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Saturday, 10 May 2014

A Hidcote Midsummer Mystery By Alasdair Douglas Reid

In this excerpt, the author, English writer Alasdair Douglas Reid, introduces us to his new soon-to-be-published mystery novel,  which The PJ believes is destined to be a run-away best-seller. Think Agatha Christie knocking off a few of the Downton Abbey crowd.  In the mix are a few historical figures such as, for one, that mid-20th century 'mystery man,' Henry "Chips" Channon, none other than pre-War Society's 'Lord of Hosts.' Sit back and enjoy.

Friday, 26 June, 1936. A sultry evening in late June is, Classen had been told, the very best time to make Hidcote’s acquaintance. Towards sundown in high summer, in the heart of England , the deepest, darkest heart of England , Hidcote begins drawing the day around itself – manor house, garden, hamlet and tree-lined lane, tight in the fields and the woodlands beyond.
            And this was, indeed, a sultry evening in late June.
            But as he dressed for dinner, Classen felt no inner glow. He felt, in point of fact, uninspired. He wasn’t chafing at the ill-defined nature of his mission. Not entirely, at any rate. He didn’t, in the normal course of events, mind being roped into these sorts of things. There were no other places he was meant to be. He had no other plans.
            Nor did he much mind the fact that he had been given this Spartan little room up under the eaves.
            And yet. If summer is the silence that follows spring, he could feel it all around, he could sense its most profound depths. His reflection in the blistered silver of the mirror they had given him was clouded and ghost-like.
            Downstairs, as he crossed the hall, the air seemed stale, the light uncertain. A stuffed owl stared out at him from a glass case. And he too almost succumbed to gloomy thoughts.
            But then the double doors facing him were thrown open. And he smiled, almost despite himself. The lights were not yet lit; but there was a vividness about the room within. It was all somehow as it ought to be. And it was as if he had stood here a hundred times before. Here they all were: Norah Lindsay and her daughter, Nancy; the polo star Jamie Waterbury; Country Life magazine writer Dorothy Moore; Henry Channon; Mr and Mrs Muir from neighbouring Kiftsgate Court; and, of course, Major Johnston and his assistant, Miss Marsden. Mrs Merrill, too. She was, as promised, on hand to introduce Nicholas Classen to the drawing room for drinks before dinner.

            The ice was soon broken. It was established in good order that, yes, Classen’s was the royal blue Riley now parked in the courtyard; and that, yes, he was here somewhat in a professional capacity – he was, so to speak, Sir Herbert Baker’s representative on earth.
            A silence greeted this revelation.
            It was Mrs Merrill who brought it upon herself to break this silence. “The more the merrier,” she stated, blandly. And then, somewhat ambiguously, she added that, what with the tennis tournament planned for Saturday, this was not an entirely formal weekend. Not that they were ever really sticklers for formality.
            “Yes, the tennis. Let no-one forget that,” Major Johnston sang out rather unconvincingly.
            There was another awkward silence; and Major Johnston was clearly sensitive to this – for he all-too-readily conceded centre stage and sought consolation in his dachshunds. The dogs, a slow-moving melee of a good half-dozen of the things, seemingly followed him everywhere; and he bent down to admonish the one nearest him (blameless though it might have been) as he chucked it under the chin.
            Classen said he only hoped he wouldn’t let the side down.
            No-one could have been expected to know who he was, clearly. Classen was still only thirty-four (a member of that fatefully unmarked generation just too young to have taken part in the Great War) and he had yet to make his reputation as one of the architects of the age. And at this stage, he didn’t exactly look the part. His shockingly full head of tousled, sandy-coloured hair seemed, to some, inappropriate at the very least. He had one of those faces you could have sworn you’d seen before; and there was an unsettling hint of playful amusement (or scepticism: you were never quite sure which) in his look as he listened to you. Indeed there were those (rivals, no doubt, in one way or another) who detected in him a regrettable raffishness. He was, they said, uncompromising. He had rough edges. In short, it was said that he suffered from a tendency to speak his mind.
            Classen explained (in the absence of any further help from Major Johnston) that an invitation had originally been extended to Sir Herbert (Sir Herbert and Major Johnston were old friends with common South African connections) – and Sir Herbert had been very much looking forward to the visit. Then a week ago, he, Sir Herbert, realised he would be unavoidably detained on other business this week – but suggested he send his humble assistant, Nicholas Classen, in his stead.
            So here he was. He begged leave to throw himself on their mercy.
            Happily (she seemed genuinely relieved that Classen showed every prospect of fitting in), Mrs Merrill took this as her cue. She stepped in, took Classen by the arm and, busying herself unashamedly on his behalf, steered him toward Miss Moore. Miss Moore was an American, she explained, and was a writer with an interest in architecture. So they were bound to have lots in common.
            Miss Moore was also (but this hardly needed saying) improbably glamorous. She was tall, she had sumptuously waved black hair, she had the most beautiful dark sapphire blue eyes, full of sparkle and nice mischief; and she was dressed rather daringly too. The other women in the room had presented themselves conventionally for dinner. Miss Moore was wearing a rather loose trouser suit in the style of the beach pyjama outfits that, a decade previously, would have been rather noteworthy even on La Croisette. And this was no quietly unassuming beach pyjama outfit – it was a dazzling polka dot affair, white on purple.
            But Mrs Merrill was right. Despite the best efforts of a tiresome young man who failed to introduce himself to Classen as Jamie Waterbury, they did get on. Rather famously in fact. And when the time came, he and Miss Moore went through, together, to dinner.
            The dining room was, everyone agreed, magnificently presented. You became aware of a heavy scent of flowers long before you reached the door; and then, as you entered, you were overwhelmed by the colours of great fan-like floral displays, vibrant in monumental Lalique crystal vases. Only slowly did you become aware of plainer architectural delights: not least, facing you at the room’s far end, the vast casements of leaded mullion windows facing out through border greenery, offering intriguing hints of the garden beyond.
          Dinner was, initially at least, a rather subdued affair, with two somewhat self-contained factions soon establishing themselves: Major Johnston (but of course everyone referred to him as Johnny), the brilliantined Henry Channon (who answered universally to Chips), plus Norah and her daughter at one end of the table; and the less well-appointed guests, including Classen and Miss Moore, at the other. Classen, in fact, found himself comfortably situated, with Miss Moore on his left and Mrs Muir, a reassuringly genial mother hen, on his right.
            Jamie Waterbury, a well-oiled and (as a result) rather impatient man in his mid-to-late twenties, was alone in attempting to embrace both camps. He was clearly intrigued (and perhaps dazzled) by the conversation at the top end of the table; but, equally clearly, seemed determined to pursue a spirited dialogue with the supremely confident and accomplished Miss Moore.
            And it was true, of course, that he and she had at least this much in common – both were American. Well educated Americans, from rather wealthy backgrounds, it seemed (you could barely detect any hint of accents); but Americans none the less. She was obviously a couple of years older than Waterbury and affected a superiority that seemed to rile him and captivate him in equal measure.
            And he was a prize bore in the making. He’d clearly had a number of letters from home or from friends he clearly expected Miss Moore to know or care about – and he was determined to share scraps of information gleaned from these letters, almost at random. In turn, this fragmentary narrative prompted him to reflect (equally randomly, it seemed) on the scheduling of polo tournaments and the logistics of transporting polo ponies.
            All of which (he assumed) would impress Miss Moore. She, however, would have none of it. For the most part she teased him, albeit with a certain amount of charm and generosity. This didn’t deter him in the slightest, though he must have been aware of the laughter she was winning at his expense.
            You could easily see why he was drawn to her. She was pretty; elegant without being fussy – and there was something compellingly provocative about her, funny and mischievous and somehow irrepressible. You didn’t have to be particularly astute to work out that, at the very least, she represented, to Waterbury , a challenge.
            But then Waterbury clearly had a challenging disposition. When he intervened in conversations at the top end of the table, for instance, he seemed always to be taking issue with Chips; and it didn’t help Waterbury ’s mood that his thrusts were effortlessly parried.
            Chips, polished and urbane, was holding forth largely on foreign affairs. And of course he knew a thing or two about foreign affairs (you were invited to presume) by virtue of the fact that he was a Conservative member of parliament. And yet, Waterbury seemed to have a particular bee in his bonnet (and by this stage in the evening, it was a very buzzy bonnet) about the revelation that Chips had not only accepted an invitation to attend the Berlin Olympics but was, he confessed, particularly looking forward to the whole business. Unfortunately, Waterbury began losing control of his high horse (if that’s indeed what it was) when he was forced to reveal, yes, it was true, that he too had plans to travel to the Games.
            The person who most intrigued Classen, though, was Major Johnston. In truth, he found his host a little disappointing. Here he was, this supposedly Renaissance man, not just a soldier (he’d acquitted himself admirably in both the Boer and Great Wars) but a keen sportsman, an accomplished painter and the creator of a celebrated garden; and yet he lacked the gravitas of an old soldier; and, actually, he lacked even the gravitas or the confidence you’d expect of any wealthy man in his mid 60s. He was uncomfortable, fretful, sulky even, at the head of his own table, with his lugubrious expression, his thinning, fine-spun hair, his high forehead and his mild blue eyes. It didn’t help, either, that he had a slightly quirky manner of speaking in which his “v”s were softened into “w”s.
            Miss Moore, however, was able to help Classen at least some way along the road to understanding him. He was, she maintained, a terribly shy man even at the best of times. And if he seemed even more distracted than normal, then that might be due in part to the tragic accident there’d been earlier in the day. A young man, one of the estate’s employees, had died. Or had been found dead. The whole business had affected everyone – but Johnny more than most.
          And so it went. The lights, in good time, were lit. The windows were left open a fraction – and a fragrance permeated from the garden beyond. A fragrance of flowers, jasmine perhaps, but of something more earthy too. Someone, possibly Norah, said that June had a velvety scent – and she held forth at length about the sorts of flowers that hold back the best of their fragrance during the day, so that they might give it up to the evening twilight.
            But she soon deferred to Chips. She always did. And he soon steered the conversation back to politics. Chips was one of those people who could effortlessly hold a whole room. He had, it seemed, a never ending supply of anecdotes. You were drawn to him – and it was difficult to work out how and why.
            “I’ll tell you a thing or two about Lord Rothermere,” he was saying… and he knew instinctively that the whole table (even those supposedly in conversation at its other end) was lending at least half an ear. “Rothermere took Hungary ’s part, of course – it was hardly a secret – in that country’s determination to overthrow the Treaty of Trianon. But did you know,” he added, ostensibly for Norah Lindsay’s benefit, but rather too loudly for her alone, “that in return, his son Esmond was offered the Hungarian throne. Rothermere split the difference. He said he’d settle for a fountain named after him in Budapest .”
            Chips paused here for laughter that did not come. And indeed Norah seemed particularly unamused. So this was clearly something of a faux pas – but Chips, unabashed, waded on into the silence he had now created. He launched into a slightly risqué story about Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, a disquisition on the Amalienburg Hall of Mirrors in Munich; and then a tragically funny set-piece about how King Alexander of Greece had been bitten by his pet monkey – and had subsequently died. King Alexander, that is. Not the pet monkey.
          And then, a rather odd thing happened. Chips ran out of steam just at that point when, coincidentally, conversation had run dry at both ends of the table. There was a deathly hush.
            In that silence, Johnny looked up and caught, by complete accident, Classen’s eye. And he seemed to startle himself terribly (even more than he startled the rest of the table) when he said, in a voice that seemed unforgivably loud:
            “Sir Herbert at Cliveden this weekend then, is he?”
            And now, of course, all eyes turned to Classen – who, so far, had contributed little to the general conversation. In the heat of the moment, Classen recognised immediately that Major Johnston’s question had been more clumsy than provocative; but either way, he knew he had to meet it head on.
            “I’m sorry, Major Johnston . I rather assumed that he had written to you at length explaining his situation. And expressing his regrets.”
            The Major offered the slightest hint of a shrug: as if not entirely pleased with Classen’s response.
            “Yes, he wrote to me,” he said; and once again, there was an unmistakably sulky undertone to his voice.
            And the matter, though perhaps not entirely settled, might have rested there; but Jamie Waterbury’s curiosity had been aroused.
            “Cliveden?” he challenged Johnny, the question mark hanging there pointedly.
            But oddly enough, it was Dorothy Moore who answered him. “I do believe Johnny may be referring to a cabal of the great and good who meet at the Astors’ house in Buckinghamshire.”
            This statement evidently amused Chips, who pursed his lips as if relishing some sublime irony. And Dorothy was alive to this, for she added: “Is that not so, Mr Channon?”
            And though he made a great show of choosing his words with care, he now looked even more pleased with himself. “There are those who continue to value the pursuit of peace,” he stated, as blandly as he was able, adding: “And there are those who’d continue to argue that peace will best serve the interests of the Empire.”
            “I don’t get it,” said Jamie.
            “No, Jamie, I don’t believe you do,” Dorothy said.
            There was general laughter at this.
            And that might have been that. But Jamie wouldn’t let it lie.
            “Well?” he said, gesturing in Classen’s direction. “Well?… I’m sorry,” he stumbled, indicating he was temporarily at a loss.
            “Classen. My name is Classen.”
            “Well Classen. How about it? Is he at Cliveden or isn’t he?”
            “Well, all I can say is, he’s a rather remarkable man if he is.”
            “How so?”
            “Because we last heard from him two days ago, in a telex from a liner in the Mediterranean en route to Suez .”
         After that, Classen was allowed to return to the relatively obscurity whence he’d come. An obscurity in which he watched and listened intently as Dorothy Moore, in a series of whispered asides, amounting to a running commentary, alerted him to the fault lines of tension at the head of the table. It boiled down, she suggested, to an improbably delicate rivalry between Major Johnston and Chips. Improbable, because, on the face of it, the two men seemed somewhat mismatched. And the object of their rivalry was rather unexpected too.
            Major Johnston was in his sixties; Chips, Classen reckoned, couldn’t have been more than forty years of age. But they were, in their own ways, Miss Moore suggested, fighting for the affections of Norah Lindsay – who, though she’d clearly worn well (and had quite obviously been stunningly glamorous in her prime), must have been in her early sixties.
            Norah (and it had to be assumed that she was aware of this rivalry) clearly adored both men. She listened intently to the political intrigue and society tittle tattle offered up by Chips; and, with Johnston , she discoursed enthusiastically about gardens and plants. And yet the dynamic was further complicated by Norah’s daughter, Nancy, a somewhat charmless woman in her late thirties who scowled rather a lot – and who seemed prone to sarcasm even when she was trying her best to be cheerful. She fawned on Johnston and appeared to hang breathlessly on his every word, an affectation that (in subtly different ways that Classen didn’t quite yet understand) irritated both Chips and Norah.
            Nancy , as it transpired, provided the evening’s most curious incident. She’d been taking undisguised pleasure at Waterbury ’s attempts to antagonise Chips, so it was a surprise when he, Waterbury , apparently turned on her. No-one quite heard what he said to her the first time around – and, indeed, in the silence that followed, she too affected not to have heard. So he repeated himself – this time, however, he addressed his question not to Nancy but to Major Johnston, who was sitting to Nancy’s immediate right.
            “Bryant not joining us this evening, then?”
            A further strained silence followed – throughout which Johnston stared unflinchingly at Waterbury . No hint of emotion. More a sense of disinterested calculation on Johnston ’s part. Then Nancy stood (clearly furious, but more shaken than angry) and walked out. She said nothing, looked at no-one; and in some senses, the melodrama was understated – but no less shocking for all that.
            Classen wondered if Waterbury would rise and go after her. And unsurprisingly, in the continuing silence, all eyes turned to him. But he seemed remarkably comfortable with this: and it was he who broke the silence.
            “Something I said?” he pondered, charmlessly, though the bravado was far from convincing. Then he reached once more for his glass and drained it defiantly.
            As conversation resumed around the table, it was Mrs Muir who (sensitive perhaps to his status as an outsider) leaned confidentially towards Classen in an endeavour to explain. The reference had been to Bryant, she said. Raymond Bryant, one of this year’s tennis professionals. It was his friend and fellow professional who’d been found dead earlier that day. He, Bryant, was surely terribly distraught. That’s why he’d been unable to face dinner. “Not that he was a guest at this table as a matter of course,” she added, almost as an after-thought.
            Classen frowned. “I’m not sure I understand,” he said. “There are tennis professionals employed at Hidcote? Exhibition players?”
            Mrs Muir smiled indulgently. “Nothing quite so grand, I’m afraid. Each year, Johnny employs one of the better university club players for the benefit of his guests. This year he employed two.”
            “From Oxford , you mean?”
            “Yes,” she replied. And she added that the young man, whose name was Paul Wilson, had been rather too fond, it had to be admitted, of late nights and the good things in life. He’d been discovered that morning sitting on a seat in the garden, dead from heart failure. There was speculation that a bottle of brandy had been found at his side. More than that could not be said.
            Except… Except that, from her own personal, selfish point of view, one of the more troubling aspects of the whole business was the fact that it had been one of her own houseguests at Kiftsgate, a Dr Taylor, who’d found the body. He had of course been invited (nay encouraged) to come over and explore Major Johnston’s garden. So, he’d gone exploring. And what had he found? He’d found a dead body.
            Mrs Muir said this rather more loudly than she’d perhaps intended; because Miss Moore, leaning now across Classen, piped up: “Are you entirely sure about that, Mrs Muir?”
            Clearly, Mrs Muir did not much care to be challenged like this, for she looked affronted – and even glanced across the table at her husband for help. But if Mr Muir was minded to intercede on his wife’s behalf, he missed the opportunity; because Waterbury , as was surely inevitable, was determined to make a contribution of his own.
            “He was American, you know,” he announced definitively.
            And this was clearly, for Mrs Muir, the giddy limit, for she snapped back: “Dr Taylor? Don’t be absurd. He’s from Amersham in Buckinghamshire.”
            “No,” said Waterbury , “I meant…”
            But it was Waterbury ’s turn to be cut short, because Dorothy Moore, perhaps rather unwisely, had a supplementary question: “But surely he should be with us this evening. Dr Taylor. You have not left him to his own devices at Kiftsgate, Mrs Muir?”
            The tone of this question had sounded, to the untrained ear, rather provocative; but this time Mrs Muir seemed not to notice. Actually, she seemed rather crestfallen. “He had to return to London on a matter of some urgency, Miss Moore.”
            “And will we have the pleasure of seeing him again soon?”
            But answer came there none. And in any case, everyone was now aware of a theatrical little diversion unfolding at the head of the table. And you had to smile. This was surely a scene that had been played out a hundred times before. Here, on the one hand, was Norah Lindsay, pleading with Major Johnston to entertain them after dinner by playing piano; and there, on the other, was Johnston insisting that he was not up to the task: he had not the talent, he had never had the talent – and whatever talent he’d ever had had been squandered. He was (not to put too fine a point upon it) rusty. And here, rallying once more, was Norah, insisting, nay demanding, that he desist from this false modesty. And there, in riposte once again, was Johnny, affecting to be exasperated beyond measure, accusing her of being a most terribly tiresome woman. And yet… and yet (a faintest glimmer of hope renewing itself here), if his guests were hard-hearted enough to insist, he might consent to play… if, and only if, Norah could be persuaded to join him at the piano so that they could perform some duets. Perhaps there was some suitable sheet music that he could look out.
            Outwardly, he continued to exhibit every natural sign of discontent. But it was obvious to Classen (as it was to everyone else in that dining room) that Johnston was inwardly rejoicing – and, indeed, was happier now than he’d been at any stage that evening. 
Alasdair Douglas Reid has been a book reviewer for Auberon Waugh at the Literary Review; a magazine editor; a features writer; a columnist for the UK advertising magazine, Campaign; and a corporate copywriter. He is currently a ghostwriter.