda won’t see it,’ he cried. ‘She told the nurse and Scudder to take her away…Scudder wept when I talked to him just now…like I never saw a man weep before.’

Tony forgot about his coat and hat and sat down in a chair opposite Clive, still holding the baby. ‘Brenda never even named it,’ Clive said. ‘I told the nurse to inform her that I would take it upon me to drive to the council and to have the baby registered. Nameless female, born on Hetton Abbey to Brenda Last, father unknown, on April the fourteenth, 1936…I’ll ask for an interview with the magistrate. He's got a law degree like me, and we can rely on him to handle things discreetly.’

Clive then told Tony how Maurice had rung him on Pendersleigh with the news. He had packed his suitcase straight after that and driven back  to Hetton like a man possessed. He believed he had given some unsuspecting cyclists the fright of a lifetime, but he wanted to be sure that he got home in time, because he was unsure whether Tony would show up, in spite of Maurice’s efforts.

I’m back now, Tony thought, oh, how I’m back. Some tears fell on the baby’s crocheted garment. He was still holding the little girl when he felt Clive’s arms around him, forgiving, loving, everlasting.

Chapter Text

Alec had roamed Hetton Park for some time, hating himself and the world in general. The nurse had shooed him away from Vancouver like a smelly dog, telling him that her ladyship needed to rest. He had not felt strong enough to give her a good bollocking for keeping him from seeing his friend. He wanted to talk some sense into Brenda. And he was the only one in this rotten place who could, because he understood to a certain extent why some women didn’t want anything to do with their babies. He also knew how things would always change for the better, and he wanted her to know this.

He now stood next to the garage, kicking pebbles and aching to meet his mates at the Horse and Bridle. But he would not leave Hetton until all was in order.

The doctor came walking down the path, followed by a gardener who held the key to the garage. ‘So you’re going already?’ Alec asked, feeling incredibly daft. The good man nodded. ‘I am. It’s a long drive to London and her ladyship is in good hands – yours and the nurse’s.’

‘Thank you,’ Alec smiled. ‘But you delivered many babies, I reckon. Would you know why some women want to give them away? I really see no logic in that.’

The doctor put down his bag and folded his hands. ‘I couldn’t possibly disclose what I learned,’ he said kindly. ‘After all, you are not related to her ladyship or her daughter…But as a doctor, I can confirm that some women suffer from melancholy before and after the birth. They don’t really want to part with the child, but rather with the circumstances. Sometimes it’s because they dislike the men who fathered them, or because the very idea of another mouth to feed is too much of a burden…And of course, even in these modern times, many expecting mothers wish for sons, if only to please their husbands. If the desired boy turns out to be a girl, it’s the biggest disappointment imaginable, even more for the father, who might blame his spouse for not giving him a male heir…There also are women who lost children and who dread having more because they might face the same fate. There are many, many possible reasons, sir. Just wait for her ladyship to recover. She’ll grow to love her daughter in the end.’

‘Thank you, sir,’ Alec said, touching his cap as if he were still a bleeding gamekeeper. ‘That was all I needed to know.’

***

Tony carefully tiptoed through the door that separated his study from Clive’s. The room was full of celestial light. A faint smell of talcum powder hung in the air.

Clive was sitting at his desk and writing a report, looking incredibly sweet with his spectacles on the tip of his nose and his forehead frowning with reflecting over the lines. He looked up at Tony and smiled, putting a finger to his lips. ‘Sshh…don’t wake her,’ he whispered.

The baby was asleep in a wicker cot on a side table. She held a tiny fist to her mouth and made sucking motions.

Tony sat down on a chair close enough to get a good look of her. He was aching to hold her, but she needed to rest. The telephone was off the hook and Clive took great pains to shift his papers as noiselessly as possible.

It was Friday afternoon now and the baby was four days old. Her jet-black hair stood out in all directions, giving her the appearance of an adorable little leprechaun. Black, like Beaver, like Jock, like so many other men. It didn’t signify.

Brenda had not given the little girl a name. If necessary, Tony would choose one. He was clueless about it. Brenda could not nurse her herself. The baby drank greedily from any bottle that the nurse or Mrs. Ambrose or the maid gave her. A pity, perhaps, but that did not signify either.

‘Let’s have a smoke,’ Clive gestured. He rose from his chair and followed Tony into the adjacent room, closing the door behind him.

They produced their cigarette cases and lit up, smiling at each other. Then they walked to the bay window, which was ajar to let in the fragrant spring air.

Stomping of boots could be heard from the gravel path that ran past the house. A female London voice asked something in an apprehensive tone.

‘Oh yes, why not,’ it then sounded in unmistakable half-Wiltshire, half-East-End dialect. ‘’Oh, would you most kindly of your goodness…’’ It was the perfect imitation of Clive’s late mother. ‘No, I won’t post your letters…What are ye starin’ at, eh? I’m getting pretty bloody sick of this…Know what? Fuck ye, ye look as if you could do with the practice, ye ol’ tart.’

Tony had granted nurse a few days off to recover from her hard work. She was all over Hetton Park now, admiring the bushes and the trees and constantly running into Scudder.

They were not on the best of terms, to put it mildly. She wanted to keep him away from Brenda, but he blatantly ignored this. Furthermore, she thought it ludicrous that the baby slept in Clive’s study during the day. No one smoked in there now, but this was not enough for her.

Hetton had turned into a battlefield, albeit a highly amusing one. Scudder was simply priceless. The former did not signify, the latter did.

Maurice would drive up to Hetton the next day. He would arrive in the evening because he wouldn’t miss work in the morning. The man was truly married to his company. But he would be back. Scudder must miss him terribly now. Well, that did signify.

Brenda still did not want to see the baby, telling the nurse and Mrs. Ambrose to take it to London or to leave it at the doorstep of an orphanage. This signified more than anything else. There was no solution to be found.

The man from Reading and his Daimler would be along soon. It truly seemed as if this fact in itself bore a solution.

***

Alec forfeited any scruples about what he was doing. Spending time at Brenda’s bedside was not illegal or anything. He had fought gunfire and hand grenades in France and Flanders, he had fought the law in London. That stupid nurse didn’t know what life was about.

‘Please let me take up the baby so that you can see her,’ he said to Brenda a hundred times over. ‘She’s such a lovely little one, you’ll be so proud of her.’

Brenda would only shake her head. She smiled when he told her that Mr. Durham and his lordship quarreled over whose turn it was to hold the baby. They were fussing over her like a pair of dim-witted parents. This made her laugh. ‘So she’s not mine anymore,’ she said. ‘Fair enough, she never was.’

It was strange that she liked the stories from his childhood. ‘My youngest sister is called Katie,’ he said to her. ‘She was a sweet little one, so tiny, even though her nappies stank to the high heavens. I was her favourite brother, don’t ask me why. I was fourteen then and I found it embarrassing how she would always follow me on her chubby legs. When she started to talk, she couldn’t figure out my name. So she yelled ‘Licky! Licky!’ every time she saw me. It annoyed me, but then I began to feel happy whenever I heard it. Licky…She still uses it. It’s what ties the bond between her and me, bless her.’

And of course he did not spare her the tale of the only real crime he had ever committed: stealing handfuls of sweets and stuffing them down his trouser pockets as an eight-year-old at a fair. The owner of the stall had dragged him kicking and screaming to the pub where his da was having a pint with his mates. ‘You ought to punish this boy,’ the vendor had told him. ‘Not gonna,’ Da had answered. ‘I’ll have him work in a pub as soon as he leaves school so that he can nick his old folks some gin.’ Yes, his da had been grand like that.

Oh yes, and the best one from later years, on Pendersleigh, early in 1913 or the likes, anyroad before he had met Maurice. Little Evie, Mr. Durham’s two-year-old niece, had gone missing. Alec had found her in the dog kennel, merrily sharing a bowl of raw, cut-up mutton with a pointer. He had picked her up and rushed back to the house, where her mother threw a fit. Mr. Durham, he had been very young then, had been watching quietly. ‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Alec had said. ‘So am I,’ he had nodded. ‘She never had any gravy with her meat, now that’s a pity.’ Alec and Brenda agreed that Mr. Durham was actually a funny one.

Brenda accepted these stories and laughed until her sides hurt, but she still would not ask to see her baby. Alec reckoned he would have to stay on Hetton for a long time yet until she would finally give in. Maurice would fire him for missing work, but frankly speaking, any job was shite when you had more important things to worry about.

Chapter Text

Sitting on a bench outside the stables, Tony read the letter he had written that morning. Dear Brenda, I hope you are well. Your baby is thriving. The nurse, Mrs. Ambrose and the maid see to it that she wants for nothing. She is very happy in her cot in Clive’s study, and her being there gives us immeasurable joy. He and I have come to the conclusion that she would be better off living on Hetton permanently. His dear sister Pippa has already agreed to have her stay on Pendersleigh on school holidays. There are many children there, so the little one would never lack company. We understand your wish to be unburdened and independent, so my offer of renting a house in the North for you still stands. If you accept it, I’ll be overjoyed, for then you’ll find your way back to the happiness you so deserve. Of course, I’d like to know how you feel about this. Please take your time to think it over and rest assured that I will always be there to help you in any way I can. With all my heartfelt love – Tony.

He stuffed the slip of paper in the breast pocket of his riding jacket and went into the stable.

He whistled and Kaiser, expecting a nice treat, neighed a salute.

The mare nuzzled him and gave him a look with wise, brown eyes. ‘Would you?’ he asked her. Her tail went up and down with joy. She did not bolt as he saddled her and then led her outside by her bridle. ‘Are you sure?’ he asked laughing.

He mounted in a single movement and grabbed the reins. The horse started a slow trot until they reached the meadow. She stopped and looked around, like a driver waiting at a railroad crossing. A moment of reflection. Then Tony said ‘Go!’ and spurred her.

The world rushed by as he felt the animal’s muscles quiver under the saddle. A momentum followed, a convulsion with hoofs dug deeply into the soil and then they flew – over a hedge, over a stone wall, over a barrier that collapsed as soon as they had left it behind them, they became speed, a dark blur in the spring landscape, for minutes or hours and days perhaps. Time only stopped or rather became reality again when he led the horse down the gravel path and a grey tweed figure appeared from behind the trees. Tony slowed down and felt a pair of blue eyes on him, radiating admiration.

Clive smiled as Tony stopped a few yards away from him. Then he raised his arms. Tony let go of the reins, grabbed his lover’s hands and slid off the saddle. No words were spoken while they stood there, slightly out of breath, smiling, exchanging a kiss and breathing in the spring air.

***

Clive stood at the bay window of Tony’s study watching the gravel drive outside, waiting for Maurice to arrive from Reading. Now the Daimler majestically rolled towards the steps to the front door. Scudder walked up to the car smiling.

When Maurice got out, his face grew stern. There was some talking. Scudder gestured angrily and then smirked. Maurice threw back his head and laughed. Clive shivered. He could not hear it but he knew the sound that had enraptured him so much at Cambridge.

He opened the window and leaned out. His eyes met Maurice’s, who signaled something enigmatic with gloved hands.

Now the nurse, dressed in an overcoat and a box-shaped hat marched towards the vehicle, fiercely dragging her suitcase. Maurice nodded, took several parcels from the boot that he handed to Scudder and then put in her luggage.

As Scudder walked into the house with his load, the nurse hurriedly got into the passenger’s seat. Maurice climbed in too, started the engine, let it roar for a moment and then sped off.

Clive found Scudder in the hallway juggling his parcels. ‘I say, what’s this?’ he asked. ‘Shall I help you with those? Would you know where Mr. Hall is off to?’

‘The station, sir,’ Scudder said tonelessly. ‘Nurse is going back to London. Mr. Hall will be here shortly.’

Half an hour later, Tony, Clive and Maurice were having tea in the drawing-room. Scudder had politely declined Tony’s invitation to join them. He must now be having his meal with the Ambrose couple in the kitchen.

Maurice waited for Tony to hand him a burning cedar stick to light his pipe. He drew from it, languidly exhaled some fragrant clouds and then chortled. ‘I ought to apologize for Alec’s behaviour,’ he said with sparkling eyes. ‘I don’t understand how the nurse left without notifying me first,’ Tony grumbled. ‘Of course, I don’t blame you, Maurice. It’s nice that you took her to the station. Thank you.’

‘I’m afraid it’s the only solution,’ Maurice said. ‘Alec told me how she had been bullying him about the baby sleeping in Clive’s study. ‘Mr. Durham is never seen without a cigar. Never. It’s hell on little lungs, even if no one smokes in that room now. And you don’t care, do you? All men are the same. They are happy as long as they have something to puff on. Oh, Mr. Durham and his dreadful cigar!’ Well, then Alec told her where to stick it.’

Both Maurice and Tony burst out laughing. It was as if this sordid tale united them once more. To his surprise, Clive found himself laughing too, perhaps out of sheer glee of being rid of the nurse, even though she had done outstanding work on Hetton.

***

John Beaver was sitting at the dining table, feeling proud of having submitted last week’s crossword puzzle to the newspaper. He was now filling out the next one. The prize would again be fabulous and he would not be so stupid as to bet only once.

His mother had come home from her shop rather early. She was having tea in her easy chair by the fire and smoking a cigarette.

Not much had been said until then. Mumsy had nothing to grumble about since he had started earning his own wages instead of living on the pocket money she’d given him.

It was quite safe to spring his latest project on her. ‘I do hope you have no plans for next weekend for me,’ he smiled, lighting a cigarette and sitting down on the sofa opposite her. ‘You see, I got an invitation from Lord Archie London at Bratt’s. Wonderful fellow.’

‘The name sounds vaguely familiar,’ Mumsy smiled. ‘Isn’t he married to one of the Durham girls?’ ‘He is,’ John nodded. ‘To Pippa Durham, in fact. They live on Pendersleigh. I’ve been told it’s a lovely estate.’

Mumsy’s face clouded over. ‘Um…Hang on, dear…Would that be a good place? I suppose it wouldn’t…There’s something like a bad smell about it. I suppose you know that.’

Since he didn’t, she now explained how Pippa’s brother was actually Clive Durham, nicknamed the Lion of the Old Bailey. The very best bar solicitor in London. It so happened that Mumsy was on rather cordial terms with Mary Fetherstonhaugh, who was married to one of Mr. Durham’s former college friends. By the way, the lady owed her twelve pounds for brocade drapes. Whoever had money a-plenty just was not inclined to pay bills on time.

John saw a way to distract Mumsy from his original plan. ‘Well, I’ve heard about Mr. Durham too, you know,’ he smiled. ‘If I meet him, it might provide me with a valuable connection. I don’t want to remain a bank teller until I retire.’

Mumsy scowled at him as if he were an ignorant brat. ‘Oh, you foolish little boy,’ she breathed. ‘Mr. Durham visits Pendersleigh quite often, but he doesn’t live there. He was the only male heir, but he signed over his estate to Pippa and Archie London…Mary told me that he moved to Hetton Abbey. Apparently, he’s distantly related to Tony Last.’ Her face grew stern.

‘I don’t believe you never knew this, my son. I always told you to pay attention when other people were talking…John, have you something up your sleeve? If so, you’d better tell me. I understand you are yearning to amuse yourself, but Pendersleigh is a bad place…Mary is ever so discreet, but she’s not a fool. From what she told me, I could make up that Mr. Durham and Mr. Last are…how shall I put this…more than friends…It’s despicable, plain and utterly despicable. I wouldn’t have you associate with any of the Durhams.’

John shrugged. Archie had told him about his children, all seven of them. The youngest was five years old. The two oldest, Evie and Joan, were twenty-five and twenty-three and probably unattached. John knew he was no longer the most coveted bachelor in London. He had gone nearly bald and he was thirty-one. Time was running out. A girl from a good family in the country would have less suitors to pick from and would be more likely to succumb to the City charm he still had to a certain extent. His job was a dead-end street. It was time he settled down for a life of leisure without any financial worries. Yes, he would travel to Pendersleigh.

 

Chapter Text

‘Are you daft?’ Alec snapped at Maurice. ‘As if Lord Anthony hasn’t got two pennies to rub together. What will Brenda think?’

They were in Brussels now. Maurice was changing out of his travelling clothes and into his smart navy-blue suit. Alec was sitting on the bed between endless parcels. His lover had left the office a little earlier the day before to raid the shops in Reading’s main street.

‘I was in a frenzy,’ Maurice said. ‘I saw all those things in the display windows screaming ‘Buy me! Buy me!’ It’s odd. The baby is very well cared for, but I still had the idea that it needed more things. Call me mad if you wish, but that’s what I did. I can afford it, and the shops need business.’

When Maurice was dressed, he lovingly ran a comb through Alec’s hair and straightened his tie with gentle hands. Then they kissed. ‘Come on,’ Maurice whispered, ‘let’s see her ladyship now.’

As expected, Brenda was in bed, wearing a new satin jacket over her nightgown and with her hair smartly done up. ‘Good afternoon, Lady Brenda,’ Maurice said. ‘I do hope we’re not disturbing.’

She smiled and shook hands with him. ‘You’re not. Please call me Brenda. I’ve been wanting to meet you again. Alec’s company has been most delightful. I feel I ought to thank you for that, too. He told me so much about you.’

‘Please call me Maurice,’ Maurice smiled. ‘I took the liberty of bringing some presents. I hope they will be to your liking.’

Alec handed Brenda one parcel after another. She opened them and gasped and blushed.

Maurice had bought crocheted baby garments, nappies, blankets, toys and even a tin of Lactogen.

‘Ah, my prime booty,’ he said as Brenda unwrapped the last parcel. It contained a stuffed elephant with beady black eyes, enormous ears and a trunk bent like a question mark.

There was also a baby doll in a white lace-trimmed bonnet and a nightgown with circus animals printed on it. Maurice took it from her hands and squeezed its stomach. ‘Ma-ma,’ the doll said. Brenda stared at it, flummoxed, wordlessly. ‘Ma-ma,’ the doll squeaked again.

Something was in the air now. Alec sensed Brenda’s tension. ‘Well, we should name these two,’ he said. ‘What would you choose for the elephant? I wouldn’t know.’

‘Jimbo,’ Maurice suggested, still holding the doll. ‘Like in the lullaby from Debussy. He wrote it for his daughter. Her toy elephant had this name.’

Brenda nodded. ‘I used to play it on the piano downstairs,’ she said tonelessly. ‘Jimbo it is.’

Alec took the doll from Maurice’s lap and squeezed it. ‘Ma-ma,’ it pleaded.

‘And this little girl, what would you call her?’ he grinned. ‘I’d say Rubbish, but then Maurice would punch me.’

Maurice laughed softly. ‘You’re horrible, Alec.’ Then he looked at Brenda. ‘Since you took such delight in Alec’s company, you might call the doll Alexandra.’ ‘Too posh,’ Alec said. ‘I reckon Scuddie would be a better name. She might be from Scotland, you know.’

It worked. Brenda giggled. Maurice tut-tutted at Alec and gave him a sweet look.

This was the moment. ‘And while we’re at it,’ Alec went on. ‘Have you chosen a name for your baby yet?’ Maurice froze. Brenda’s eyes went cold.

‘You can’t name her Baby,’ Alec went on. ‘It would be allright for the first years, but it would look silly on a driving licence…’ A wicked fire seized him. ‘Or you could call her Durhamina…Sounds quite like the queen of Holland, bless her. A perfect name for a little lady.’

Maurice choked his laugh into his handkerchief. ‘I say, Alec, you are horrid,’ he panted. ‘The only thing worse I could come up with is Clivia, which is actually the ancient Roman name for a German town on the Dutch border. And oh yes, it’s a flower, too. Clivelina would really be out of the question, I’m afraid.’

Brenda tittered and wiped her nose. ‘Thank you, Maurice,’ she said. ‘Your gifts are truly lovely. You must be awfully tired. Imagine running a company in the morning and then driving seventy miles in the rain…! I’m ever so thankful.’

It was a sign for them to leave. Brenda must be tired but she was too discreet to refer to that.

Maurice put the doll and the elephant on the dressing table and then he and Alec left the room.

***

The baby was crying. She was lying in her cot, wailing helplessly and clenching her little fists. Tony picked her up, cradled her in his arms and kissed her. ‘What’s the matter, my pet?’ he asked, feeling tears burn behind his eyelids. ‘Please tell me…You’ve had your bottle, the maid just changed your nappy…’ He crooned a lullaby, but to no avail. The baby shrieked even louder.

Clive rushed into the study. ‘I say, what’s wrong?’ he asked. Then he gingerly took the baby from Tony’s arms. He now rocked her and softly sang, sweetly out of tune and with eyes full of love. The child wouldn’t have it.

Now Maurice popped his head around the door. He looked at the baby and made soft, cooing noises. ‘She wants company, I suppose,’ he said. ‘Anyway, distraction…I have an idea.’

A little later, Tony summoned the maid to light a fire in the music parlour and to bring up sherry and whiskey. Maurice, in spite of his strenuous day, was unbelievably chipper.

He opened the flap of the Bechstein grand piano and asked Tony if he had any sheet music with Debussy’s works. Tony remembered Brenda’s things that were in the sideboard. He drew out books and came across a volume of the French composer’s work.

‘Splendid,’ Maurice said. ‘Who would do me the honour of turning the pages? Not you, Clive, you couldn’t tell the bars of a Rachmaninov sonata from those of Offenbach’s Barcarolle, old sport.’

There was laughter and then the baby was brought in. Clive held her in his arms as Maurice frantically thumbed through the worn pages. ‘Ah, there we are,’ Maurice then said. ‘Jimbo’s Lullaby.’

Tony sat down next to him, praying that he would not bungle reading the enigmatic print.

Maurice played the first bars with his left hand, hesitantly and displaying an omission to the host. The piano was dreadfully out of tune. Maurice then put his right hand on the keyboard and slowly let the melody develop, undisturbed by the baby’s cries.

The intervals between the wails grew longer and then she fell silent. When the lullaby was finished, she bawled in protest. ‘Encore?’ Maurice asked sweetly. ‘My pleasure.’ And he played again. And again. And again, until the baby was soundly asleep, sucking her thumb and dreaming. She didn’t even wake up when the maid took her from Clive’s arms. Clive then followed her out of the room to get his cigar case from his study.

‘You performed a miracle, Maurice,’ Tony said. ‘And so has Scudder. It’s…’

‘Don’t cry now, old sport,’ Maurice murmured, embracing him in a halo of sandalwood soap. ‘It’s allright…It’s me who ought to thank you. You reinstated my belief in miracles.’

 

Chapter Text

It was going on midnight when Clive slowly went upstairs. Everybody had retired before him. The baby was sleeping in the maid’s room.

He went down the corridor that led to the west wing. All was quiet. The door to Brussels creaked faintly when he opened it. One bedside light was still on. He could detect two forms under the brocade blanket. He softly walked up to the bed and saw Scudder lying on his side, wearing an old short-sleeved undershirt. Maurice was curled around him and holding him, his bare shoulders showing. Both men were asleep.

Clive slowly took something from his pocket. It was a small picture of Maurice wearing a sports jacket and smiling into the camera. The photograph had been taken at Cambridge in 1910 or 1911 and Clive had come across it in an old album on Pendersleigh. He had fitted it into an elegant gilded frame he had found among Tony’s belongings. He now put it on the nightstand on Scudder’s side and found to his surprise that another image of Maurice was already on it, a picture taken more recently, of an older man who had not lost his smile.

Maurice stirred, exposing a patch of his chest. It was covered in a haze of golden-blond hair. Clive had never seen it and it surprised him. He had always believed Maurice to be smooth, like Tony. Dear, wonderful Tony, who had confessed his Reading adventure.

Clive had been seething mad at first, but then he had understood the outcome.

Dear Maurice, he thought, I just left a gift for Alec but I haven’t got one for you. You shall have one yet, a token of my gratitude for bringing me back my Tony. My lover felt like me when he was in your arms, it made him experience how wonderful it feels to be his. I’m not much to look at, but I love Tony and he’s filled my heart with joy and pleasure. Thank you so much, Maurice, whatever would I do without you?

Maurice’s eyes were open now. He gave Clive a drowsy smile and then pointed at Scudder and put a finger to his lips. Then he saw the new picture on the nightstand. He shook his head gleefully, laughed noiselessly and then beckoned.

Clive bent over Scudder and presently his mouth met Maurice’s, a warm, familiar feeling.

After that, Clive very softly kissed Scudder’s clean-shaven cheek that smelled of eau de cologne. Scudder whimpered and then sighed contentedly. ‘Maurice,’ he murmured without waking up. Maurice smiled again.

Clive turned off the bedside light and left the room on tiptoes.

The door to Vancouver was slightly ajar. He walked in. The light on the dressing table was on. Brenda could not sleep in the dark.

She was in bed, lying on her side and with the blankets drawn up to her chin. Her breathing was calm. Clive looked at her and felt that he loved her, like a best friend, like a sister.

He had read many works by Freud, as had Maurice, which had given them ample material for endless speculations whenever Tony and Scudder were not around. Clive felt that she was not to blame for her unwillingness to accept her own child. He did not know the reasons, but he could only guess. Still, all was not lost.

He stooped down to pick up a crumpled-up piece of paper. He unfolded it and recognized Tony’s handwriting. Ever a solicitor, he abhorred reading other people’s private correspondence, but he also knew it provided valuable clues. He read the note and then his heart stopped.

My goodness, Tony, he thought, you are loving and caring, you want the best for both Brenda and her child, but this is too much.

He carefully slid the note into one breast pocket and produced a slip of paper from the other one. Dear Brenda, it read. I hope you’ve had a good night by the time you read this. Maurice serenaded the baby with Debussy’s ‘Jimbo’s Lullaby’. She adored it and went straight to sleep afterwards. Now she’s with the maid and she’s very well. With all my love – Clive.

He slid the paper under Jimbo’s feet on the dressing table. Then he picked up the doll that by now had been christened Scuddie. He suppressed a chortle at the thought of its name and tiptoed to Brenda’s bed. Very carefully, he slid the doll under the blankets, praying that it wouldn’t squeak. Brenda stirred. Her hand went to the toy. She drew it towards her chest and moaned softly. Then her breathing grew regular again.

Clive watched her for some time, sleeping peacefully and clutching Scuddie like a baby and sucking her thumb. Then he tiptoed out of the room.

He had taken to sleeping in his own bed on Hetton ever since Brenda had arrived. He quickly changed into his pyjamas and then went to Tony’s room, his heart racing.

Tony was in bed, very awake and reading a book. He put it away as he saw Clive and held up the blankets. Clive crawled in and took him in his arms. No words were spoken while they kissed, enjoying the feel of one another’s bodies. Then Tony lazily put out his arm and turned off the bedside light.

Chapter Text

Alec watched Maurice drive out of the garage and stop near the steps to the front door. They both put their suitcases in the boot and went inside. Lord Anthony and Clive wanted to bid their guests goodbye over tea and refreshments.

Alec hoped that Brenda would see him before he left. The maid had told him that her ladyship would not receive anyone and was not feeling well. He had slipped a little note under her door telling her that he and Maurice would be off to Reading and that he hoped that he would meet her again soon.

‘We had a marvelous weekend,’ Lord Anthony said to Maurice as they were having tea in the drawing-room. ‘It’s such a pity that you have to leave. But I understand. You and Mr. Scudder are rather wrapped up in work. But please come again. Next weekend if you wish, or anytime at all. You won’t need to tell me in advance. Treat our house like a hotel. Clive feels as I do.’

‘Very kind of you, sir,’ Alec smiled at him, and then at Mr. Durham. ‘And very kind of you too, Mr. Durham.’ It was odd how things had changed. Lord Anthony was still beautiful, a delicious treat. But this man was a teeny bit to young in the end. And, quite frankly, Alec thought, I would not have anything inside me that’s been inside Mr. Durham. He’s a good man, too, I do like him now, but there are limits.

‘I say, Alec, what’s so funny?’ Maurice asked. ‘Penny for your thoughts? Oh, don’t bother…You’re a comedian if there ever was one, my love. But you might save your tales until we visit Hetton again…Yes, it’s time we left, gentlemen. I’d like to be home before dark.’  Maurice was looking so majestic in his navy-blue suit, drawing from his pipe and looking at the other men with sparkling eyes. Maurice was simply everything.

They now exchanged goodbyes. Lord Anthony shook hands with Alec and thanked him again for all he had done, whatever that meant. Then Mr. Durham bent over to Alec and…kissed him. Oh, dear God…yuck. But he smelled mighty nice in spite of his cigars.

Lord Anthony was just about to embrace Maurice when crying could be heard from the hallway. The door was pushed open and in walked Brenda, wearing a new dress and leather shoes. Alec was bewildered. She had not left her bed since she had gone into labour.

And how she was back on her feet and crying. He wanted to rush to her and grab her hands, but then something told him he shouldn’t. She walked up to Tony and wailed. ‘I want my baby…Please give me back my baby…She’s mine…Where is she? I want her now.’

As she stood sobbing in Lord Anthony’s arms, Maurice’s eyes met Alec’s. They exchanged all the triumph they could come up with. Yes, dear God, it had finally happened.

They all went to Mr. Durham’s study where the baby was sleeping. Brenda rushed to the little cot on the side table and lifted her daughter in her arms. She clutched her child to her bosom with tears streaming down her face. ‘I want her,’ she stammered. ‘I want her. She’s mine.’

‘Of course, darling,’ Lord Anthony said. ‘Of course. I have been waiting for this. Yes, she’s yours because you love her. I know you do.’

Maurice and Mr. Durham were sniveling now, juggling their spectacles and soppy handkerchiefs in their trembling fingers. Blimey, what a pair of cissies, Alec thought. This is better than any shite you’d get at the cinema. Then he looked at Brenda, who was sitting in an easy chair, holding her baby and rocking and kissing it. The little one made happy noises, but then she started to cry. ‘She’s hungry, poor dear,’ Brenda said. ‘I’d like to feed her.’

‘Very well,’ Mr. Durham sniveled. ‘I shall have the maid bring a bottle.’

‘I’m dreadfully sorry, but it’s getting late and Alec and I should be going,’ Maurice said, putting his spectacles back on. ‘And I believe you all need some time together without any annoying guests.’

Alec bent over Brenda’s chair and kissed her and the baby. ‘I’ll be back,’ he promised.

Brenda smiled and lovingly ran a finger over his cheek.

Chapter Text

The port of Southampton was bustling with passengers, people welcoming them or seeing them off and porters hauling luggage. It was late September, but the Indian summer had not given way to autumn yet. A lovely day to start a voyage.

Clive was standing next to Tony, cigarette in hand, letting his gaze wander over the crowds to see what Maurice was up to.

Maurice had travelled to Southampton in 1913 to see Scudder off on a steamer to Buenos Aires, only to find that Scudder had never boarded the train and that the ship would sail without him. The two of them had reunited in the boathouse on Pendersleigh that very night. Their love had been born then and there and had grown deeper and stronger ever since.

Clive knew that this place bore too many memories for Maurice. Scudder might as well have sailed to the Argentine then to start work at his brother’s company in Bahia Blanca. Thank heavens that never happened.

Clive was not sure if it was a good idea to go and look for Maurice. Brenda had just said goodbye to her brother Reggie, standing yards away from her friends. Lord Reginald St. Cloud was a solicitor at the Old Bailey, and not a very good one. He might still be somewhere on the quay. Clive abhorred the idea of being recognized by this man and having to talk to him.

But Maurice was nowhere to be seen, and so Clive had no choice but to leave Tony’s side.

He found Maurice talking in German to a girl who had arrived on a steamer from Hamburg the previous day. It had been Maurice’s idea to contact his connections to find a female traveler on the SS Bournemouth who would work for Brenda as a nanny until Brenda and her baby had settled in their new home country.

The girl spoke a little English and instantly took a liking to little Hannah who was lying in her perambulator with Scuddie at her side.

Yes, the baby had been christened. Hannah Rex. Brenda had accepted a divorce from Tony. Clive had asked her if the name had a special meaning. ‘No,’ Brenda had said. ‘No one in Tony’s family or mine has that name. I read it in a book once and I liked it. My daughter should grow up to be her own self. She’s not to be attached to a family she was not born into.’

Tony joined them and bent over the perambulator, softly singing the baby’s name.

‘Hannah means hope in Hebrew, if I’m not mistaken,’ Maurice now remarked. ‘You could not have chosen a better name, dear Brenda. It’s both Jewish and Christian and it’s known all over the world.’

They overheard some passengers conversing in Yiddish. ‘I spoke to some of them just now,’ Maurice went on. ‘They arrived from Hamburg yesterday. And they will presently board the Bournemouth…It’s horrid how they have no choice but to flee Germany because of their religion. I’m sure their new terra mater will be a better place.’

‘Most certainly,’ Brenda agreed. ‘A new country. A fresh start. Safety. And peace.’

Cotton fields be waitin’, oh Lord, I’m coming home, Clive thought. It’s a lovely song. Maurice played it on the piano. Even Scudder liked it. Now I understand its meaning.

Then a shock went through him. ‘Good heavens, Maurice,’ he said. ‘Where’s Scudder?’

‘Having a smoke with some deck hands and annoying them with questions,’ Maurice answered happily. ‘Don’t worry, Clive, he’s not boarding. I need him at the office and to change the bleedin’ bedsheets…I say, Tony, he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t! It’s your fault.’

Tony laughed heartily and merrily. Then Scudder emerged from the crowd, his cap askew and with a sad look. ‘One of the staff just told me that they’re weighing the anchors soon,’ he said to Brenda. ‘Don’t miss your boat, love. I did once and all I got from it was a load of shite.’

Maurice threw back his head and laughed. ‘You’re horrid, Alec…I was planning on giving you a raise but I’m not sure now.’

Scudder embraced Brenda tightly and whispered in her ear. She wept and smiled. So did he. Then he bent over the perambulator. ‘You be good now,’ he told Scuddie. ‘No drinkin’ and no gamblin’ on board, ye hear? Take good care of my little friend.’ Then he kissed Hannah.

Tony was the last to say adieu to Brenda. They stood in each other’s arms for a long time, exchanging words and nodding. Then the ship’s horn wailed.

They watched Brenda walk up the gangway with her German nanny in tow who was pushing the pram. When the three travelers had disappeared inside, Clive took Tony’s arm.

‘Do you think Brenda will be allright travelling in steerage?’ he asked.

‘She will,’ Tony said. ‘I offered to book her a first-class passage, but she wouldn’t accept it. She told me she wouldn’t have me open my wallet any further than I’d already done. She wants to earn her own money now. I’m proud of her...I shall miss her and Hannah terribly…But we’ll visit them one day, you and Maurice and Scudder and I, won’t we, Clive?’

Clive nodded, hoping as he had done so often lately that civic aviation would develop further so that crossing the Atlantic would become as easy as taking the train to Scotland.

After a while, the passengers appeared on the deck to wave at the people on the quay. In between howls of the ship’s horn, a brass band playing All Ye Young Sailors could be heard.

Brenda was leaning over the railing, signaling like mad with her handkerchief. Only Tony understood her gestures and motioned back, laughing and crying. Then the ship started to drift away.

Clive, Tony, Maurice and Scudder watched it disappear into a golden autumn sunset.

When it was no more but a faint blur on the horizon, Maurice turned around and grabbed Clive’s hand. ‘Let’s go to Pendersleigh now,’ he said. ‘Pippa and Archie are waiting for us.’

Clive lovingly stroked Maurice’s cheeks and then looked at Tony.

‘A splendid idea,’ Tony said. ‘I shall give Maurice and Mr. Scudder a head start. That Daimler is too fast, really…Clive and I will follow in the Ford. And yes, Clive, I’ll drive. After all, the car is mine.’

And so they walked to the car park, looking forward to a weekend on Pendersleigh.

 

Chapter Text

‘Have a drink with me, old boy,’ Reggie said to John. They were at Bratt’s.

John was happy. He barely had any money in his pocket and there were fifteen shillings against him in the barkeeper’s book. Reggie never bothered to buy anyone a drink unless he was tipsy. He was not tipsy now. He was drunk. Stinking, in fact. ‘Oh yes, I’d like a brandy and ginger ale please,’ John said.

When the drinks were brought (the waiter gave him a caustic look for obvious reasons), John thought of something to talk about. ‘I was here last Saturday,’ he said to Reggie. ‘You weren’t there. I reckoned you were out wooing a London belle. But you’re here now. Got chucked again?’

Reggie shook his head. ‘No,’ he burbled. ‘I had to go to Southampton to see my sister and my little niece off on the SS Bournemouth. They sailed for Buenos Aires.’

Reggie had two sisters. Marjorie, the older one, had no children because she and her husband could not afford any. And there was Brenda. Brenda who had been seen at Paddington earlier that year. So she had indeed been pregnant then.

John decided to feign ignorance. ‘You mean Brenda?’ he asked. Reggie nodded and then explained with some difficulty that she had finally divorced Tony Last and that she had taken on a position as a housekeeper in a village outside Bahia Blanca.

Thank goodness, John thought, Brenda and her baby are allright. They won’t be poor.

Reggie was stinking now. It was the easiest thing to pry more information from him.

And so John learned that Brenda was to be employed at an estate called Santa Clara. The family that owned it was English. Brenda would oversee the work of the many heads of house staff. She would learn some Spanish on the way over.

‘It’s all for the best,’ Reggie said. ‘Her latest lover was disastrous, old boy… I found out that one of my colleagues at the Old Bailey was treating his case. Conviction for distributing pamphlets glorifying the Third Reich. Good thing he’s not the baby’s father.’

‘A good thing,’ John agreed, feeling saved but also apprehensive. Poor Brenda must have gone through hell.

Reggie was rather loose with money and always paid his club bills straight away. Reassured by the latter, the waiters kept the brandy and ginger ale coming. The two men had a jolly time.

As John woke up the next morning, he found to his surprise that he was lying in his own bed. He had no recollection of how he had come home. Then he checked his alarm clock and saw that he had dreadfully overslept. Stinking. A stinking hangover, that was.

When he got to the bank shortly after eleven, barely feeling any better, he found a note from his manager on his desk in the counting room, telling him he had been given his notice as of November the first for repeatedly not adhering to his work hours.

By mid-afternoon, he felt his old spirits return. He let his eyes wander to the bills on his table and then to the safe. He knew the code. For some reason, he remembered his visit on Pendersleigh in April. Lady Pippa had treated him in a friendly, condescending way, obviously displeased with her husband’s habit of inviting anyone he’d met. The house had been full of noisy, unruly children. The two eldest daughters, one as thin and tasteless as a broomstick, the other chatty, myopic and horribly fat, had indeed been unattached, and it had taken him only a quick glance to understand why.

At four, he decided to call it a day and left the bank. He crossed the street and entered a travel agency. As he was waiting to be served, he admired the pictures on the wall advertising journeys to any possible destination.

A charming young clerk nodded in appreciation when John told him he intended to travel to the Argentine. ‘Where to?’ the man asked. ‘Single ticket, return ticket, one person only?’

‘Single, one person,’ John said. ‘And a stay at a seaside hotel in Bahia Blanca.’

The clerk let his calculating machine rattle and then said this would amount to roughly two-hundred and twenty pounds. A forty-pound deposit was required.

‘I’ll settle that tomorrow,’ John promised.

A little later, he walked down the street to the bus stop, thinking on what he would take along on the journey and trying to devise some method of concealing the truth from Mumsy until the day before he’d take the train to Southampton.