Writing Greenwood Tree – and more

Posts tagged “julia warren

Of Buns and Balancing Acts

‘Trunk – check.

Knees – check.

Now …. Up-si-daisy…creak, groan, not getting any younger, y’know. And we’re up! Loiter forward slowly – don’t let them think you can run or there’ll be no end to their demands …

Step one: collar the one in the top hat – he knows where the food is.

Step two : Walk, don’t run (see above).

Step three: allow them one encore then back out quick in pursuit of top hat (see step one)

Oh yes. The ball thing. Roll it about, kick it, balance it – keeps the punters happy.

And the old trick with the plate thingy.

Not sure I see the point to it, to be honest; perhaps it’s some form of exercise in Gestalt philosophy. More of a Copernican myself – when I’m not feeling Darwinian. But they’re a light-hearted lot here…

Right, done that, pick him up and carry out to rapturous applause. Where’s the grub?’

 

Well, I would quite like to think of Jumbo and his counterparts engaged in such ruminations while balancing balls and tossing plates (or was it vice-versa?) before being led off for a well-deserved pile of buns.

Elephants joined the circus relatively early in its evolution; the cavalcade of horses under the aegis of Mr (Sergeant-Major)Astley evolved in the late 18th century, and was quickly embellished with exoticism: as early as 1812 the first trained elephant performed at Cirque Olympique in Paris. This in turn set off the winning combination of circus and wild animals, most notably developed in Germany by the Hagenbecks, the world’s foremost importers and dealers of exotic animals.

The sheer logistics of transport quickly take on mind-boggling proportions in the 19th century, when the travelling circus became big business. Whole trainloads of performers both human and not travelled the length and breadth of Europe, some of them jumping aboard a passing steamship to America along the way – when Barnum’s came to London’s Olympia in 1889 their entourage comprised 450 performers, 300 horses and 21 elephants. The amount of hay alone required must have been astronomical.

 

 

1891

 

A field. An ordinary, uncultivated field. Nothing untoward about it. A path running diagonally across, and a ditch running alongside. A handy pool in the middle distance, a tree or two, some wild flowers. And an elephant.

The elephant was not alone. She had wandered across to inspect the taller of the two trees tentatively with her trunk. A man with a canvas bag slung across one shoulder sauntered up beside her. ‘Come along now, old girl, you don’t want those, do you—look what I have here…’ And so saying he delved into the canvas bag and drew out some bread. This was quickly disposed of by the wandering proboscis.

A muted trundling in the distance grew gradually as a series of brightly coloured caravans grumbled across the ground; there was the occasional bark from the three dogs gambolling about, the chatter and clanking of pots and pans, swinging from their hooks in constant confabulation, a murmur of voices both within and without as the troupe dispersed, picking out their spots with the practised eye of a proprietor lately established in his new home. Each had its own identity: the fortune teller’s caravan had a huge white circle painted on the side, on blue sky with stars across which was emblazoned ‘L’Oeil Voyant’. Another, decorated with a mage in star-bespeckled robe spreading out his arms against a panoply of curtains, playing cards and tripods, heralded the coming of the Great Doctor Miraculous. A third, modest in comparison, yet of content explosive enough to outdo them all, featured a small man sailing across a night-sky, with below him the mouth of a magnificent cannon pointing diagonally up. And if the viewer were still in any doubt as to its significance, the whole was topped off by large, clear lettering that declared the occupant to be the one and only Human Cannonball: Blazer, A Marvel of the Modern World.

And so on: the clowns sported balls and hoops, the balancing act plates and cups teetering on poles and trays, and most imposing of all, the ringmaster’s own domicile, with both sides adorned with top hats, plumed horses in mid-leap and a whole collection of colourful performers, with the magnificent emblem ‘Roly Tadger’s Remarkable Circus of Oddities’ running in cheerful colours across. A modest king this, who, rather than take centre stage, chose to set his abode in the wings so to speak (in the shade of the trees), at a slight distance from the rest. A tall man in a chimney pipe hat stepped out and wandered amongst his citizens, checking on this, minding that.

Water was fetched from the pool, a clearing made for a fire, and food prepared. The elephant keeper wandered off, munching on an apple, sizing up the surrounding area. He ambled about, stretching occasionally, squinting up at a wintry sun, meandering along until he ended up near the ditch. The elephant, her curiosity regarding the trees now sated, drifted in his direction. Absently, her keeper fished another bread roll from his bag and handed it to her over his shoulder. His gaze focussed on a clump of grass overhanging the ditch.

‘Did you hear something, Milly?’ he enquired. Milly responded with a furtive rummage in his bag.

He stepped forward, and peered over to look at the ditch more carefully. He had not been mistaken. Another groan, as if in confirmation, came up from the sorry individual lying there.

‘Dear, dear. Footpads, no doubt. No good travelling alone in these parts: you wait there,’ murmured the keeper, as if the unfortunate man in the ditch were chafing to be off; the keeper turned and cupping his hands to his mouth let out a hearty ‘hallooo’ to his companions.

Instantly doors opened, feet clattered down caravan steps and an assortment of oddities both human and otherwise spilled across the field. One of them, in elegant coat and moleskin hat, with the air of a medical man, knelt in the ditch and checked the insensible body for breaks.

A decision was reached, a stretcher made up from coat and boom handles, and the unconscious man was lifted and carried back to one of the caravans. By general consensus, they put him in the caravan belonging to the Human Cannonball, he having the least cluttered of all.

Day passed into evening, evening into dawn, and come the morning the caravanserai set off again. From time to time they paused along the way: the tall man in a chimney-pipe of a hat would leap up and down steps, knocking on the door of the Human Cannonball to see how the patient was doing.

‘No memory yet? Well, well, but from the look of him, one of our kind. And we could do with an extra set of hands…’ ”

(From ‘Of Soul Sincere’, Part Three)

circus filled

 

By the time Roly Tadger’s troupe is travelling the counties in the 1880s, the wildlife element of his ‘circus’ is reduced to a few horses, Milly the elephant and some performing dogs. By the late Victorian period, the trapeze artist and acrobat had come into their own, fuelling a re-discovered interest in athletics which led to the Olympics of 1896. Roly Tadger is relying more and more on human  performers (and probably his drinking has made it inadvisable to keep big cats on the programme anyway).

 

9781909374867 RGB

 

It is summer, 1928.

When invited by her publisher to assist a well-respected M.P. write his memoirs, Julia Warren is at first reluctant to concentrate on anything other than her next novel; however, circumstances(involving among other things unexpected plumbing) conspire to change her mind and she finds herself at once guest and employee at the great man’s rather bohemian household.

Almost immediately she encounters memories from the past, of a rather unsettling nature …

Of Soul Sincere, coming April 2 2016, published by Grey Cells Press 

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Lot 34 (Unexpected Auctions)

‘Lot 34, what am I bid, gentlemen, what am I bid? Very nice piece of classicism here, highly sought after, a sound investment – wide-sweeping vistas, possibly crumbling a little at the edges, but plenty of wear left in it yet,  never mind the quality shall we say, feel the breadth, ha,ha, – what am I bid? Thank you sir, you won’t regret it – any more? Come, gentlemen, a wide range of assets here, own in-built infrastructure, huge returns, no effort required; well, very little, anyway, minimal maintenance necessary as free service is included – won’t let you down, – unless you turn a little tyrannical, eh? Ha,ha, sorry – what am I bid? My, but we are all eager, aren’t we  – hardly surprising: the elegance, opulence, the sheer size and scale are unequalled. A growing concern, constantly expanding, new annexes all the time… Admittedly not the original Greek version, but as is often pointed out, a fair copy nonetheless, I think we are all agreed – thank you, sir – any more? And going, going, – GONE! Sold to the gentleman in the toga at the back there: one Roman Empire to …Senator Didius – Julianus, wasn’t it?’

No, it probably wasn’t quite like that, but tempting to imagine even so. Old Marcus Aurelius got into the habit of auctioning goods to get out of debt, and with a rather generous commodity in slaves and unwed females, auctions were the norm. Still, to end up auctioning a whole Empire. That takes some seriously bad housekeeping. But then, by 193 A.D., things were perhaps getting a little crumbly around the edges: conspiracies, messy murders and war have a way of leaving moth holes in the furniture, so to speak.  The result was the Praetorian Guard who, having relieved Emperor Pertinax of his position (and life), offered the Empire up for auction – and Julianus rose to the bait.

Auctions can be such emotive things. Drama, comedy, tragedy – it is an extension of theatre, filled with emotion and excitement, tension and hypocrisy, plots and paranoia, acts of pernicity coupled with acts of generosity. Witness the dramatic candle auction in Moonfleet, or the pathos of Dobbin secretly buying Amelia’s harpsichord in Vanity Fair. In the case of the Empire, it did at least kick some of the provincial commanders into action, and Severus marched on Rome to pull it back into shape. The Praetorians were sent into the corner for being such naughty schoolboys, and poor old Julianus was executed. Let that be a warning to greedy bidders: you never know what you might be buying into. Which leads me neatly (or probably not) onto the opening scene of the second Julia Warren Mystery (Of Soul Sincere) where a house with a past is auctioned off to the highest bidder: in this case, another politician. He too, didn’t know what he was buying into …

 

1791

 A catalogue of household furniture, one piano-forte, a capital eight-day clock, plate, silver, ornamental china, a few pictures and drawings and numerous curious articles, the property of the late Geoffrey Bosquith, Esq, deceased; which will be sold by auction by Mess. Cardew & Penn, on Friday the 10th, and Saturday the 11th of June, 1791, at eleven o’clock, on the premises, at Bower House, South Lambeth, by order of the executors.

Bower House, an elegant building completed in 1762, property of Geoffrey Bosquith, Esq. deceased, will be sold by auction, also by Mess. Cardew & Penn, on Monday the 13th of June, 1791, on the premises, by order of the executors. …

‘GONE!’ The auctioneer’s gavel lands heavily, with a resounding bang! and the auctioneer wipes at his perspiring face with a piece of cambric. A last minute bid. No one had challenged. The bid had stayed. One of their more favoured clients, too. Henry Paglar Esq. Member of Parliament. No question of Queer Street with HIM—money fairly pouring out of his pockets in musical fountains. The auctioneer bows, smiles, extends his hand towards the register. The auction house clerk scurries across, hair tied back in a knot, with limp cravat and worn coat two sizes too large for him, holding quill and inkpot.

The auctioneer bows again. Henry Paglar Esq. (Member of Parliament) leans over the book, holding out his hand for the quill. It is dipped in the ink for him, and proffered with due reverence. He takes it and scratches his name in the ledger. The deed is done. There are bills of exchange and terms and contracts to be drawn up; the executors are even at this moment in the house, through there, dear sir, preparing the papers. The Member of Parliament is escorted to the next room and the business is concluded.

Only a few members of the audience remain to act as chorus to the whole scene; the rumour that sped through the air moments before hovers yet around them.

‘But is it true then? And that gentleman has gone and bought it even so?’

‘I would not live in such a place, not if you was to pay me for it—why, even just standing here, in full light of day, makes me shiver.’

‘And where was it they found him?’

‘Up the stairs, hanging, from the stairwell.’

‘Was it… was it murder then?’

‘No,’ and here the voices lower still more. ‘By his own hand, they say…’

A short pause. Then: ‘Shall we go and see?’

Almost on tiptoe, the little group wanders out into the hallway, to gaze with ghoulish relish up at the sun-filled stairway and landing.

‘Aye,’ murmurs one of them at last, ‘he’ll not rest easy, that one.’

‘Well, I do not know about such things,’ blusters one of the party, sticking his chest out, ‘but I should say the Honourable Member made a sharp bargain, and if he ain’t concerned about suicides and unquiet graves, why then, he is welcome to it. And I, for one, say well done for catching a bargain before it can wriggle away.’ With that, he declared himself ready to partake of a pint of ale and a pork pie at the White Horse down the road, and set his hat firmly upon his head.”

 (Opening from ‘Of Soul Sincere’)

It is odd. I wouldn’t have made the comparison, but for stumbling upon this historical footnote re Ancient Rome, yet in a way, the thread is similar. The House is bought, and becomes the nucleus for the same family all through the rest of the 18th century, the whole of the 19th century, to reach the year 1928 – when Julia arrives on its doorstep, to begin unravelling its secrets. In the same way that the Empire was sold, bought, and stayed with the same family, enduring the usual untidy asides of plots, murder and strife. Well, that’s families for you. Another coincidence: two of the female members of the Severus line were called Julia. Disconcertingly, both ruthless poisoners and political intriguers by all accounts.

I have a pet wish to set a whole series of stories in and around an auction house; most likely in the 18th century – they somehow belong there. It was when the big auction houses took off: Christies, followed by Sothebys, and perhaps some not so big, such as Cardew and Penn…

 

9781909374867 RGB

 

It is summer, 1928.

When invited by her publisher to assist a well-respected M.P. write his memoirs, Julia Warren is at first reluctant to concentrate on anything other than her next novel; however, circumstances(involving among other things unexpected plumbing) conspire to change her mind and she finds herself at once guest and employee at the great man’s rather bohemian household.

Almost immediately she encounters memories from the past, of a rather unsettling nature …

 

Of Soul Sincere, coming April 2 2016, published by Grey Cells Press 


Greenwood Tree Giveaway

I may have mentioned this before (like, nearly every day for the past few weeks or so) – Greenwood Tree is on Tour – a Mystery Tour, no less. Guess whodunnit, win a prize or two (full description here).

As part of the Tour, we have craftily devised a new giveaway, which is on its way (the 20th), via Grey Cells Press : you can enter by visiting the Tour, liking a couple of pages, following some grog-swilling, Remington-bashing characters on Twitter …. easy.  That is, if you’re looking for a chance to win some free mystery cozy reading (i.e. Greenwood Tree).

GWT book cover

If you’re not looking  for anything of the kind, then forget I spoke. I’ll just sit in the corner, drawing bears and minding my own business.  Kind of dusty in here – who took my crayons?  Hello ?


The Sounds of London …

Couldn’t resist this, another little foundling for the old scrap-book (it’s 1915, so a much younger  Julia Warren was perhaps still learning her craft as a fledgling  journalist, but already with dreams of becoming a writer…)

“Night-time sounds of Kingsland Road:

My first night was the same as every other. My window looked out on a church tower which still further preyed on the wan light of the street, and, as I lay in bed, its swart height, pierced by the lit clock face, gloated stiffly over me. From back of beyond a furry voice came dolefully—
Goo bay to sum-mer, goo bay, goo baaaaay!

That song has thrilled and chilled me ever since. Next door an Easy Payments piano was being tortured by wicked fingers that sought after the wild grace of Weber’s “Invitation to the Valse.” From the street the usual London night sounds floated up until well after midnight. There was the dull, pessimistic tramp of the constable, and the long rumble of the Southwark-bound omnibus. Sometimes a stray motor-car would hoot and jangle in the distance, swelling to a clatter as it passed, and falling away in a pathetic diminuendo. A traction-engine grumbled its way along, shaking foundations and setting bed and ornaments a-trembling. Then came the blustering excitement of chucking-out at the “Galloping Horses.” Half a dozen wanted to fight; half a dozen others wanted to kiss; everybody wanted to live in amity and be jollyolpal. A woman’s voice cried for her husband, and abused a certain Long Charlie; and Long Charlie demanded with piteous reiteration: “Why don’t I wanter fight? Eh? Tell me that. Why don’t I wanter fight? Did you ‘ear what he called me? Did you ‘ear? He called me a—a—what was it he called me?”

Then came police, disbandment, and dark peace, as the strayed revellers melted into the night. Sometimes there would sound the faint tinkle of a belated hansom, chiming solitarily, as though weary of frivolity. And then a final stillness of which the constable’s step seemed but a part.”

by Thomas Burke, from A Lonely Night, 1915.

 

An excellent site for sounds of London, past and (fairly) present : The London Sound Survey

Now, something a little closer to Julia’s time in Greenwood Tree…. :

 


Acorns: visiting cards or reminders?

Was sitting outside, attempting to scribble, when a stonking great acorn thudded, or rather, thwacked onto the page before me, missing my nut by inches. Smack bang in the middle of me notebook. The cheeky beggar. I came that close to nursing a minor bump on the old cranium ….

A cheeky beggar

“… The buns were finished, and Julia had jotted down a few ideas for a character into her notebook. Time now for the bookshop. Surely once there, something in her sluggish brain would be jogged into action.

She didn’t have the exact amount, so paid her shilling and doodled some more while waiting for the waitress to bring back the change. The doodle turned into another of her dancing tree-men. When the waitress had been and gone with the change, she began to gather up her goods and noticed something extra on the plate, rolling around between the coins. She frowned briefly at it and peered closer. It was an acorn, still green in its shell. She took the change, and went with the plate (in a spirit of inquiry)  to the waitress, who was extremely surprised and quite sure that no such thing as an acorn had ever been seen inside a Lyon’s Corner House before – and certainly not on any item of crockery.

‘Oh well, I’ll take it then, for good luck,’ said Julia cheerfully, to cover her puzzlement.

‘Very good, miss,’ replied the waitress politely, evidently well-trained in how to deal with eccentric authoresses who went around absently scattering acorns about. …”

(GreenWood Tree excerpt)

Acorns pop up here and there in Greenwood Tree, on window sills and pillows, in saucers and baskets  – like visiting cards, or reminders … perhaps this was a visiting card to jog my memory, my own reminder of the fact I have pretty much finished the illustrations for it, and should really get on with sticking them into the old MS, instead of hovering in limbo; I am tempted, y’see, to do some Rowlandson/Gilray style colour ‘plates’ as it were  … we shall see …

In the meantime, something to be going on with: Mrs Glass and Mrs Rawnlsey gossiping over their outsize pots of tea  …

Mrs Glass: More tea, Mrs Rawnsley?

 


Gin, Julia and Mary Pickford

The clock in the corridor outside chimed seven. Drinks. And then dinner.  Julia snatched a dress out of the wardrobe.

‘. . . so Dawton’s bought it up, lock stock and barrel . . .’

‘. . . make it a going concern. . . .’

‘. . . I thought it in particularly bad taste, and then she said . . .’

‘ . . . last of the Gorgons, that woman, don’t you think, Isobel ?’

‘. . . I have never actually had a conversation with

her myself. . .’

‘. . . pass the potatoes will you, old bean ?. . .’

‘ . . . more gravy, sir ? . . .’

‘Now then Julia, stop hiding behind your glass, old girl, and tell me about the plot. How many murders are in it this time?’ Cousin Richard was sitting next to her, so she could not very well evade his cheeriness with social deafness; not that she wasn’t fond of him, but any talk about a book of hers, especially one she had not yet written, was apt to be a little wearing. Perhaps other writers suffered the same. She had never asked. Talking to other writers was even more wearing than talking about one’s own unwritten novel.  ‘I don’t know yet.’ She turned impish. ‘Do you feel like being murdered ? I’m sure I could find a nice spot for you in there somewhere.’

‘Oh, why not. Who does me in, then – the butler ?’

‘Shuush, you’ll upset him. He’s trying to serve the duck.’

‘Nonsense, Haughton’s always ready to oblige, aren’t you Haughton ?’

‘Sir ?’

‘I mean, for the purposes of Miss Julia’s next best-selling novel -’

‘Don’t talk nonsense, Richard  . . .’

‘  . . . would you be prepared to do me in, and thus supply her with the plot ?’

‘As you wish, sir.’

‘There you are.’ Richard turned to Julia. ‘Now you can get started.’

‘I fear Miss Julia might find your suggestion less acceptable, however, sir.’

‘Yes, I certainly would.’

‘Oh ? How so ?’

‘Lack of motive, sir. Gravy, miss ?’

‘Hah! That’s you dealt with.’ Julia hit Richard with her napkin.

‘Ouch. I hope, little cousin, you will not come to regret this, in years to come, when people come up and say “Have you read ‘What the Butler Did’ by Richard Crewe? Stunning stuff, isn’t it ?” and you are obliged to reply “Yes. I wish I’d thought of it first. But you see, he offered me the plot, and I turned it down – silly, wa-” ’ He interrupted himself with a squeak as Julia gave him a hard pinch. ‘Now I really wish I was sitting next to Anne,’ she commented.

‘The writer’s secret. Always sit next to your fan to keep your spirits up.’

‘Swine.’

‘Well, at least I don’t deluge you with flattery and requests for autographs. You’d really detest that.’

‘That reminds me – somebody on the train -ۥ

‘Don’t tell me – he asked you for a signature, and was most put out when you turned out not to be Mary Pickford.’

From Greenwood Tree, chapter 10

Mary Pickford as photographed by Alfred Cheney Johnston in 1920

After re-blogging the previous post from the Gin Club, it occurred to me that a post on cocktails and flappers might be apposite . . .

Nellie Melba and Pavlova  inspired desserts, Garibaldi a biscuit, Wellington a sturdy piece of beef in pastry and . . . Mary Pickford, – a cocktail : rum, pinapple juice, grenadine and maraschino liqueur. Which noxious combination may well have done the rounds in the London night clubs of the time, but I fear would have left Julia unmoved. Her tastes are I believe of a simpler nature, and where others might be rushing to the bar for novelty to refresh their jaded appetites, Julia is more likely to be seen sitting  behind a palm sipping occasionally at a plain, simple G&T. If she is feeling particularly adventurous, she might allow some Angostura Bitters to be added . . and I could add she might well be interested in perusing the Gin Club’s Newsletter now and then . . .

“Where there’s smoke there’s fire” by American artist Russell Patterson 1920s

And yes, she does have a dress or two in her wardrobe  like the one above – although she might wear a more toned-down version for a country house. But the one pictured above would do for cocktails and the odd formal dinner. The Flappers meanwhile appear soon after in GreenWood Tree. Loud, cheerful, rumbustious, probably rather noisome. Certainly Aunt Iz felt the strain after a little while and sent them off on long walks across the countryside . .  well, after watching the following, what would you do with them ?

A few links of possible interest to the curious :

http://thelondonginclub.wordpress.com

http://lupecboston.com/2009/04/08/birthday-shout-out-to-mary-pickford/

(includes several cocktail recipes associated with Miss Pickford . . .)

http://www.angostura.com/Brands/AngosturaBitters (the main page asks date of birth to establish that you are of drinking age – both impertinent and pointless; anybody could type in anything . . .;))

And this looks rather fun if you have a Singer machine to hand and are of a couturier-like turn : http://www.1920-30.com/publications/fashion/?hop=pagecat


The Winter Visit

I decided I wanted to write a short story in time for the festivities . .. well, in time for the New Year . . . well, all right then, it’s still just inside of winter, although now the nights are going to be shortening rather than drawing in . . . so I got caught up in a few things. I scribbled it down, then got rid of bits here and there, and it took a couple of different directions. But it is a still quite short, and there is a ghost. And Julia is in the thick of it, as it were, held up by snow with some very hospitable people – although they do seem rather apologetic about the room they have put her in . . .(as ever, the whole thing is a trifle tongue in cheek, to be taken lightly).

Oh, and there is a gong. Which you can listen to here

(Click on the cover below for more comfortable reading via Issuu):

December, 1927

 ‘I do hope you don’t mind,’ apologized Mrs Barrett, ‘but I’ve put you in the Print Room.’

Penny made a small grimace. ‘Oh Mummy, can’t Julia stay in the Nookery ?’

‘I would have suggested it, my dear, but the heating . . . and until those pipes are sorted . . .’

‘I’m sure the Print Room will be lovely,’ said Julia as brightly as she could. At least it sounded as though the room would be vaguely warm. Secretly she just longed to curl up in bed and go to sleep. There had been a long journey, followed by last minute changes and delays, unforeseen obstacles – and now weather had dictated that she stay a night, or more, with the Barrets before finally reaching Aunt Iz for Christmas.

‘Don’t worry about it darling, we’ll keep plenty of mince pies for you,’ said Bunty in her usual relaxed way over a crackly line before handing the receiver over to Aunt Iz, who was more worried about whether Julia had enough warm clothes with her.

Julia actually found the Print Room rather charming and wondered at the Barretts’ concern. It had pale yellow walls, the original prints from a hundred years before still adhering to them, with new-ish looking buttercup curtains which had evidently been chosen to match the background colour.

Mrs Barrett and Penny still looked a little  uneasy, however, as they left her to change for dinner, and both told her to let them know the minute she needed anything.

There was a bathroom. Hot water. Encouraging amounts of steam. Even bath salts, so kindly pointed out by Penny. Julia soaked gratefully.

It had all started with Penny’s invitation to lunch, as a break on the long journey up from London – her mother was an avid reader of Julia’s novels and was only too delighted to meet her. A blizzard had set in unexpectedly, all attempts to start the admittedly uncertain motor engine had failed and here she was, an added extra to an already full house. Hence the lack of choice as to bedrooms. It was only for a night or two. She felt quite at home already and wondered again at the Barretts’ solicitude.

She threw her dressing gown on and hurried back through to the bedroom; any minute now the gong would surely go or there would be a tap at the door . . .

‘Oh!’ she exclaimed softly.

The woman sitting at the dressing table appeared not to hear her. Dressed in cream white, with a rather daring neckline and a bouffant hairstyle, she was smiling slightly, at some distant thought.

Perhaps Julia was expected to share the room? Although surely they might have mentioned that. More likely the woman had simply mistaken her room.

Now the gong sounded in the distance, giving off a soft, golden chime.

Julia glanced over to where she had laid out her evening dress; it had slipped to the floor. She darted over, picked it up and dashed back into the bathroom.

The woman had gone by the time Julia returned to the bedroom. The gong would no doubt be sounded a second time any minute now . . . she hurried through the rest of her toilette and fairly ran downstairs – only to find she was actually the first.

‘Gong?’ said Penny as they went in for dinner, ‘but we don’t use a gong – haven’t done for centuries; it’s cracked so it doesn’t sound.’

‘Penny!’ Another guest descended on them, arms outstretched. Penny was briefly enveloped in chiffon and perfume, and conversation moved necessarily onto other topics, such as the latest designs from Paris, the appalling weather and what to do with unwanted presents.

‘Bit of a turn-up, all this snow, eh?’ began one of the male guests amiably, at Julia’s elbow.

‘Yes, it is rather. Mrs Barrett has kindly put me up in the Print Room.’

‘Oh yes? Been a while since they used that room. Hope it’s warm enough. These old buildings can take quite a lot of heating.’

‘It certainly feels very comfortable. I rather like it.’

‘Yes? How long are you staying?’

‘It depends on the weather. I was on my way home.’

‘Oh well, that should be . . .all right then.’

‘Ah, you’ve met our resident novelist, I see,’ Mrs Barrett caught up with her duties and introduced Julia properly. ‘This is Mr Frobisher, one of our oldest friends – does quite a bit in the way of writing himself, don’t you? Local historical research and customs.’

‘All published a little while ago now, though. Now looking into the archaeology side of things. Was on a dig the other day, they’d just unearthed a stash of Roman rubbish hah! – old boots and letters on wax, amazin’ stuff, really.’

Conversation went swimmingly enough, and it was a while before Julia remembered to look around to see if her unexpected intruder was at table. Nobody remotely resembling the woman in cream appeared to be present, however. Perhaps on realizing her faux pas, she had elected to stay in her room from sheer embarrassment. Julia briefly noted a couple of empty seats at table and put it out of her mind.

‘Are you sure Ethel wouldn’t care for something sent up? It’s no problem at all, really, Mrs White,’ she overheard Mrs Barrett saying to a faded female in peach silks.

‘That is most kind, in fact I was thinking of going up to see how she is – it’s most unlike her to be taken badly.’

As Julia passed the library on her way upstairs, she noticed the door ajar, and caught a glimpse of the woman in cream, standing at a bookcase, gazing up at the shelves.

It was a little odd, she thought, for Miss Ethel to feign indisposition and then sneak downstairs to the library after. But then she recalled the other empty chair. Still, equally strange. But people could be quite unexpected in behaviour.

Mrs White had already gone upstairs to see how her daughter was; a matter of minutes later, the whole house was in uproar; Miss Ethel had vanished, and in her place on the pillow lay a note begging pardon, but that she had eloped with young Mr Edwards. Mrs White had to be put to bed, in an extreme state of mortification. Brandy and hot water and smelling salts were duly applied.

Snow had fallen again during dinner meanwhile, removing all traces of footprints.

‘She’ll catch her death,’ moaned Mrs White burying her face into a lavender-scented handkerchief, ‘I know she will.’

‘My dear Julia, do you think you could give us any ideas?’ Mrs Barrett was quite helpless in the face of this domestic incident. Her training in etiquette had not quite equipped her for vanishing daughters in the middle of dinner.

‘Well, I am not a real-life detective, but . . . if I were writing this in a book . . . I think I would add the snow as a convenient last-minute distraction.’

‘My dear, what do you mean?’

‘I mean that it looks like the elopement was a spur of the moment thing – nobody could have predicted the snow would fall to such a degree; whatever the original arrangement, it rather looks like the couple decided to take advantage of the weather to cover their tracks. Surely Mrs White had her suspicions?’

‘She’s always been intent on marrying poor Ethel off to money and property,’ snorted Penny.

‘My dear, if it turns out you knew anything –’ began Mrs Barrett ominously.

‘Oh nonsense Mummy, even you could tell it was going to happen sooner or later. Good luck to the pair of them, I say.’

‘Well, I think they could have considered Mrs White’s feelings a little more.’

‘She’ll be all right after a night’s sleep.’

‘Really, my dear, how can you be so callous!’

Penny shrugged. ‘Well, I don’t see quite what we can do. And I’m sure Ethel will be all right. Tommy Edwards is a good enough chap.’

Later, after things had quietened down a bit, Julia asked Penny ‘I suppose Mr Edwards was waiting for her nearby?’

‘Probably on skies. He’s quite an expert.’

‘Would they have been in disguise, do you think?’

‘Disguise? Goodness, I don’t know. That would be . . . fun. Wouldn’t have said Ethel was that imaginative, though.’

Despite the nonchalance, Penny had a strained air. She asked Julia again if the room was ‘all right’.

‘Of course – it is lovely.’

Penny looked slightly relieved. ‘Well, if there’s anything at all – let me know.’

The night passed uneventfully and a blue sky over a crisp snowscape greeted the inhabitants the next morning.

Mrs White remained in bed in a state of continued mortification and the doctor was sent for.

Julia, at the combined requests of Mrs White and Mrs Barrett, went into Ethel’s room to ‘look for clues.’ More to humour them than out of any illusion of discovering anything. The wardrobe, half open, suggested the girl had indeed packed in a hurry. Only a very few dresses had been taken – and little of any real use in cold weather. The chest of drawers was tidy enough – hardly any underwear or stockings. No slippers – and the nightdress was gone.

There was a writing desk in the corner. A quick inspection revealed a blotter. Julia held it up to the mirror for a while, then went down to the kitchen.

‘Susan ?’ replied the cook. ‘Why, she’d be Miss Ethel’s maid, miss. You’ve just missed her though – went out a few minutes ago.

‘Really ? I don’t suppose you know where ?’

‘Not me, miss, it’s all I can do to keep an eye on the meals. But she was quite nervous, – dropping things.’

‘What sort of things ?’

‘She had a brush in her hand, and she dropped that, then it was a pen or something, and after she’d gone, I found a small bag on the floor, I put it on that table over there for when she comes back . . . though what she wants with walks in all this snow I’ll never know, all wrapped up like an esquimaux she was, hardly recognized her . . .’

‘Well, the sun is out after all. I rather think I’ll do the same. Perhaps I can give her the bag if I see her.’ And so saying, Julia took the bag and fetched her coat.

The tracks left by Ethel’s maid were not hard to find and led in a nice clear line down the drive and turned a definite right in the direction of the village.

‘But how on earth did you find us here ?’ blurted out Ethel, still holding her wedding bouquet. Julia noted the narrow gold band on her ring finger.

‘You left the blotter on the writing desk. Only a couple of words, but they were enough. The name Susan and the Old Feathers. On inquiry downstairs, Susan was your faithful maid, who I imagined was bringing you extra little items you had forgotten, and on following her tracks down to the village, I had only to look for the Old Feathers Inn – and there you were. Of course, the poor girl was so nervous, she can be forgiven for dropping  a few things . . . here is your bag, by the way. Motor still won’t start ?’

‘Frozen solid, I’m afraid,’ admitted Tommy Edwards ruefully, unwrapping his scarf.

‘Still, you got married in the meantime.’

‘Yes, but you won’t give us away, will you? Not until after we’ve got away?’ Ethel, pleading.

‘You make it sound like we’ve committed a bank robbery,’ chuckled Tommy. He had a wide smile and good eyes, and didn’t look too worried about anything. Julia could see why Penny had said he was a good enough chap. Ethel, though not as faded as her mother, was of a similar nervous disposition, already terrified at what she had done.

‘It’s not for me to do anything,’ replied Julia reassuringly, ‘but I feel I should mention your mother has remained in bed, and that they have sent for the doctor.’

‘Just what Susan said – she’s close to revealing all anyway,’ said Tommy. He turned to Ethel. ‘Well, old thing, what do you say ? Shouldn’t we at least say hello before trundling off into the sunset ?’

It was now lunch time, and Mrs White was able to sit up and take tea and dry toast. The curtains had been drawn back, letting in the brilliant sunshine, and offering a view of the front garden and driveway.

Penny was looking through the long windows of the morning room, brow puckered again. Her face suddenly cleared and she waved. The trio of figures advancing across the white blanket waved back.

Mrs White could hardly believe her eyes.

‘What was she doing ?’ she kept saying, even after all the fuss and explanations and greetings had subsided. ‘Going out in the cold like that – must have been terribly chilly.’

‘Who do you mean ?’

‘That woman – in a white dress, very revealing, no coat on . . . walked right across the lawn, straight past you. Didn’t you see her ?’

Julia thought for a bit then asked : ‘Was her hair done up ?’

‘Well, yes, it was – quite extravagant, I thought. Who on earth could it have been ?’

Julia looked at Mrs Barrett and Penny, who both looked discomfited.

‘Oh dear,’ began Mrs Barrett. ‘I fear that may have been Georgina.’

‘And who is Georgina ?’ asked Mrs White in astonishment. Julia continued to look at the Barretts.

‘Georgina  . . .was . .  a distant relative. Stayed here for a while. Her favourite room was the Print Room. I hope she didn’t disturb you.’ Here Mrs Barrett looked apologetically at Julia.

‘What happened ?’ asked Julia gently.

‘The story is, she had arranged to run away with a young man, who was also a visitor at the house. The arranged signal was the sounding of the gong for the evening meal. After the young couple had escaped, her father took the gong and threw it at my grandfather. Luckily he missed, but he cracked the gong, which has never sounded since.’

‘And  . . Georgina ?’

‘She died a few years later. Diphtheria, I think. All very sad. But I believe she was very content here, which is perhaps why she tends to appear before a happy event.’

‘She was smiling, when I saw her,’ said Julia.

Mrs White gave a mild squawk and fell back against the pillows.

Later again, Julia was standing in the library, looking up at a portrait. The sitter was female, dressed in cream white with a daring neckline and her hair in a bouffant style. The artist had painted the year 1860 in the bottom right corner.

Neatly engraved on the frame was the name ‘Lady Georgina Cardew-Barrett.’

(©B.Lloyd)