Harvest of Rue
Harvest of Rue
By Clemency Marlowe
The car thundered onto the narrow packhorse bridge, clearing it with inches to spare, her driver’s teeth bared in reckless joy. There was a slight humpback to it in the centre, causing her to spring off the road, then land and gather herself like a powerful, obedient animal before surging on, the thoroughbred engine relentless, still at its topmost register A moment later, the young woman’s stomach caught up with her in a sickening lurch.
Lilian had been trying with all her might not to lose her cool and cry out with alarm at the speed at which they were driving. Now she was beyond uttering a sound, the hood was right down and the icy spring wind was blasting through her hair and freezing her scalp. Her musquash wrap had slithered from her shoulders and was somewhere at her feet. Extreme speed. Constant, terrifying cornering. Any kind of movement risked being thrown around, or even out of the car.
“How are we doing with the list?” asked the girl in the passenger seat in front of Lilian. Her cool, ironic tones cut across the engine’s roar.
“Just the policeman’s helmet left to get. But … very specific here, it’s got to be the policeman directing the traffic at Piccadilly Circus.” said Bunny from behind her.
“Oh, how lovely. A treasure hunt that ends up in Town. Uncle Ralph’s thought it all out, like the darling he is. We might make it to Gingers before they close. If little brother cares to step on it, that is.”
“My money’s on Giddy but there again, he’s got a good breezer,” Bunny was smiling in the dark. “She’s built for speed.” He laid a hand on Lilian’s rigid right knee and brought his mouth up to her ear to whisper, “Just like you.”
Two weeks earlier
“Please madam, I’ve a letter for Miss Carstairs. A chauffeur ran it round just now. Said he had a devil of a job finding Victoria Grove,” said Mary, the parlour maid.
“A chauffeur? Did you tell him that Margaret’s married and gone to Rochester?”
“I believe he meant Miss Lilian, not knowing that Miss Maggie’s gone.”
“Oh,” Lilian bounded forward, an eager child again, “May I see, please? Look at the crest there, Mother, do look! I think I may know who this is from.” She tore open the envelope before her mother could hand her the mother-of-pearl letter opener.
“Yes, yes, it’s from him. Gideon Shelley. You know, the chap I met at the Mission for Sea Farers’ Charity Ball last week. You remember him, don’t you? He was there with his mother. We had a couple of dances.”
“Yes, I do remember, and I rather think it was more than a couple of dances. The mother was rather grand, wasn’t she?” A speculative look had come into Mrs Carstairs’ green eyes.
“Yes, yes, it is from him. Look.” Lilian thrust the thick card at her mother who just had time to remark that it was engraved before Lilian had snatched it back.
“I’ve been invited to a party. It’s being given to celebrate Gideon’s birthday by - gosh – Viscount and Viscountess St John Duddeswell. They must be his parents. You’re right; grand indeed. And look at the address: Auldmote Hall, Auldmote. Oh look there’s a handwritten note here. It says:
We would be pleased to extend an invitation to Master Carstairs besides and look forward to seeing you both on 24th
“But they don’t know, Joe, surely.” Marjorie Carstairs’ face had creased uncomfortably.
“No,” laughed Lilian. “Any more than Lord and Lady D know me. She has met me, at least. No, I think the idea is that Joe goes as my chaperone, ma. Are you happy for me — for us — to go?”
Her mother paused, met her eager eyes, and then smiled slowly.
“Well of course I know that girls go to parties on their own these days although they generally know the family first.”
“However, as they’ve been kind enough to invite Joe along too, I dare say it’s alright, provided your father’s happy about it, of course. How are you going to get there? Shall we get old Lennox to run you over?” Marjorie asked.
“Look, the bit on the bottom — handwritten again.”
Do so hope to see you. If you say yes, will arrange for you and your brother to be picked up at 5 for supper and dancing at 7.30.
Lilian clapped her hands. “Oh, he’s thought of everything. It’ll be perfect. And so nice to be spending time with people my own age rather than some half-dead old bunch of clergy fossils.”
Clever she may be, getting all those pieces of writing accepted by the magazines, thought Marjorie, but she’s so very young. Marjorie opened her mouth to protest and then closed it. Since her daughter Maggie’s marriage, it was harder work, more awkward, for friends and acquaintances to invite one girl on her own or else with her mother, rather than the two girls. The tennis parties and picnics in the summer had worked but they had just emerged from a winter of dinners with the same old faces.
Of course, if William were alive … she hesitated at the mental maze that memories of her eldest son brought on. Lilian should be meeting his friends, she told herself, that’s how it works. But of course, they’re all dead too. All those wonderful young men, swallowed up by that hellish war.
Marjorie Carstairs allowed her lowered brow to relax and her face to clear.
“Go, darling. I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful evening.”
From the moment the Bentley, with its taciturn chauffeur arrived to drive them to Auldmote Hall, Lilian was anxious. She hadn’t really imagined that Gideon would collect them. Heaven knows, he’d only met her once. They hadn’t been introduced to him formally, nor, of course, to his mother, so she could hardly expect more. Now, however, as they drove, she caught herself biting her nails — something her old governess ‘Garsnips’ Garston had cured with bitter aloes ten years ago to get her ready to go off to boarding school. There was no need to speak in whispers with Joe, but somehow anything above sotto voce seemed uncomfortable.
Her feeling of nervous tension only increased as they threaded their way through the quaint old village of Auldmote and finally left the road at a pair of venerable sandstone gateposts on top of which, half hidden by huge rhododendrons, crouched a pair of heraldic beasts. She peered at them, unable to place them. Chimeras? The drive wound its way through parkland causing Joseph to exclaim with pleasure at the deer herd. It was grand, doubly so being lost as it was in this remote spot. Or perhaps it was they who were lost.
The car finally slowed as it approached a little square of outbuildings, one of which boasted a cupola complete with weathervane. A group of young men were grouped around one of them, two of them swaying, clutching a champagne bottle. All of them, Lilian noted with horror, in tails, one or two of them with their hands resting insouciantly, in their trouser pockets. From among them emerged Gideon, who flagged down the Bentley, opened the door and handed her out.
“Ah Lilian, so you made it!” There was almost surprise in his voice, “Survived Millais’ funerial driving speed and got here before the end of it all. Glad I caught you. Me and some of the boys were just getting some fresh air. I’ll take you up there. Mind the mud with those shoes.”
“Hello Gideon. No, we had a lovely drive. This is my brother, Joseph.”
“Well hi-de-hi, Joe.” His tone was friendliness itself but, it seemed to her that his eye swept over them both, particularly her brother, without much acknowledgement She bit her lip. If only he’d said it was white tie. It wasn’t as though they didn’t have the clothes.
But he was speaking again, pleasantly enough. “Pops is probably at some late sitting in the Lords even as we speak. Can’t think why he bothers. It’s probably to dodge all of us. We don’t get to see him much outside of Recesses. He’s got a flat in Westminster. I’m sure I told you. Mother’s in Antibes, catching the spring early as she likes to do, so it’s just us hosting. My sister, Sephie, and me, that is. Oh, and Funny Bunny Grundy. You must come and meet him. Almost one of the family.”
“Keep up, Joe,” hissed Lilian, seeing her brother lingering over a splendid motor car parked slightly to the left of the front steps. Gideon caught Joe’s stare and smiled. “Ah yes. Your sister did tell me you’re mad about cars. What do you reckon to this little thing, eh? It’s a ‘Suiza H6C. Came out last year. Must say, I think Mateu’s really excelled himself with this one. She goes like a bird; I’m delighted with it. I say, would you like a spin in it later?”
“Rather, would I!” The ecstasy in Joe’s eyes was plain to see as he ran his hand reverently over the chrome flying stork mascot on the bonnet.
“Know anything about ‘em? I mean, what goes on under the bonnet because I’m as ignorant as sin in that department.”
“A bit. I’ve got an old Ford in the garage at home I tinker with.”
“A garage? How swell! We keep ours in the carriage block. There’s an old Daimler that hasn’t moved since my grandfather died so probably never will. Come to think of it, I don’t suppose you could give it the once-over, could you? Be wonderful for it to have the attention of someone who knows what they’re doing.”
Lilian, overhearing that, couldn’t help thinking to herself that perhaps that was an apt judgement on an improperly dressed young man but Gideon had put a friendly arm on Joe’s shoulder.
“I say, we are in amazing luck to have you come over like this. Must be fate! If you don’t mind — I mean if you really don’t mind forgoing a bit of the prancing around, why not come over and help yourself? Millais’s going off duty soon but I’ll tell him to give you the run of the tools before he does. Come and have a drink first, old man, though, won’t you?”
They had stopped outside the wisteria-clad portico of a generous Queen Anne brick-clad mansion. Perfect in its six windows on two floors to either side of the entrance. Perfect also in its square-built two floors and the roof terrace. She could just make out in the spring dusk, the roof itself dotted with symmetrically tiled pitch gables and tall chimneys. Perfect even with the courteous Edwardian extension to one side. She barely registered the invitation to her car-mad brother to work on the beautiful — and broken down — Daimler rather than showing him indoors.
The central hall was cavernous, and Lilian noticed two or three bunches of people, all of them young, milling about, talking and laughing animatedly. A butler hurried forward to receive their coats but Gideon steered Lilian into the drawing room, an altogether more human space, smaller and lower ceilinged than the hall with two beautiful full-length windows giving on to the garden, where she could see fairy lights shining on a terrace and catching the dark sparkle of a fountain beyond.
“Come and tank up a bit before the hoofing.” said Gideon. “And I want you to meet my sister straight away. Lilian, this is my sister, Seraphina – Sephie.”
The vision that turned to face her shrouded Lilian in instant and deep dismay.
She was tall. Probably as much as four inches taller than Lilian. With the long clean limbs of an athlete or a Grecian statue. It was perhaps her hair that one noticed first. A shimmering pale blonde cut clean to the base of the hairline with a mirror shine on the perfect marcel waves. And then her gown of the palest lilac — sleeveless — cut straight and low across the bodice and daringly short.
“How d’you do, Lilian? Lilian what, by the way?” The voice could cut glass.
“Ah. Not sure we know any Carstairs,” a fractional pause. “Not until tonight at least.” The heavily rouged mouth with its strong cupid bow smiled but the smile did not reach the triangular green eyes glittering within their nest of false eyelashes.
It was the encounter with Gideon’s other-wordly sister that set the tone of the evening. She would always remember it together with the accompanying and almost instantaneous shame of her own appearance. Her best frock in its cheerfully optimistic pink, hopelessly frumpy with its draped cut bodice hanging over the gathered waist, falling to the mid-calf, her short, old-fashioned gloves. Her ‘pretty fair curls,' and that gap between her front teeth her governess had described as giving her ‘great character.’ She was a moth to the gorgeous butterfly who stood before her.
“Who are your people?” Such iciness contained in the politely reasonable question.
“My father’s an Alderman of the City of London.” She said it with the glow of pride that it held for her.
“Golly! How stupendous. And may one ask how he became one? Was he perhaps in business?”
“In shipping yes.” No point in trying to dress it up, Lilian realised.
“Shipping you say. How simply fascinating. A man of the sea. So whereabouts did he anchor? London?”
“In Folkestone.” Lilian replied.
“Folkestone!” Seraphina laughed. “Not so very far away then. Positively local. Near it or … in it?”
“On the edge of it.”
“Jolly handy for popping over to France for a good Friday-to-Monday.”
Gideon had appeared, to her indescribable relief, with drinks for the three of them.
“Stop being so damned affected, Sephie, and just call it the weekend like everyone else. Don’t take her claptrap, Lilian. Come on, down the hatch, you two and then we’ll take a turn over in the ballroom.”
Lilian drained her champagne cocktail which was replenished almost immediately. By this stage she was reluctant to be steered in the direction of the ballroom. Rather than the dreamy waltz she had pictured or even another steady foxtrot like the ones at the Seafarers Mission Charity Ball, the grand old room throbbed to the hot jazz sounds being played by the five-piece band.
They were real, these black men, with the sweat dripping down their dress shirt fronts and playing their instruments in the hardest way she had ever seen musical instruments being played. A black woman – impossibly exotic and gloveless - was singing, though for some of the numbers, she would sit down at the stool of the house grand piano with a flourish of her gown and accompany herself with energetic chords and accomplished arpeggios. And so fast. That thumping beat they gave out was both exciting and frightening.
“Know the Black Bottom?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Oh well, it’ll have to be Bunny and me. Come on, old boy, let's see the flats of your feet.”
And there was a great deal of hilarity for two Black Bottoms and a very pacey Charleston from the two young men who magically conjured two girls to accompany them in a whirlwind of vigorous kicks, flips, claps, knee pushes. A score of indignities on the part of Bunny but Gideon’s movements showed an extraordinary natural fluidity and vigour that made him seem to embody and give shape to the dance itself rather than simply interpret it.
Lilian, afraid that she still risked being pulled onto the dance floor and into ever-deeper chagrin, took long draughts of her champagne. She wished that she had eaten the cold collation her mother had suggested before they left.
“I’m thinking this might not be entirely your cup of tea, old girl.”
What an unpleasant voice Bunny had, she thought, both sneering and knowing. He must have slipped away from the dancers to approach her. “Had something a bit more stately in mind, perhaps? Well, we who stand and serve can’t have everything now, can we? Look here, if I were you, I’d take a bit of this. It’ll buck you up bit you know.”
He produced a small silver box from his breast pocket, opening it up to reveal a quantity of white powder.
“What’s that? Some brand of snuff?” she asked, then instantly wished she hadn’t.
The corners of Bunny’s mouth twitched in an ironic smirk and his eyes held hers properly for the first time.
“This, my dear, is exactly what you need. Regardez.” And he was pulling out a tiny integral spoon from the lid of the box, spooning a small amount of powder into the hollow that formed between his thumb and forefinger and with an expert flourish, drawing his nose across it from the wrist, sniffing extravagantly.
“Hold out your hand. That’s right.” He watched approvingly as she copied him, not wanting to be thought totally, socially cursed.
Sephie’s hands were on her shoulder with the briefest of touches - a signal that she wished her to stand aside and let her through the throng.
“Magnificent, isn’t she?” Bunny’s eyes followed her and then returned to Lilian to fix themselves upon her, hard. "Where's Giddy, eh? Oh there he is, dancing with that cracking little gel. Think she may be a Guinness. That wouldn’t be a bad match for him. To be frank, I’d be happy to see him settled after that dalliance last year with Tallullah Bankhead.”
“Talullah Bankhead!” Lilian exclaimed.
“Heard of her, have you?”
“They Knew What they Wanted. Yes, of course. I do read the papers, you know.” She had managed to lob one over the net. However, when she thought of the newspaper headlines and Miss Bankhead, it wasn’t always the theatre reviews that came to mind.