Read Ashenden Online

Authors: Elizabeth Wilhide

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Cultural Heritage, #Contemporary Fiction, #Literary, #Historical Fiction

Ashenden (28 page)

BOOK: Ashenden
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George Ferrars, sitting in his silk dressing gown in his Bayswater flat, set the paper aside and stared out at the busy London street. It was late April and trees were budding in the gardens and squares. Ever since the article had appeared a week ago, he had received a flurry of acceptances by each post. None from Dido, but that was to be expected; they had made their arrangement on the telephone. As he understood it, normally there was no telling whether Dido would show up and make your party a success or go elsewhere and consign it to oblivion. In this case, however, he thought he had probably weighted the scales sufficiently in his favor.

Depending on whom you talked to, Dido was a dustman’s daughter, the errant wife of the headmaster of a famous public school, the lover of a Russian sculptress, or the current mistress of the Prince of Wales. The one thing that was known for certain was that she was in the papers every week, mostly the gossip columns and court circular, sometimes the news, and occasionally the law reports. The press followed her everywhere, which was why he had invited her. If all went according to plan, in a few days’ time he would have the publicity he needed for the house and the bold idea he had conceived for its disposal.

Property was no business for a gentleman, someone said to him recently, the sort of someone whose property he often sold. Hard times for that class now, he thought, not taking it personally. What income tax started, the war had finished off. You didn’t have to be titled to feel the pinch. Even the bankers and City gents, with their make-believe estates an hour’s train ride from London, were having to retrench and upset the wife.

Ashenden Park was the largest property Ferrars had ever bought, and the most distinctive by far. A beautiful house, even in its present abandoned state, a national treasure that the nation could no longer afford. He was under no illusion that these days you could sell a place
this size to a private buyer in England. A speculator with deeper pockets than his would simply tear it down and turn a profit by cramming lots of little jerry-built houses on the land where it used to stand. Ferrars’s intention, he liked to think, was much more honorable.

The American market was where the future lay. Anyone could see that. America was full of new money and new money loved old things. A million dollars was a reasonable sum, he thought, to dismantle a historic house, ship it across the ocean, and reerect it on behalf of whichever patriot wanted to put his name on a museum, college building, or public library, or who wanted a private residence with a past.

Such a sale and the house would be preserved, as it deserved to be, though admittedly not in its original setting. Such a sale and he would have the capital he needed to develop the estate into a pleasant Home Counties suburb. In his mind’s eye he saw decent houses with airy rooms and fair-sized gardens grouped about well-tended greens where children bicycled and mothers sat overseeing them, where fathers arrived home on the five-fifteen from Paddington. George Ferrars was a romantic who believed he was a visionary.

*  *  *

On the evening of the party, anticipation crackled through the house like electricity. Every minute held the expectation of something happening, some momentous balloon of pleasure lying in wait, just out of reach. Dido would be coming, and meanwhile here was an abandoned house, an enchanted attic for the imagination to rummage about in.

Outside Ferrars paced up and down the portico, lighting cigarette after cigarette. For the occasion, he’d had the great brass lanterns lit and the frontage was bathed in gold. Behind him, through the closed glazed doors, he could hear the noise of the party grow, rising from a murmur to a loud, insistent droning hum punctuated by the odd vibrating shriek that rattled the glazing. From time to time another motorcar would arrive and more people would trip up the stairs, laughing. It was approaching ten o’clock.

No Dido.

One of the staff he’d hired for the party came out and said people had been asking when the treasure hunt was going to start.

“Tell them soon,” said Ferrars. “Very soon.”

Below the pressmen skulked, smoking, shuffling their feet on the gravel. As if sensing his unease, one of them called up, “She’s going to show, isn’t she, squire? Or are we wasting our bleeding time here?”

“Oh,” he said, with an assumed lightness, “Dido is Dido. A law unto herself.”

“Are we to take that as a no, squire?”

He ignored the question. “Have you everything you need? Would you like more sandwiches?”

“More drink would not go amiss,” said the pressman.

“A pint of your best bubbly for me,” said another.

Just then a long black car drew up, its headlamps raking the drive. Ferrars leaned on the balustrade, squinting into the night. A chauffeur got out and opened the rear doors. There was an explosion of light.

“Dido!”

“Dido!”

“Over here, Dido!”

Whoosh, pop, pop went the flashbulbs.

Dido got out of the car, one hand shielding her eyes, a rope of white beads the size of quail’s eggs hanging down to her hipbones.

“Gentlemen,” she said to the press, “we meet again.”

Ferrars, who had never seen Dido in the flesh, was surprised that she was even more beautiful than her pictures in the papers would have led you to believe. The light, breathy sound of her voice, however, he remembered.

Whoosh, pop, pop went the flashbulbs.

“Dido!”

“Dido! Over here!”

“Are you going to find the bracelet, Dido?” said one of the pressmen.

“Who knows, Sammy?” she said.

Out of the other car door emerged a man who came swiftly round and took Dido’s arm, shepherding her up the stairs. “They love you, baby,” the man was saying as they came out onto the portico.

“They do, don’t they?” she said.

Ferrars came forward, rinsed in relief. “Dido, so glad you could make it. Welcome to Ashenden Park.”

“Who are you?”

“George Ferrars. We spoke on the telephone.”

She touched the tips of his fingers, her mouth half open, her eyes half closed. “Oh yes, Mr. Ferrars. Pleased to meet you.”

Her companion, a tall, thickset man in a camel-hair coat, introduced himself as Connor. First name or last name, Ferrars was never to know.

“Come through,” he said, opening the doors onto the party’s blare. “Let me fix you a drink and then I’d better start the ball rolling.”

In the library Ferrars poured out the malt. “Here you are. Good for whatever ails you.”

Connor in his camel-hair coat was staring around at the empty bookcases, and the camp bed, folding table and chairs Ferrars had brought up from London, signs of his temporary occupancy.

“How much did you pay for this place?”

Who is this person? thought Ferrars, registering a slight air of menace that emanated from him. “A good part of the land was sold a couple of years ago. The house has been empty a long time. So less than you might think.”

Connor said he hadn’t been surprised to see the estate up for auction. He’d heard Henderson had debts. “What are you going to do with the house? Live in it?” He had an unpleasant laugh.

“No,” said Ferrars. “I have other plans.”

“Sweetie,” said Dido in her baby voice, “I could do with a little lift.”

“Of course, my angel.”

From an inside pocket Connor took out a hand mirror and paper packet. Tipped white powder from the packet onto the mirror and chopped it up with a razor blade.

Dido inhaled through a fine silver tube. “Mmm,” she said.

“Limehouse’s finest.”

“You are so good to me, Connor, darling,” said Dido. Then she turned her glittering eyes on Ferrars. “Show me the bracelet.”

For a moment, as Ferrars opened the jewelry box and flashed the diamonds, Connor wondered whether the point of all this was to get Dido into bed, but he didn’t detect any of the usual overtures, and he had a very good nose for them.

“I get to keep the bracelet,” said Dido, who could not take her eyes off it.

“I know that, my angel.” But what does Mr. Ferrars get? thought Connor.

*  *  *

Dido’s entrance to the party had caused a sensation: first a beat of silence, then an upsurge of sound as she was ushered into the library at end of the hall.

“Did you see that?” said Sylvia Lanchester. “She’s wearing Fortuny. That takes nerve. It must be ten years old, that gown. I knew I should have borrowed Mother’s.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Vivian. “You would never have carried it off.”

The Lanchester sisters had driven down with Hugo Lyell in his father’s Daimler Double Six, along with Frances Dunne, Hugo’s cousin. The saloon car had been a hothouse of crushed flowers: Vivian’s lily-of-the-valley scent, Sylvia’s gardenia, and Frances’s lavender eau de cologne.

Hugo, who was nineteen and about to go to Oxford, was the younger son of a wealthy industrialist; his elder brother, Paul, had been killed in the war. Ever since he had gained his place at university and left school, he had found himself at lots of parties—circus parties, swimming parties, fancy-dress parties—although he didn’t particularly consider himself to be the partying sort. He helped himself to a glass of champagne.

“Don’t get too tight,” said Vivian. “You’re driving us back, remember?”
Her frock shimmered with tiny glass beads and ended at her knees in a series of overlapping triangles, like teeth.

“Don’t you get too tight either,” said Hugo. “Or you can get a lift from someone else. My father will murder me if you’re sick on the seats.”

“Chin-chin,” said Sylvia. Her eyes were ringed with kohl, each forearm an armature of bangles from wrist to elbow. “You’ll miss all this gaiety next year. Up in your ivory tower. Hunched over your dusty old law books.”

“History,” said Hugo. “I’m reading history.”

His cousin Frances was standing silent beside him and he registered her discomfort with a pang of conscience. His mother, who had refused to let his younger sister, Winifred, come to the party, much to Winifred’s outrage, had told him to be kind to his cousin and to look after her. Frances had nice brown eyes but wasn’t wearing any makeup and didn’t have the right figure for her dress, which was to say she had a figure whose curves disturbed its straight lines. No girls had bosoms now; what precisely they did with them Hugo was not entirely sure, but he understood it involved elasticated undergarments of the kind Frances evidently did not possess.

At that moment Ferrars came out of the library, stood on a chair, and waved them all to a hush.

“Pray silence for mine host,” said Vivian.

Ferrars’s speech had a natural and unrehearsed quality, as if he were conversing with friends over a supper table. First he told them when the band would be playing, and what there was to eat and drink and where to find it. Then he moved on to the treasure hunt. On a side table they would find cards printed with clues. The object of the game was to solve the clues and then find an object corresponding to the answer from somewhere in the house or the immediate vicinity. The winner or winners would be the first to find all six items.

“You will no doubt have read about the prize.” There was a cheer as he produced the red leather Cartier box from his suit pocket and a gasp when he opened it. “Good luck, everyone.”

The effect of diamonds on jaded appetites was nothing short of miraculous. As Ferrars got down from his chair, there was an immediate rush for the side table.

“I like this Ferrars person,” said Sylvia. “He’s my sort of chap.”

“Which chap isn’t?” said Vivian. “Coming, Hugo?” She waved a card.

“Yes,” Sylvia said, “we’re going to need your brain.”

It was clear that Frances was not included in their invitation, and for a moment Hugo was torn. “No,” he said. “You two go ahead.” He glanced at his cousin and her eyes said thank you.

*  *  *


This king has his pride.
Four letters. Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it?” said Frances.

They had gone through into another hall with a staircase in it, an echoing, hollowed-out space, and Hugo could hear a band tuning up in a room that led off it. “Where do you suggest we find a lion?”

“A cat might do for a lion,” said Frances.

“I don’t really think that’s precise enough,” said Hugo. “Finding a picture of a lion will probably be our best bet.”

“Picture?” On the walls were no pictures, just pale rectangles where pictures had once been. “Oh, I know where to look,” said Frances, her eyes lighting up.

“Where?”

“I’ll show you.”

He followed her up the curving stone stairs with its wrought-iron balustrade, and people begin to spill into the hall down below, the girls like moths in their light dresses, flitting and phosphorescent. More girls than men, and a couple of the men with empty sleeves pinned to their sides or across their chests, one with an eye patch. He thought about those who hadn’t come back, about his brother, and Vivian and Sylvia’s brothers. Frances’s brother had been too young, like him, but her father hadn’t been. At first they had put him in a convalescent home; then they moved him to a private asylum.

At the top of the stairs was a gallery leading to a corridor dimly lit by shaded electric bulbs. Frances went along it, trying handles, opening doors, peering inside. They had all been bedrooms or dressing rooms, judging by what was left behind: a couple of wash-stands, a broken brass bedstead, a pair of brocade curtains drooping on their rail, a small armless chair with fringed upholstery. A large over-mantel mirror, of the ornate Victorian kind he remembered from his grandmother’s house, reflected the last of the light in its cloudy foxed depths. A film seemed to lie over everything, not merely of dust and neglect, but of past expirations and hopes.

In the last year of the war, by which time his brother Paul had been dead for eighteen months, killed when his hospital tent was shelled, his father’s driver, Jim Sugden, was called up. Occasionally they had postcards from him in an upright school hand, generally in response to parcels his mother sent, and once the war was over, he returned to ask if the position was still open. That would have been just after Christmas, early in the new year, because he could remember the sleet lashing the windows and how Jim, who had taught him to drive in Hyde Park before he had left for the front, had sat warming himself by the cook’s fire, drinking tea, the wet steaming off his army greatcoat. From where Hugo was sitting, watchful on the top step, neither in the kitchen nor out of it, Jim looked more or less his same square self, which puzzled him as much as it comforted him. This was at a time when the fortitude of his parents had been an impenetrable thing. He seemed to remember Jim tousling his hair on his way out, or that might have been an earlier occasion. The position was still open but Jim never came back to fill it and they learned a little later that he had died from the Spanish flu. Afterwards Hugo himself had come down with a mysterious illness that kept him away from school for a term, which the doctors could not get to the bottom of, and which passed in due course.

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