Tea at Belle Lafcadio’s and afterwards a reasonably charming production of Shaw’s Pygmalion at the ‘Old Vic’. And in the meantime several phone calls from Stanislaus Oates, which I did not answer because I was out, acting as a formidable old lady’s substitute nephew.
Lugg just delivered what I believe is a somewhat shortened version of Oates original message: “He wants me to tell you a local farmer has found a body curled up in some tunnel on the road to Keepsake.” Could I drive out tomorrow morning and clarify whether that was the vagabond I mentioned a few weeks ago during the Anselmo case?
While my mind says that Stanislaus' instinct is probably right, I refuse to believe this. There’s this rather vivid memory that I have of the last time I and that strange, slightly mad elderly fellow met in that tunnel, which is more like a failed, useless building project in the middle of nowhere.
I and the old guy stood leaning against the damp, moist walls, waiting for the showering rain to get just that tiny bit lighter. A awkward place for a meeting, but what do you expect, really?
If any of my clients ever were to write an epitaph for my gravestone it would surely read: “Albert Campion spent an awful lot of time wandering through the country houses of vague acquaintances, unknowing how to deliver the bad news.”
It’s my third morning at Pendersleigh Parks, the third morning on which I wake up to the sound of birds and the smell of freshly cut grass.
Not really sure yet how to tell old Emmerson he has to turn this whole little paradise upside down, that is if he really intends to go on digging for his ancestestor’s treasure chest. The man’s imagination seems quite enticed at the moment. And also, his grandchildren beg him.
“How exciting,” they say, “to have discovered a former privateer from the West Indies at the bottom of one’s much appreciated family tree. Surely he’s buried some diamonds or Aztec gold, or at least a diary in which he confessed all his ghastly deeds.”
If only the map they found showed the premises as they are now and not as they were in the early 1700s.
"I swear by God, one day you'll regret this. Trust me, Campion, one day you'll pay," van Houten said.
A part of me has always expected to hear words like these. An open expression of hate, some vengeful threats. Only I've always believed I would hear them in court from one of the less charming individuals I've helped to put behind bars. And certainly not here, in the refined surroundings of a pleasant little Essex country club.
And not for such a minor reason.
To threaten someone out of the blue just because they have accidentally beaten you at an important stage of a cross country paper chase is not what one would expect from a fellow gentleman, methinks. Particularly not from van Houten, who up to this very evening has always seemed a perfectly fine chap. Polite, restrained, with no more or less sporty ambition than actually befitting the occasion.
The annual Claredon Cross Country Drive is a charity event, for Heaven's sake.
I'm afraid you are missing the point, my dear.
Imagine you'd encounter me at the Junior Greys, or at one of Lady Wintermore's garden parties. At first, I would not seem a great risk to you. Slightly mysterious perhaps, but not more so than any other person you've just met. I'd be the gentleman standing a little removed from the main crowd, at the outer end of the terrace. Rather bland, non-irritating face. Spectacles. Good, if slightly unimaginative clothing. My sister Val usually criticises me for it. She's in the fashion business, you know.
If we engaged in conversation, you'd surely think I'm a rather good catch, considering the lacklustre occasion. I try not to alienate people. At least not until I really have to. So' you'd register the first tactless joke not until it's already too late and you are already laughing.
If you got hold of the hostess a little while later, you'd discreetly point into my direction and ask "Who on earth was this?" and as Lady Wintermore usually delights in dragging people's corpses out of their closets, she'd tell you about me: "That's just Albert Campion. Poor chap. Still hasn't given up on that obscure detective hobby of is. You've no idea of the disgusting and most dangerous things that he normally deals with."
This is the moment when you're starting to wonder if I'm respectable enough to be seen with. Or at least someone useful to have on the B-list of your acquaintances, should the dreaded emergency ever arrive.
See, I tend to make friends rather easily. But only a minor proportion of them lasts longer than just ten minutes.
It is my belief that a good excuse is an art form. Very much like an intelligent speech or a letter to a particular peevish elderly relative, it requires a certain element of tact and mental flexibility. After all you don't wish to insult the other person's intelligence or, heaven forbid, injure their personal feelings.
Marcus Featherstone, in a moment of unusual inspiration once said that the tiny things we use to excuse ourselves tell as much about us as the most direct answer. Where our weakness lie, of whom we are afraid, our secret moments of shame.
"You, Campion, tend towards the bizarre and amusing. Which is quite fine as long as you're on a dinner party. But pull that stunt with one of your more intimate relations and they'll gladly tear you to shreds."
The wisdom of a married man, I suppose. He and Joyce are expecting their second child in August. And as the Godfather of child number one, due to an unfortunate motoring incident is no longer available, the proud parents have put out their feelers. Would I be willing to stand in as a substitute? Especially Joyce's part of the family, or better what's left of it, would surely approve.
"You'd fulfil all the necessary requirements, Albert. Maybe not the general public's, but ours. Plus, you'd teach the children some magic tricks and can be trusted to balance Aunt Caroline's influence."
I haven't said "No" to them yet, but only because I'm not sure how to tell them that for reasons I'd rather keep private, I don't really feel up to such task.
Quite possible the shabbiest, saddest, most unfair excuse of all is the truth.
While I'm fully aware that Stanislaus Oates is and will always be my friend, I have to admit that the exact conditions of our relations sometimes escape me.
He has never been the type of person to dance around the issue. Would I consider a butler's loyalty towards his employer greater than the loyalty said butler feels towards moral ideals and the law, he asked. Very straightforward, in a dead earnest fashion.
"Please answer this as honest as you can, Campion. Right at the moment, you're about the only person I trust who has a certain inside perspective on the subject."
At this point, I had barely put a foot into his office, hadn't even managed to say something along the lines of "Good morning, Stanislaus, how do you do?".
Stanislaus' tone made it quite clear he didn't want me to ask any questions. Just my expertise, hopefully unbiased. Not my help as a person.
When I told him the two or three things I know about butlers and masters (cultural and social context, professional ethos and such), his eyes remained frosty. Finally, I closed with my own, private observation that despite some shades of grey in between, there are basically two different types of butlers. Those who truly live the ideal of loyal subservience, and those who are quite good at feigning.
I wonder what on earth he is working on at the moment. The case hasn't reached the news yet, and judging from Stanislaus' behaviour I doubt that it ever will.
I'm not very keen on driving up to the Great House. Mother will undoubtedly notice my tan the second I step into the salon and greet her. She will smile, raise her brows, ask me to sit down. Depending on the time of day, she'll then offer me tea or a glass of sherry, politely inquire where I've been.
Not that I care much about the ritual as such. But to any keen observer it surely must be one of those signs which give away this grand, silvern lady and I are actually related. Mother's eye for detail is as sharp as mine, her imagination quite active. Both of us have made it a rule to never let our individual suspicions interfere with social interaction.
Safer that way.
One must guard oneself well, after all. Or otherwise one might catch something rather distasteful. Too foolish, too vulgar, too selfish not to restrict the narrative to the few things that the other might want to hear.
"I've just returned from a cruise through the Mediterranean, mother. Spring in southern France was quite lovely. You should have seen all those apple orchards, in full bloom, white and happy as clouds."
Maybe, I'll ad a sentence or two about the excavation sites that I've been to. She's always been interested in ancient history, the works of the classics. Hesiod, Herodotus, Thucydides. For some reason never Sophocles, though.
Not a word, not a syllable about Mayweather or invaluable last minute sailing lesson I received from a most patient Greek coast guard.
Hopefully she'll like the little bronze sculpture I bought her.
"Happy belated birthday, mother. I promise, I'll make up for not being there on the actual day by behaving myself as good as I can."
I think I should need an aspirin right now. No, make that two. And a Scotch. Oh, and while we are at it, please do remind me, at least once in a while, of the following fact:
In your particular line of business, Albert, it is not exactly wise to inform potential adversaries that your greatest childhood ambition was to become an illusionist, just like the amazing Harry Houdini. Should you ever again feel like you absolutely must dwell on the subject, please stick to the card tricks, old boy. And the card tricks only.
Debunking of frauds, escapology = Topics non grata
You were never that good at freeing yourself, anyway. Otherwise you surely wouldn't be stuck on this stupid yacht while Mayweather is probably already on his way to Lord knows where.
I'm afraid one has to congratulate Mayweather for his sense of sportsmanship, though. Very nice touch to leave that sailor's chest standing on the deck when a good, strong push would have certainly presented a much more effective, more permanent solution to his problems.
Things to do once I'm able to stand and to walk:
- repair transmitter
- contact the Greek authorities, the Italian probably as well
- find out how to get yacht back to shore
I'd really love to lay down for a while but I know that I must not.
The lady with whom I arranged a discreet meeting at Bollinger's Cafe this afternoon, offered me a case which sounds very much like a holiday.
Get down to the French Riviera by boat. Convince her uncle I'm an awfully rich but somewhat amateurish porcelain collector. Convict said uncle of fraud and thus restore family honour. That's the basic description.
The whole affair seemed like an excellent spring cruise if it hadn't been for one tiny sentence.
"I'm relieved you agree," she said. "For this kind of task, it really takes someone who has developed a certain routine at playing the fool.
The remark startled me. Not that I mind being called on my habits, but I did mind her tone. The "strictly between you and me" quality that it carried.
Her voice, it sprang to my mind, was that of a con man.
"Pack some old-fashioned marine clothing, " she said. "Uncle loves fuddy-duddies."
Finishing my coffee, I told her that before packing anything I first needed to check my appointments book.
Probably I'm going anyway. Oh, and I will pack my gun.
An anecdote told to me by grandmother on a rainy Saturday afternoon over tea and sandwiches:
"You must have been about five," grandmother Emily said, "when you began to discover the secret parallel world of the great house. Of course, you did this so gradually and methodically that nobody realized at first what a spell it must have held over you. All those barely visible doors opening and closing; people working and living in hidden rooms. The short, narrow corridor connecting the servant's staircase with the great hallway.
Your nanny, that nice Scottish lady with the large nose and the deep voice – I believe her name was Miss McDoogal, wasn't it? – later told me she thought the whole affair had an awful lot to do with you finally receiving you glasses. You have no idea, puffin, how much that first clear grasp of your surroundings changed you. Within days, you turned from intelligent, but somewhat overly concentrated, overly hesitant child to a miniature version of Marco Polo. Perfectly fascinated by what you saw, perfectly determined to take exploration just one step further.
Our mistake probably lay in underestimating the effect this would have on your usual afternoon drowsiness. So one day – Nanny McDoogal had just put you to bed and had gone to fetch your favourite book of fairy tales – you used the opportunity for a quite challenging expedition.
From the nursery's servant entry to the staircase and then all the way down to the staff's dining room. Lord knows how you managed to stray that far without getting noticed. There must have been at least twenty-five different people in your parents' employ; butler, under-butler, housekeeper, maids, kitchen staff. The scullery maid who discovered you sitting on the floor in nothing but your socks and pyjamas later swore you had a remarkably good idea of where you were headed and only failed to pick the right door.
'But I want to say hello to Mr. Beedle and ask if I can see where he cooks dinner.' That's about what you said to her when she wrapped you in an overcoat and gave you a cupcake. All your protest helped little. You were lifted up and carried back to your quarters. Your nanny, who had already alarmed the whole household by then, didn't know whether to feel relieved and amused or to be angry. Her professional instincts, though, must have told her your curiosity was not to be taken lightly, because a couple of days later she took you on a supervised tour through the house's 'unseen' rooms.
Investigative minds need to be guided, not tied down, as she used to say. And this strategy would have worked perfectly well if it hadn't been for the questions you asked once the big tour was finished. Very innocent, but at the same time quite understandable. They upset your mother. Poor Miss McDoogal probably was forced to perform the most complicated diplomatic act of her entire career, simply because there is no good way of informing a sheltered five-year-old about the realities of his life style.
I doubt it's such an act of criminal insanity you feel perfectly happy in your current surroundings, Rudolph. Three rooms, the most unique gentleman's gentleman as the one and only servant. Maybe I'm turning socialist in my old age."