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Authors: Tim Clare

The Honours (10 page)

BOOK: The Honours
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Two people were ringed in the golden glow of the chandelier: Mr Propp, smiling beneath his white moustache, and beside him, another resident of the Hall, sipping a martini as she tossed her smile from one lucky guest to another – Miss DeGroot.

Delphine glanced back at the Professor. His lips were parted and his eyes did not blink. He looked younger, somehow.

His hands snapped tight round his sheaf of paper.

‘Right,' he said. ‘Follow me.'

He began shouldering his way into the throng.

Guests sighed and rolled their eyes. Delphine darted into his considerable wake, the crowd closing behind her.

‘Well, Ivan, if the rumours are true, you're a
dangerous man.'

Delphine followed the Professor to the edge of the circle surrounding Propp and Miss DeGroot. Mr Propp had one hand on his silk waistcoat, patting his belly. He chuckled, his tanned cheeks dimpling.

‘No. I do not think this.' His demeanour was halfway between Heidi's grandfather and a small porcelain owl. He was diabolically cunning.

‘Such innocence!' said Miss DeGroot. She had the dramatic figure of a treble clef. She wore a crisp silk blouse, sleek black trousers and a cream capelet decorated with blue swallows. Her hair hung in a slick wave of honey. Using the green divan behind her as a point of reference, Delphine guessed she was a little over four feet tall.

‘Come now, Ivan. You're amongst friends.' Her soft Canadian accent was punctuated by lapses into something more exotic, as if she had painted over an old voice only for certain words to show through. She jabbed his shoulder. ‘Why, in Belgravia I've had
gentlemen . . . ' the crowd let out cat-calls and whistles, ‘if you'll let me finish . . . I've had several
gentlemen tell me in
sincerity that this little,' she flapped a fur-cuffed satin evening glove at the room, ‘ginger group of yours is the guiding hand behind every government in the civilised world. “Watch that Mr Propp,” they say,' and here she affected a stiff, military voice, ‘“He's a downy bird, you mark my words. Makes Rasputin look like Santa Claus.” Should I be

Delphine gripped her glass.

‘I hope,' he said, ‘you told them how boring I in fact am.'

‘But that's just it – when I defend you they think my head's been turned. They think I'm a lieutenant in your black gang.'

‘So what do you say?'

Miss DeGroot drew on her cigarette holder and gave her audience a sly smile.

‘What can I say? I tell them they're absolutely right and the revolution starts in three weeks.'

Laughter, applause. Professor Carmichael, waiting on the cusp of the group, rocking back and forth on his heels, took a fortifying puff on his cigar. He cleared his throat.

Miss DeGroot, oblivious, was pointing at the ceiling.

‘Now when was
created?' she asked Mr Propp.

Above their heads, a complex symmetrical pattern spread from the central chandelier. Overlapping layers of circles wove huge, colourful petals, resolving at their farthest extremities into eight damascene discs of black oxidised iron and silver, each the size of a dinner plate, depicting the phases of the moon. It would, Delphine imagined, have looked perfectly boring had several fires not left the ceiling an angry mass of apocalyptic black tendrils, swarming from the centre of the universe, engulfing everything.

Mr Propp gave an exaggerated, distinctly Gallic shrug. ‘I am merely dance teacher. For history, you must ask Doctor Lansley.'

‘Really? I say, Doctor?' The crowd parted as Miss DeGroot shuffled round the divan towards Dr Lansley, her blond hair holding perfect shape. Delphine had to go on tiptoes to keep her in sight. ‘I do beg your pardon.' She grasped one of Lansley's long thin arms, winking at Mother. For an instant, she looked like a miniature Gainsborough Lady. ‘Doctor, we require your legendary expertise. We have a sudden yen for a full and frank history of the banqueting-hall ceiling.' The crowd closed behind her as she dragged him back into the centre of the room. ‘Do you know anything of its provenance?' Dr Lansley and Mr Propp exchanged a glance. Lansley sucked in his prim chin.

‘Ah,' he said. ‘You've spotted the “lunar mandala”.'

‘Is it very old?' Miss DeGroot's eyes widened. ‘Was it here before the house? Did the druids build it? Will it bewitch us?'

Dr Lansley swirled his brandy glass and glowered into its amber waters. ‘Third Earl. That is, Lord Alderberen's father.'

Delphine had barely seen Lazarus Stokeham, 4th Earl of Alderberen, since her arrival. She had snatched glimpses of a rumpled old man who looked as if he had been poured into his bath chair, but so far the Earl remained a rumour, an idea, like the King, or Death.

The Doctor coughed into a clenched glove. ‘The third Earl was a bit of a . . . well, I suppose you might call him an innovator. One of the first places in the country to install electricity – '81 or '82, it must have been. One of the first to have a telephone put in, too, although where the sense is in having one before everyone else I don't know. In any case,' he regarded the scorch marks ruefully, ‘as you can see, the electric light system they rigged up was rather unsafe. Laz . . . ah, Lord Alderberen says when he first returned from India the ceiling would occasionally burst into flame, and they'd have to fling cushions up at it to put it out. Still, such is the price of ambition, I suppose. Pioneers rarely hit it in the middle of the bat.'

Professor Carmichael cleared his throat a second time. Mr Propp, Dr Lansley and Miss DeGroot turned to look at him.

‘Hello!' Professor Carmichael stuck his cigar between his teeth and thrust out a hand, crossing an invisible threshold into the inner
circle. ‘Algernon Carmichael. Uh, Professor Algernon Carmichael.'

The crowd fell silent. Delphine felt their disapproval as a cold rush in her tummy. The Professor had breached some strange, unspoken rule. She wanted to run to him, but everyone was watching. What if Propp drew his pistol?

Mr Propp's smile neither widened nor shrank. He reached out and enclosed the Professor's hand in his.

‘What is your, ah . . . “field”, Professor?'

‘Eclectics,' said the Professor brightly.

‘Ah. I am very pleased to meet.'

‘Oh, likewise, likewise. It's such an honour to meet you at last.' The Professor turned towards the wall of disapproving onlookers, winced. He pumped his arms and let out a high, staccato laugh.

‘Sorry,' he said, ‘perhaps this isn't the time. It's just that, well, I've been at the Hall almost a fortnight and somehow we haven't bumped into each other . . . quite bizarre! It's like you keep disappearing! The thing is, Ivan – may I call you Ivan? When you
have a moment, I've a project that I've been working on for five years now, and I think – well, that is to say, I
– that you'll be rather interes – '

‘Actually,' said Dr Lansley, stepping forward, ‘we were in the middle of a conversation.'

‘Really?' The Professor looked from Lansley, to Miss DeGroot, to Propp. ‘Oh, I do beg your pardon. What are you talking about?'

‘I'm not inviting you to join – '

‘This thing,' said Miss DeGroot, nodding upwards. ‘I was rather worried it might be placing us under some species of voodoo curse – that's a tremendously fetching bow tie, by the way.'

‘Thank you.' The words came out a little throttled and the Professor had to fan his face with his papers. Delphine followed his gaze back up to the ceiling. ‘Curse, you say? I should think the whole estate's cursed, shouldn't you? Entire medieval household, retinue and all – poof! Vanished like a Welshman on a workday. Or so the story goes.'

‘Oh! So is this your area of study, Professor?'

Dr Lansley's expression was flat and hard.

‘The Professor,' he spat the word, ‘is here acting as schoolmaster for the Venner child.'

Delphine felt a jolt of anger. Dr Lansley had wielded her as an insult.

‘Mrs Venner invited me here as a tutor, yes, but my primary area of study is . . . Put it this way – what's the first word that pops into your head if I say to you: Lemuria.'

‘Um . . . lemur?' said Miss DeGroot.

‘Folktale,' said Propp.

‘Goodbye,' said Dr Lansley.

‘Ah, no, absolutely right, absolutely right.' She saw the Professor nodding, grinning tightly. ‘Any wise man would say the same. The stuff of story papers. But uh . . . ' He took a deep breath. ‘I, like yourselves, am disinclined to trust the official narratives thrust upon us by the powers that be. Therefore, I have made it my life's work to uh, to . . . My point is this: during my studies of accounts of Ancient Britain, I have uncovered a glaring lacuna.'

Dr Lansley rolled his eyes. ‘The only glaring lacuna is the one between your ears.'

The Professor's smile faltered. Miss DeGroot stifled a guffaw.

‘But surely,' and here, the Professor made the mistake of appealing to the crowd, ‘in this gathering of our nation's greatest freethinkers, no man would deny there exist worlds beyond our own?'

Delphine felt the question hang. Her mouth had gone dry.

The Professor wavered beneath a reproving silence. Dr Lansley sucked in his cheeks.

‘Mr Carmichael . . . ' He paused to sigh heavily. ‘The Society is a meeting place for great men of science and politics. Not a charitable foundation for, for . . . crackpots.'

‘Ah, but I have proof!' The Professor took a step back, flourishing his heap of papers.

Dr Lansley glanced at them. For the second time that night, he and Propp exchanged a look.

‘Well. That changes things.' Dr Lansley turned to the room. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Society for the Perpetual Improvement of Man has a new member. I propose a toast.' He raised his
brandy glass. ‘To Professor Carmichael . . . the discoverer of Oz!'

Palpably relieved laughter and applause. Dr Lansley drained his glass. Other guests whooped and drank. Delphine felt heat building in her cheeks and brow. Dr Lansley turned his back on the Professor and began talking to Propp.

The Professor attempted a smile.

‘All right,' he said, but no one was listening except Delphine. Humiliation made him bigger, somehow; the papers were a wilted bouquet in his giant fist.

She thought of how he had stuck up for her on the train. Indignation blazed in her heart.

‘Hey.' Delphine stepped forward. ‘Hey!'

Dr Lansley did not respond. She stepped nearer. ‘Hey!'

He did not respond. She prodded a finger into his dinner-jacketed back.

Lansley wheeled round with a fencer's grace. When he saw her, his smile turned to a bored scowl. She stared up at his puffed-out chest, his hairy black nostrils. He exhaled from one corner of his narrow mouth.

‘What do you want?'

A pulse hammered in Delphine's ear. Her face felt sticky.

‘You oughtn't to speak to the Professor like that,' she said. All around, the party had gone quiet. People were turning to watch. She heard the tremble in her voice. ‘He's not . . . he's a very clever man.'

Dr Lansley's scowl melted into a smirk.

‘Ah, Professor – here's your secretary.' Sniggers, isolated claps. ‘What's the emergency? Does the British Museum need an expert to label its new collection from Neverland?'

Delphine clenched her fists. Her vision was narrowing around Dr Lansley's wonky butterscotch grin. ‘Tell the Professor you're sorry.'

Dr Lansley cocked his head. The wan skin at the corners of his mouth crinkled.

‘Or what? You'll set me on fire?'

Delphine felt a cold hand on her shoulder.

‘I do apologise.'

It was Mother.

Dr Lansley nodded. ‘Anne.'

‘Mother, not now. I'm helping the Professor.'

A woman in a diamond choker whispered something to the man at her shoulder, who snorted into his drink. Delphine glanced at the Professor for support. He did not look grateful.

Very quietly, he said: ‘Miss Venner. You're making a spectacle of yourself.' He slapped a coil of slimy hair back from his eyes, grimacing. ‘Please, just . . . buzz off.'

Delphine blinked, trying to hide the crushing sensation in her chest.

‘Come on, Delphine,' said Mother, ‘that's quite enough.'

‘No, it's not.' Delphine shrugged loose. ‘It's not enough at all.' She glared at Dr Lansley. He raised his hand and she flinched. He saw and chuckled, smoothing his bloodless lower lip with a finger.

Delphine felt an icy rage. She would rip his throat out. She would throttle him with the cable of his deaf aid.

Then she saw it. Past the curve of Dr Lansley's hip, a lump at the base of Mr Propp's spine, smothered in silk robe. The revolver. Everyone was watching. She could unmask him, and Lansley – surely one of his accomplices – in a single stroke. Then they'd bloody listen.

Dr Lansley noticed her staring. He followed her gaze.

Delphine lunged.

The double doors opened with a bang. A glass shattered. Everyone turned to look.

Propp sidestepped out of Delphine's range. Something was going on, past everybody's heads. She heard gasps. She scrambled onto the divan.

A figure stood in the doorway. He was soaked through; his trousers shone like sealskin. His shirt was nearly transparent, save for thick arterial creases lining his arms. Water puddled about his bare feet. His hair hung lank and drooling. Cradled in his shaking hands was something like a live heart dunked in potter's slip, caught in the steel teeth of a gin trap.


‘Gideon!' Mother ran to his side. ‘What on earth are you doing?'

He stared at the mess in his hands. Delphine could no longer see it – people had moved in the way. Water dripped from his brow, nose and chin. Mr Propp cleaved through the crowd with an agility that belied his age and size.

BOOK: The Honours
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