Friday, 29 June 2012

January: The Mysterious Maharani




As the New Year succeeded the old, a freezing wind all the way from the foothills of the Urals, chilled the downs and wetlands of the Sussex coast.

On the first Sunday morning in January, the normally red roofs of Tilling, perched on its ancient hill, sparkled white and crystalline under plump overhanging eiderdowns of snow.

As seagulls wheeled and soared in the clear blue dome of a huge and bitter sky, the roads and pavements of the silent town below were virgin ground, unmarked by footprint, wheel or paw and waited the first-footing despoilment of early risers.

Along the coast, gulls circled the Martello Towers and swooped past the windmills whose static sails, fringed with icicles, shone in the morning sun. The river and canals of the town were uniformly frozen.  They made a network of white highways leading to the Town Salts, whose winter flood had frozen to become a vast expanse of ice, soon to become Tilling’s playground.
After a tumultuous year, the festive season had come as a blessed and tranquil relief to Tilling.  The preceding months had seen a succession of crimes, culminating in the theft of the whole year’s savings from the Christmas Club operated from Ye Olde Tea House by Diva Plaistow. Fortunately, the thief had been apprehended by the Tilling Constabulary under the quietly effective leadership of Inspector Morrison and Tilling’s prudent savers had been able to enjoy the turkey, plum pudding and fine wines bought with their nest eggs. 
  
The turn of the year had been marked by the announcement in the King’s Honours List of the award of an Order of the Most Honourable Officer of the British Empire to prominent local antiques dealer Hubert Gascoyne, who had been privileged to serve Her Majesty the Queen on her recent private visit to Tilling. Similarly honoured, had been the senior Police Officer of the town for services to law enforcement during what had been a veritable crime wave in the genteel Sussex resort.

The Mayor of Tilling reflected civic pride in the honour done both to the locality and prospective officers by immediately announcing that a formal reception would be held at her home, “Mallards House” to celebrate.  

In doing so, Mrs Pillson bravely put aside whatever personal disappointment she may have privately felt upon being overlooked for the award of an honour, which many in Tilling (she had absolutely no doubt) considered long overdue to acknowledge her generous and benevolent beneficence to her adopted home.  In the past year, Mrs Pillson’s largesse had extended to funding the new Emmeline Pillson Wing for the fire-damaged Literary Institute and a rebuilt viewing shelter for the visitors, whom she proclaimed were “the veritable commercial life-blood of the town,” as well as any number of other good works. 

Similar mature magnanimity was also required of Elizabeth Mapp-Flint and Irene Coles, who both felt thwarted in what they considered were entirely reasonable expectations of recognition respectively of  a longstanding charitable contribution to their seaside community and massive artistic achievements. For three ladies of Tilling, January 1st dawned with  expectations greater than those in all the works of Charles Dickens. Well-before luncheon, they had evaporated entirely.
 
As the new year began, each thwarted citizen sought to conduct herself - albeit with gritted teeth (which in the case of the dentally formidable Mrs Mapp-Flint, took quite some gritting) - with a dignity befitting unjustly disappointed honorees.

Meanwhile, oblivious to this, in their villa outside the town, Herbert and Bunty Morrison were taking down the last of their Christmas decorations, with the help of their nine year old twins, James and Dorothy.

As the mercury on the barometer in the hall continued to fall and the snow grew deeper outside, the twins asked their father if they would be able to use their new ice skates the next day.

Exchanging glances with his wife, Herbert replied non-committally, "May-be, provided the ice is thick enough and the weather isn't too bad. We'll see how it looks in the morning."

Treating this response as positive, with a cry of  "Good old Dad!" the twins ran  into the garden to complete their new snowmen, before it grew too dark. Herbert and Bunty sat down for a cup of tea at their large, well-scrubbed kitchen table. 

As he sipped his tea, Herbert turned the pages of his "Hampshire Argus," which had just been delivered.  Just below a respectful report of the recent passing of Rudyard Kipling, the front page bore the prominent headline "New Cinema opened in Tilling."  Beneath was a photograph of Mrs Emmeline Pillson in her full mayoral rig, including a fetching plumed tricorn hat, described as "of her own design."  The Mayor was pictured cutting a ribbon next to the box office with a smile that some might consider "pleasant," others "winsome" and a harsh minority, "condescending."

In the background, Herbert noted himself and Bunty looking on, with other local worthies and what amounted to the entire Corporation of the ancient borough.  

"Oh, look Bunty," said Herbert,"There's a report about the new picture palace and the opening we attended." 


"What does it say, dear?" asked Bunty, as she stood at the sink peeling potatoes for supper.

Smoothing the front page, Herbert read out loud ,"On Friday evening, the Mayor of Tilling, Mrs Emmeline Pillson officially opened the newly constructed Bijou Picture Palace in Tilling prior to a Gala Charity Presentation in aid of the Mayor's nominated charity, Tilling Girl Guides. The evening featured a spectacular double bill, comprising a newly released musical comedy film from America entitled "Thin Ice" starring Norwegian Olympic skating champion Sonja Henie and Tyrone Power and "One in a Million,"a cheery and light-hearted mix of comedy, romance, songs and ice skating dances."


"Yes, they were very good films. We must remember, I promised we would take the twins to a matinee before the run ends," commented Bunty.

"Yes, dear, shall I carry on?"

Bunty nodded and smiled.

Clearing his throat, Herbert resumed, in a voice not unlike Alvar Lidell reading the news from Alexandra Palace, "Prior to ceremoniously cutting the ribbon, Mrs Pillson, the renowned philanthropist and chatelaine of the exquisite "Mallard House," the acknowledged epicentre of the social, political and cultural life of the town, was gracious enough to be persuaded to address an audience of eager onlookers drawn from Tilling and the surrounding area."

"Weren't we 'eager onlookers' lucky?" commented Bunty, dryly.
 
Grinning, Herbert read on, "The Mayor remarked that, although she opposed uncontrolled building and what was called 'ribbon development' along the highways, that might adversely impact upon the visual amenity of Tillingites, she was minded of the need to upgrade social facilities, which might both benefit local residents and attract visitors to swell the coffers of the town. Accordingly, after deep consideration and reflection, she had been pleased to add her vote to those of her councillor colleagues in favour of the new all-electric picture palace.  Her Worship trusted that the Bijou would indeed be a veritable jewel in the crown of Tilling's ever-improving cultural resources and a valuable asset in promoting the vital tourist trade. Accordingly Mrs Pillson was delighted to declare the Bijou Cinema and All-Electric Picture Palace, Tilling well and truly open." 

"That's nice, is there any more, dear?"

"Quite a lot actually," Herbert replied, "It carries on,' The Mayor's address was enthusiastically greeted by a  round of applause from onlookers and a spontaneous chorus of "For she's a jolly good fellow" in her honour.'

"Yes, that was George and Per. They do have a soft spot for Mrs Pillson. They can always be relied on to take the lead in such things," observed Bunty, "Mrs Pillson spoke well. It was a little embarrassing when Major Mapp-Flint shouted 'And three cheers for the Lady Mayoress' and everyone  ignored it."

"True dear, Herbert replied," By then everyone was going in to watch the first feature and wanted to get their ice creams and sweets. Shame really.  More?"

"Yes, please."

Herbert continued, "A sensation occurred during the Intermission in the Gala Opening, when unannounced an illuminated Wurlitzer electric organ rose dramatically from the very bowels of the theatre, beneath the stage.  Bathed in a single spotlight, sitting at the organ as it rose slowly and majestically upwards, was the Mayor, still robed in full civic regalia, smiling and waving to the surprised and delighted audience. The Mayor proceeded to give an affecting rendition of the slow movement of the "Moonlight Sonata" by Beethoven.  Seated next to the Mayor, her husband, Mr George Pillson, assisted by playing the pedals of the organ, whilst waving gaily to acquaintances in the audience. The performance was warmly greeted by a standing ovation from the assembled cinema-goers and the deafening applause was only interrupted when the organ descended beneath the stage from whence it came and the house-lights dimmed for the second feature." 

As Herbert finished scanning the "Argus", the twins returned from the garden, arguing cheerfully as to whose snowman was best. Bunty diverted their attention from the debate by suggesting to Herbert, "Skating tomorrow, don't you think love?" 
  
As the children quickly joined in, "Yes, please, Dad; let's go skating!" Herbert replied, "I suppose I don't see why not. We'll go down to the Town Salts after breakfast. It should be frozen really thickly by then. Now go and wash your hands. It's time for supper." 
  
Next day, during Tilling's usual marketing hour in the High Street, there was but one topic of conversation. This naturally was the front page article in the "Hampshire Argus," concerning the opening of the new Bijou Cinema.

"I'm afraid we must get used to dear Worship being called a 'chatelaine', whatever that means, and to my sweet 'Mallards' being upgraded to 'Mallards House', but I never thought it was the 'epicentre' of anything, let alone the political, social and cultural life of our dear little Tilling.What utter tosh!" complained Elizabeth Mapp-Flint bitterly to Diva Plaistow outside Twistevants shop, continuing, "And who, if I might ask, wrote this drivel?"

"Mr Meriton, I think, dear," replied Diva, adding, "He usually covers events in Tilling. I must admit, he does seem rather an admirer of our Mayor."

"'Smitten', I'd say," commented Elizabeth, acidly,"Mind you. Now you mention it, I have never actually seen the man. I'm tempted to wonder if Mr Meriton exists. Perhaps, 'Mr Meriton' is just a nom-de-plume Lucia uses to write all those pieces about herself, the self-proclaimed chatelaine of our epicentre of everything!"

"And whilst we are on the subject," railed Elizabeth, warming to her theme.

"Oh dear, there's more," thought Diva.

"Why, oh why," Elizabeth continued," Do we always have to listen to that "Moonlight Serenade" of hers? Always Chopin. Doesn't she know any other tune?"

"I think its 'Moonlight Sonata' dear," suggested Diva helpfully, adding weakly, "You know, the one by Beethoven?"

"Details dear, mere details," continued Elizabeth, unbending, "The point is, why do we always have to put up with it? I know we can't have our Mayor like an undignified music hall turn, playing "Boiled Beef and Carrots" on the banjolele or "Oh, I do like to be beside the Seaside," as if she was Reginald Dixon on the organ in Blackpool Tower, but if I hear that tune yet again, I shall scream.  She really is the limit."

"Now, now Elizabeth, don't get carried away," added Diva, trying to calm her, but once Mrs Mapp-Flint had built up a head of steam on the subject of her close friend the Mayor of Tilling, this often proved difficult.

Thinking that a change of subject might assist, Diva enthused, "Have you seen the Town Salts dear? Flooded and frozen as far as the eye can see. The children have already started to skate. Everyone's having a wonderful time."   

As Diva and Elizabeth walked through the frosted ornamental gardens to the belvedere overlooking the expanse of flat land below, they could see a glittering field of ice stretching towards the harbour. It was already littered with miniature figures, skating this way and that,  like a winter landscape by Pieter Bruegel.  
  
Walking onward through the snowy gardens, Elizabeth and Diva noted Lucia and Georgie Pillson standing next to a pair of canon from Napoleonic times, for which the belvedere was best known, admiring the wintry scene spread out beneath, "Wouldn't you know it, it's the chatelaine of 'Mallards House' and her consort," muttered Elizabeth quietly, as she bared her magnificent teeth in a smile intended to convey pleasure, but not entirely succeeding.

"Now, now Elizabeth," Diva urged, "Be good. It's not her fault what Mr Meriton wrote."

"Stuff and nonsense, Diva dear," hissed Elizabeth through a smile, which trod a far from fine line between "fixed" and "clenched," adding emphatically,"We all know that woman is responsible for nearly everything amiss in Tilling; it's just that we don't yet know how she does it. Truth always comes out in the end."

Noticing the approaching duo, Lucia and Georgie waved cordially.

"How de do, Worship and Mister Georgie," cooed Elizabeth in her most sycophantic style, "Charmed to see you both, looking so well on this bracing Sussex morning."

As Georgie bowed in courtly fashion, borrowed from his neighbour in Porpoise Street, Algernon Wyse, and raised his boater jauntily to both Diva and Elizabeth, the warm greeting of the latter was reciprocated with about equal sincerity by Lucia, who continued, "Lovely to see you ladies. What, no Major Benjy today, Elizabetha mia? Nothing amiss, I trust?"

Recognising this thrust as a coded enquiry either as to the severity of her husband's hangover or an inference of marital discord, inducing separation, Elizabeth parried imaginatively, "Nothing 'amiss,' as you sweetly put it, Lulu dear one. Mon mari has gone to visit his aunt, sa tante, in Seaport. She is tres malade, I fear and," she continued, "At 'Grebe,' possibly unlike certain other prominent homes in Tilling, the wishes of the head of the house invariably prevail," adding coyly,"That's simply the way it is chez nous."

Taken aback by the novel and entirely false assertion that Major Benjy was at the helm at "Grebe" and mildly irritated by the obvious inference that this was not the case Chez Pillson, Lucia diplomatically rose above both issues and enthused," We were marvelling at the vast field of ice before us. A veritable pleasure ground. I was just remarking to Georgie that I really must look out the Diaries of John Evelyn. I'm sure they are somewhere in the Garden Room at "Mallards House."

As his wife spoke, Georgie thought, " No, she didn't. I'm sure I would have remembered if she had mentioned any diaries. Such fibs. Typical. Naughty Lucia!"

Whilst Georgie wisely kept his thoughts to himself, the truth was that, before leaving home that morning, Lucia had, with typical foresight, prepared herself by glancing through the entries in her invaluable Encyclopaedia regarding the memorable events of the Great Frost of 1683, when the River Thames in London was frozen to considerable depth.

Never being one to wear her learning (however superficial) lightly, Lucia intended to make fullest use of her, at best sketchy, knowledge of the subject. Assuming what Georgie privately called her "Oxford voice," Lucia drawled, "If I remember correctly, just before Christmas in 1683, Evelyn describes 'a greate frost', so severe that streets of booths were set up on the frozen Thames, including all sorts of tented shops and places where they roasted meat. Coaches, carts and horses passed over the thick ice."

Warming to her chilly theme, Lucia continued, "There were even printers where Londoners - especially ladies - could have their name, the date and year printed on cards, actually on the Thames. How stunning it must have been to be there."

As resigned glances were exchanged between them, Elizabeth muttered sarcastically to Diva, "So invigorating to be improved outdoors on such a bitterly cold day, is it not, dear?" whilst Lucia ploughed on with her al fresco lecture regardless.

"Evelyn tells us," Lucia continued, "That coaches plied on the ice from Westminster to the Temple. Sleds sliding with 'skeetes' were pulled by bulls and horses. There were coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other 'lewd places'. According to his diary, it was like' a bacchanalian triumph' or 'carnival on the ice'."

As Lucia eventually paused for breath, Elizabeth interjected,  "I trust you don't have it in mind that your Council should sanction such excesses on our Town Salts, Worship? I for one am sure we don't need any 'lewdness' in Tilling, or any more 'tippling' than already goes on in the Traders Arms most nights of the week. And we certainly don't want the Council involved or subsidising it. As I have always said, the rates are ruinously high already." 
  
"No dear," Lucia replied soothingly, "All those activities on the ice in 1683 were private matters. We shall just have to wait and see what, if any, respectable enterprise nature's frozen largesse prompts in the citizens of the borough. That winter was so harsh. Evelyn says that trees were split by the frost and birds and fish perished. It was so cold, smoke from fires was hindered in rising, so breathing was often difficult. Many parks of deer were destroyed and fuel was so costly that money had to be raised to keep the poor alive."

"I don't really think things are quite that bad yet here in Tilling, Lucia," observed Diva, mildly.

"And if they are, I'm sure Worship will make a very substantial donation to start 'The Mayor's Emergency Coal, Coke and Anthracite Fund' to save our shivering pensioners," added Elizabeth, sarcastically. 

Ignoring the latter remark, Lucia chose to reply only to the former, "Yes, Diva dear, our current freezing weather seems only to be what the meteorologists call a 'cold snap.' Hopefully, these few icy days can be  enjoyed and not endured. Come Georgie, let us go down and watch the skating. Will you join us ladies? "

"Thank you Lulu, dear, but I'm afraid, we can't," responded Elizabeth instantly," Diva and I have a prior engagement. In fact, look at the time; we must be off. We look forward to seeing you both at your soiree next week. So lovely to celebrate the honour done to Tilling by the King. Seven-thirty for eight isn't it?"

"Indeed, Lib Lib, precious one," countered Lucia, "We look forward to seeing you both then. Come on Georgie, I think I can see Algernon Wyse skating in the distance. How marvellous. Au reservoir, ladies!"


As Tilling's first couple descended the steps that led down to the Town Salts, Diva turned agitatedly to Elizabeth, "Thank you for asking me, Elizabeth. I actually wanted to go and watch the skaters. What prior engagement? That's the first I ever heard of it. Really, sometimes...."

Interrupting her, Elizabeth said soothingly, "Yes, sorry Diva dear, I just couldn't stand another freezing lecture from Lucia on the history of figure skating or winter sports and, to be honest, I really wanted a private word with you before going back out to 'Grebe.'"

True Tillingite that she was, Diva immediately moved on from her irritation at her friend's unilateral refusal of the invitation to join the Pillsons down at the Town Salts and focused on the much more interesting issue of what, possibly intimate, private issue was troubling her. Changing tack instantly, Diva replied solicitously, "Of course dear, we can watch the skating later this afternoon. Let us return to 'Wasters.' Janet is visiting her sister just now and we shall have the place to ourselves."

Elizabeth Mapp-Flint smiled and nodded and, arm-in-arm, the two mature ladies walked gingerly back through the frosted gardens, across icy Church Square and down the slippery High Street to Diva's home, "Wasters," outside which hung the shingled sign devised by Quaint Irene Coles with "Ye Olde Tea House," over a picture of good Queen Anne.

Once inside, Diva quickly brought into her parlour a tray laden with tea and various pastries. "Janet has been working on a new savoury addition to our tea time menu, Elizabeth," she explained, "We need to complement our famous Sardine Tartlet in the fish section of the menu - which we call "Neptune's Bounty."  Janet is trying to perfect her Pilchard Turnover. Perhaps you would like to sample it?"

"Of course, Diva dear," replied Elizabeth, who had a strong (literally "repeated") memory of the last new dish concocted by Janet, which Diva had tested on her. If she remembered correctly, it was a rather gritty anchovy and haddock rissole, which she had accurately, if undiplomatically, described as  "positively noisome."  

As Elizabeth took a small bite from the flaky savoury, she masticated thoughtfully. In her honest opinion, the taste was somewhere between "loathsome " and "deplorable."  After several seconds and a "Well?" accompanied by arched eyebrows from Diva, Elizabeth swallowed hard, cleared her throat with difficulty and replied, with a slow shake of her head, "Questionable, dear, at best questionable," adding, "Perhaps it would be kindest to leave it at that."

"Yes, I think you might be right," sighed Diva fatalistically. "I shall tell Janet to give up on the pilchards and perhaps revisit haddock"

"It's probably for the best," agreed Elizabeth gently.

"Now, you were saying, there was something you wanted to discuss. How can I help?" asked Diva continuing, "I suppose it has something to do with Major Benjy?"

"Yes, dear, I'm afraid it does," replied Elizabeth, reaching into her sleeve for a handkerchief, whilst sniffing and proceeding to dab at her dry and strangely unblinking eyes."I just don't know what's going on," she complained.

"Why not start at the beginning," suggested Diva, intrigued.

"Well, it started before Christmas" explained Elizabeth,"The weather was too bad for golf, yet Benjy still went out three mornings in one week and three the next.  I enquired as usual if he had enjoyed his round and he was just evasive. When I asked if he wanted me to walk around the course with him, as I used to do, he just said 'No, Liz old girl, I'd rather be on my own.'"

"Go on," encouraged Diva.

"And when I bumped into the Padre in the High Street," she continued, "He asked how Benjy's cold was and said he was looking forward to a game of golf when Benjy was recovered. Of course, I didn't let on that he hadn't had a cold at all and that I didn't know he hadn't been playing."

"No, of course not," sympathised Diva, "And?"

"Next, when I was hanging up Benjy's best suit in the wardrobe," she explained, "I  was going through the pockets, as you do."

"As you do," added Diva.

"And I came across several return rail tickets to Seaport," Elizabeth explained.

"He never mentioned going to Seaport?" asked Diva

"No, never," answered  Elizabeth, "We have been there to catch the ferry for the Continent, but never for any other reason. We don't know anyone there - so far as I know. I can't think of any reason to go. It's a mystery, it really is."

"And is that everything?"asked Diva, sensing that her friend was holding back something pertinent.

"Well, yes, there's his Post Office Savings Passbook," Elizabeth replied, "It's Benjy's secret. Benjy doesn't know I know about it, but he always keeps it inside the lining of his old solar topee from India, hanging up on the wall between the stuffed water buffalo head and tiger."

Resisting the temptation to comment upon this demonstrable lack of mutual frankness as between spouses, Diva focused upon the point at issue and asked what the passbook had revealed.

"Regular weekly withdrawals of twenty pounds for the last two months and, just before Christmas, fifty pounds" answered Elizabeth.

"As much as that! " gasped Diva, adding unnecessarily, "And you have no idea what for?"

"No, of course not," replied Elizabeth pointedly, whilst returning her still dry handkerchief to her sleeve and glaring at Diva with dry-eyed irritation, "I don't suppose you have any constructive suggestion to make at to what might be going on, dear?"

Recognising that there was little she could yet say that would be of much help or comfort, Diva chose her words carefully, "Well, dear, I have to admit that from the information you have available, it's impossible to work it out."

"Thanks for nothing then," replied Elizabeth, somewhat ungraciously, even by her, often irritable, standards.

"If you would kindly let me continue, oh 'ye of little faith'," added Diva, "But in circumstances where there is insufficient information, I generally find that the answer is to find out some more."

"Sorry. Do carry on," replied Elizabeth guardedly, for although she was frustrated by the blank drawn thus far, she was well aware that Diva excelled in the field of inductive reasoning, which had been developed in Tilling to a fine art.

"Thank you, dear," replied Diva, her honour satisfied, "It's obvious that we need to keep Major Benjy under observation and see what he is up to. It may be entirely innocent."

"Of course, it might," replied Elizabeth, unconvincingly, continuing anxiously, "And how do you propose to do that?"  
    
"Clearly, neither you  nor I could follow him, but I'm sure we can arrange for someone he doesn't know to do it, tactfully," explained Diva.

"Oh, I see," said Elizabeth,"Who?"

"My Janet's sister's boy, Neville might  fit the bill. He's just finished school and is at a loose end before going into the army. A bright, sensible lad.  I'm sure for five shillings and his fares, he could follow Benjy to Seaport and report back"

"What a good idea, Diva," replied Elizabeth, "Thank you so much. I feel as though a weight is being lifted from my shoulders already."

"That's what friends are for dear," Diva replied, "Would you care to try another of Janet's pilchard turnovers?"

As Elizabeth Mapp-Flint left "Wasters" and the proferred pilchard turnover untouched, she set off briskly on the veritable route march out to "Grebe."


Walking through the Landgate, she looked down and across towards the  frozen Town Salts and spotted Lucia and Georgie sitting on a bench surveying the scene. Elizabeth waved and blew a kiss in their direction, somewhat theatrically, but, having failed to capture their attention, pressed on towards home.

Meanwhile, at their bench beside the ice, Lucia and Georgie were captivated by the activity in front of them.

Led, as ever, by the enthusiatic Georgie and Per, the Tilling Ice Skating Club, had sectioned off part of the ice. In one half Georgie adjudicated a very energetic competition in barrel jumping, whilst in the other, Per organised races around a two hundred yard oval circuit.

"I suppose you are the President of the Tilling Ice Skating Club, as well as the football, cricket and cycling, Lucia? " asked Georgie.

"You know, I think I am," replied Lucia, insouciantly, "You must remind me to give them a cup for their racing. It looks very exciting and skillful," adding, "Also very worthwhile exercise. I wonder if they have any lady members?"

"Yes, dear," Georgie replied, "And perhaps a President's Shield, or something, for the barrel jumping?"

"Very good idea, Georgie," she confirmed, "Oh look, here is Inspector Morrison and his children."

At that moment, Herbert skated slowly by, managing to nod civilly to the Mayor, whilst holding the hand and supporting each twin in one of his. As their uncertain progress continued, Lucia waved and called, "Do be careful Inspector. You're all doing very well."

As the Morrison trio shuffled away, the figure of Algernon Wyse hove into view. Clad in a dashing white cashmere V-necked jumper and plus fours, Mr Wyse skated with a smooth confidence and impressive speed that made him stand out from others on the ice that morning.


With his hands behind his back in a supremely natural, almost diffident manner, not dissimilar from the style in which he rode his bicycle,  Mr Wyse executed a number of elegant figures, demonstrating immense poise and shoulder control, apparently effortlessly.

He added to a mesmeric combination of exquisite patterns and precise figures in the ice, changes of direction and edge, crossing and reversing, with jumps going both forwards and backwards. His display culminated in the dizziest of spins. Whilst apparently rooted to the spot, his madly revolving head and limbs seemed to the watching Pillsons to disappear in a veritable blur.

Halting after this bravura performance, Mr Wyse smiled modestly, bowed  from the neck in a clipped Germanic fashion and skated over.  Lucia and Georgie stood and applauded him with cries of  "Bravo, Signor Sapienti!" and "Wonderful, wonderful, Mr Wyse!"

As Mr Wyse soaked up the praise, Lucia enthused, "How marvellous! Such a talent. How could you possibly hide such stunning skill under a bushell? Please tell us, how did you become so accomplished?"

"It is very flattering of you to heap such praise on me, Mrs Pillson," replied Mr Wyse with his customary olde worlde  self-deprecation, "And entirely unwarranted. I owe such skill as I posses to the very best of teachers."

"If you don't mind me asking, Mr Wyse," interjected Georgie, who shared his wife's admiration and curiosity, "Who was it who taught you so well? Such a difficult art."

"It's rather a long story, actually, Mr Georgie," replied Algeronn Wyse, who had only now caught his breath after his earlier exertions, but it goes back more than twenty five years, to one of my earliest villeggiaturas in my beloved Capri, shortly after the marriage of my sister Amelia to Count Cecco di  Faraglione."

"Ah!" commented Lucia and Georgie in unison, but none-the-wiser.

"During my first stay on Cecco's estate in Capri, we dined with the English resident of  the neighbouring property, Villa Cercola, a delightful retreat. A charming man, a classicist, archaeologist and successful author, from the best of families and the very best of company. His father had been Archbishop to the late Queen, God bless her."

"Oh!" replied Lucia, for herself and her spouse, still terribly impressed, but no nearer understanding, "Pray continue, Mr Wyse."

"Well, dear friends," he continued, " On returning to England, our neighbour from Capri weekended with my family at Whitchurch, when Amelia and Cecco were also staying. I remember it well. It was February and very cold.  During his stay, it emerged that he was an excellent skater and a renowned exponent of the classical English style. In fact, he was a medallist and member of the National Skating Organisation. Our ponds were frozen and he very kindly offered to give me some tuition in skating in the classical manner. The result is evidenced by what I had the temerity to expose to your gaze on the ice today."

"How very interesting, Mr Wyse," enthused Lucia, "Your skill does credit to both student and teacher. In fact, I am so impressed, that I long to begin to skate myself."

"I thought that might be coming," thought Georgie to himself.  He had already perceived what seemed likely to be the germination of what he had already privately christened, "Lucia's Winter Stunt."

As his wife continued to exchange remarks with Algernon Wyse concerning "the purity of the English style," and about salkows and lutzes, Georgie  day-dreamed about Lucia in full Mayoral attire, including her plumed tricorn hat, leading a veritable conga-line of her fellow members and officers of the Borough Corporation of Tilling at high speed around the icy expanse of the Town Salts. This brief fantasy owed more to his recent viewing of film extravaganzas starring Miss Sonja Henie than the likelihood of the Town Council gamely taking to the ice en masse.

George was soon snapped out of his reverie by a specific offer from Mr Wyse, "Well, Mrs Pillson, if you are interested, I would be very happy to lend to you what I think is recognised as the definitive manual on the theory, technique and practice of the English style of figure skating. If you will be kind enough to receive it, I will send the volume around by hand with Figgis later this afternoon."

"How very kind, Mr Wyse. I should indeed be very interested to read it. Thank you," replied Lucia,"Oh, look isn't that dear Susan coming towards us?"

As Lucia spoke, there appeared before them the ample figure of Susan Wyse, swathed in her luxuriant sables, sitting on a stout wheel back chair of rustic design that appeared to be fixed onto a pair of long wooden blades, not unlike those used in  the troikas or horse-drawn sleds of Russia.

In this instance, the troika of Susan Wyse was not pulled by team of three, steaming greys, but pushed from behind by the solitary, perspiring and virtually exhausted Figgis.

"Whoa, Figgis," cried Susan Wyse, more than somewhat imperiously, as her vehicle eventually slid to a halt on the ice, where her husband was conversing with Lucia and Georgie.

"Good day, Mr and Mrs Pillson," said Susan, amiably, as Figgis stood gasping and crimson faced, clinging onto the the back of her chair, "Such fun today on the Salts, out in the fresh air, so healthy and invigorating, don't you think?" she remarked.

Slightly concerned at the, possibly life-threatening impact his exertions might have had upon the still-heaving and speechless Figgis, Georgie replied, "Yes indeed, Mrs Wyse, but poor Figgis seems to be quite worn out by all his hard work."

"You might be right," responded Susan, unconcerned, "Anyway, I think I should quite like my afternoon tea now. To the Royce, Figgis: chop chop!"

With this, Figgis, by now merely grey with fatigue, pushed his mistress to the edge of the ice, where the Rolls Royce was parked to make a speedy return to tea and crumpets by the fire at "Starling Cottage".

Before joining her, Algernon Wyse bade a civil farewell to  Lucia and Georgie with the assurance that he was looking forward to the reception at "Mallards House " next week and the promise to send round his book on skating.

Sure enough, by five that afternoon Foljambe entered the Garden Room at "Mallards House" with a silver salver on which, with the compliments of Mr Algernon Wyse, lay a volume, first published in 1908, entitled "English Figure Skating," bearing on its frontispiece the fading handwritten inscription:

To/
Algernon Wyse

Enjoy your figure skating, my friend and remember:

English figures in the ice
Lord Desborough thought were very nice -
Though lacking in the sinful spice
Of beastliness and English vice.

With my thanks for your generous hospitality

The Author
Whitchurch
10th February 1909.

Leafing thorough the detailed text with its "forward changes of edge"," four rules", "reverse Q's"  and "crossing pairs on opposite feet", Lucia remarked that this was "exactly what she needed" and that she would "begin serious practice the next day." 
  
In the ensuing days, it was generally agreed that Tilling had became a "veritable St Moritz-on-Sea,"  as skating on the frozen Town Salts became all the rage.

As Georgie Pillson had anticipated,  Lucia threw herself enthusiastically into mastering the refined art of figure skating in the English style, which had indeed become her "Winter Stunt."
 
With typical efficiency, the Mayor read and absorbed her borrowed manual and urgently sent up to London for suitable skates and accouterments of the highest quality from Lillywhites in Piccadilly. Enjoying the prospect of  "a striking new costume," as he put it to Foljambe, Georgie Pillson also equipped himself with skates and a well-cut suit in finest tweed, in an unusual pale eau de nil hue, so as not to be outshone.

After several lessons from Algernon Wyse and a good deal of practice alone, Lucia declared herself ready to commence holding her own classes for beginners in skating, which were duly attended by the Padre, his wife, Evie and his curate. 

When not teaching Lucia, Algernon Wyse was to be seen skating exquisitely each afternoon, whilst his wife Susan continued to enjoy her Figgis-powered perambulations around the Town Salts, decked in her furs like a Russian dowager.

Striking a more bohemian note, Quaint Irene Coles tore around the ice field at breakneck speed, clad in her Breton fisherman's smock and britches with a brier pipe clenched between her teeth in a slightly piratical manner.

As Lucia's confidence grew and she skated this way and that around the Town Salts, in and out of the good folk of Tilling.  Thoroughly enjoying the novelty of a huge expanse of ice, Lucia, not for the first time, felt like Queen Catherine the Great of all the Russias and relished being at liberty incognita amongst her adoring people.

Of all the Pillson's circle, only the Mapp-Flints and Mrs. Plaistow did not succumb to the new enthusiasm for winter sports. Unbeknownst to their friends, Major Benjy was fully occupied with the matter that had been distracting him of late and Elizabeth Mapp-Flint and Diva Plaistow were preoccupied with the task of divining exactly what this was.

Elizabeth and Diva were therefore pleased and relieved to sit down in the parlour of "Wasters" with a pot of tea, some biscuits and Neville, the teenaged son of the sister of Diva's servant Janet. For five shillings and his fares, Neville had been persuaded to follow Major Benjy, at a discreet distance, on his latest trip from Tilling to Seaport. After consuming most of the biscuits before him, Neville took a dog-eared exercise book from his pocket and licked his fingers.

Turning to the relevant page, he began,  "As requested, I followed Major Mapp-Flint on Tuesday morning -at a 'discreet distance' in accordance with your instructions."

"Indeed, Neville, do carry on," urged Elizabeth.

"The Major left 'Grebe' at 9 a.m without luggage. The weather was dull and dry.  He walked directly to the railway station in Tilling. There at 9.35, he bought a copy of the "Daily Mirror" and a second-class return ticket to Seaport and boarded the 9.45 train, sitting in a first class compartment."


"Typical," thought Diva to herself.

"My Benjy has obviously had a lot on his mind," explained Elizabeth loyally, if implausibly, adding defensively, "A pure oversight, I'm sure. A mistake, you know."   
  
"Anyway," continued Neville, warming to his task and rather enjoying the rapt attention of his listeners,"On arriving at Seaport at 10.25 a.m., the Major proceeded on foot to Esplanade Street and at 10.45 a.m. entered the Windermere Private Hotel, where he remained for the next sixty minutes."

"Could you see anything from outside?" asked Elizabeth.

"I saw him enter the lift and go up to the second floor. There was a lady sitting in the window, who got up and disappeared from view," Neville explained.

"As though she was going to the door to let someone in?" suggested Diva.

"Yes, Mrs Plaistow," he confirmed, "After an hour or so, they came down in the lift together. She was leaning on his arm and talking quietly to him. I couldn't hear what they said."

"What did she look like?" Elizabeth asked.

"She wore a sort of pale blue robe or sari, with a fur coat over her shoulders, and had a red mark on her forehead,"  he explained, "She wore some bangles that looked like gold and had grey hair tied up in a sort of bun. She was very old.  Even older than you,  Mrs.Mapp-Flint," he concluded.

"Thank you, Neville dear," said Elizabeth, "Charmingly put," continuing, "You said she was leaning on Benjy's arm. Did she look ill, do you think?"

"Yes, she did. Very grey and - sort of - 'drawn'," Neville replied, "And that ties in with where they went. They walked around the corner - quite slowly - into Marina Parade and went into an office."

"And what was it?" Diva asked.

"Outside, there was a brass plate that said, 'Dr. D.G. St.John-Evans.'

"Oh!" exclaimed Elizabeth and Diva, in surprised unison, "And how long..?"

"Fifty minutes," said Neville, "And the Major then walked her back, still very slowly, to the hotel.  They went in and he stayed for another hour and he came out alone. It was about 2.30 then."

"What happened next?" Diva enquired, "Did he catch the train back to Tilling?"

"Not immediately, Mrs Plaistow," Neville answered. "He walked over the road to the Station Hotel and went into the Saloon Bar."

"And?" asked Elizabeth.

After looking down at his exercise book and pausing, Neville added, "And the Major had two large scotches and a small pork pie.  He then went to the station and caught the three-thirty back to Tilling."

"Thank you very much, Neville, that was very comprehensive," said Elizabeth, reaching into her handbag and extracting two half crowns. Passing them to him, she said, "I think we agreed on this for your time?"

"Thank you, Mrs Mapp-Flint. I'm only too pleased to help. This will come in useful. I can take Muriel to the pictures now. There's that Sonja Henie double bill, still on at the new Bijou."

"Very nice dear," Elizabeth replied, "That's Mr Twistevant's youngest girl, isn't it? I hope you have a nice time."

As she showed Neville out, Elizabeth added, "Thank you again for your help. And don't forget, what happened is our little secret, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is," Neville replied, as he stepped out into the High Street, "Mum's the word."  Neville set off down the road, clinking the half crowns in his pocket and wondering whether instead of the army he should aim for a career in the police, or even better, as a private eye, like in the movies. His Muriel would like that.

   
As Elizabeth returned to the parlour at "Wasters," Diva poured another cup of tea. Sitting facing each other, the two friends simply sighed and sat quietly for a minute or two.

Eventually, Diva broke the silence, "Well, I'm not sure that takes us much further forward!" Flexing her well-honed analytical skills, she continued, "We know Benjy has met her several times in Seaport. Obviously, he knew her before and there is some kind of connection,  but we don't know what it is, or even who she is."

"Thank you for that thrilling statement of the blindingly obvious, Diva dear," responded Elizabeth, sourly, "We also know she's ill, but heaven knows with what. I didn't mention it, but there's also the fact that even more money has gone from Benjy's Post Office Account."

"No! " gasped Diva, in time-honoured Tilling fashion, "How much now?"

"Another hundred and fifty pounds, I'm afraid," replied Elizabeth.

"Well, if you don't mind me saying," remarked Diva carefully, "It seems to me that you have two choices now - three, if you include doing nothing."

"Impossible!"  snorted Elizabeth.

"That leaves us with either confronting Benjy with the whole issue," suggested Diva.

"Or?" asked Elizabeth.

"Having a private word with Inspector Morrison and asking if he could look into it for you, or at least give you some advice. For all you know, there might be any kind of crime involved - blackmail, smuggling, anything"

"I think that's a little far-fetched Diva, if you don't mind me saying," Elizabeth replied, "But I must admit I don't feel up to confronting Benjy with it all just yet and it might be helpful to have some independent advice."

Standing up from the table, Elizabeth thanked Diva for arranging for Neville's services and confirmed that she would try and speak privately to Inspector Morrison.

Seizing the moment, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint walked straight from "Wasters " in the High Street to Tilling Police Station, just off Church Square, and was soon ushered into Inspector Morrison's office.


After the usual pleasantries concerning health and the festive season, Mrs Mapp-Flint outlined the recent sequence of events involving her husband, his exotic foreign visitor and the substantial withdrawals from his savings account. Whilst 'not wishing to jump to foolish conclusions', she asked the Inspector if it would be 'possible to enquire discreetly if there were any issues arising, of a criminal nature' requiring his attention.

Somewhat relieved that his formidable visitor had not come to upbraid him yet again regarding "the dismal failure of his force to apprehend the wanton criminals responsible for the despoilment of fruit stocks out at 'Grebe'", the Inspector undertook to implement very tactful enquiries and to report back to her. Satisfied with this commitment, Tilling's Mayoress, bade him good day. 
  
Within forty eight hours, Inspector Morrison had completed this task and telephoned "Grebe" and suggested that Mrs Mapp-Flint call on him at his office at her early convenience.  The same morning, whilst her husband was otherwise engaged  in who-knew-what, a short train ride away in Seaport, Elizabeth was ushered into the Inspector's office.

"Well, Inspector," said Elizabeth,"Do you have anything to tell me? What have your investigations revealed?"

Herbert replied, "I have now made various enquiries and spoken to my colleagues in the force in Seaport,"

"And?"

"This seems to be one of those cases when there is only so much I can say, Mrs Mapp-Flint," Herbert explained, as gently as possible, " I think it proper to tell you that for the last month a lady known to your husband has been staying at the Windermere Private Hotel in Seaport. She has travelled to Europe and entered the country perfectly legally. She has settled her bills at the hotel in full promptly and has not, to my knowledge, been guilty of any criminal offence in this country or abroad or, for that matter, any civil transgression."

"Oh, I see,"said Elizabeth, "Do you know her name, Inspector?"

"I do understand that the lady in question is titled." Herbert replied, "She is Indira Gayatri, the Dowager Maharani of Maharashtra and I gather has sadly been suffering ill health in recent years. Since I have found no indication of any criminal activity whatsoever, in the absence of any complaint from your husband or someone else, I am afraid I can do nothing further"

"Thank you, Inspector" replied Elizabeth, "I am grateful for your time. I realise that I must find out directly from Major Mapp-Flint exactly what has been going on."

As Elizabeth Mapp-Flint again made the long walk back to "Grebe," she rehearsed in her mind the way in which she would raise her concerns with her husband. He would, she imagined, return home in the late afternoon as he had done after his previous assignations in Seaport.

On reaching "Grebe," Elizabeth was surprised to find Major Benjy already there. Entering the drawing room she greeted him with a cheerful, "Hello dear, a good round today?"

Benjy had his back to her in a studded leather wing back chair facing the fire. He had a glass of whisky in his hand. This consumption itself was not surprising, but Major Mapp-Flint was usually careful not to be found by his wife drinking spirits during the day. Today, however, it seemed he did not really care.

When Elizabeth walked around the front of his chair and saw her husband's face, she could have sworn his eyes were red and moist, almost as though he had been crying. Concerned, she asked,"Benjy dear, What's wrong? Whatever can the matter be?"

"It's all right, Liz old girl," he replied gruffly, "Don't fuss. I've just had a bit of a shock, that's all. Thought I'd have a drop of whisky. Do you want one?''

Although initially her instinct was a stiff rebuttal, with all the offended dignity of dear Queen Mary, Elizabeth sensed that, for once, it might be best to bend a little, "Just a small port, please dear," she replied, "Now tell me. Just what's been going on? I think it's time to let me in on what's been happening, don't you think?"

With a sigh, the Major poured his wife's port and refreshed his own glass. Sitting down, he raised his tumbler to her and said, resignedly, "Yes, I suppose so."

Trying to make his task a little easier, Elizabeth interrupted, "Benjy dear, I know you've been going to Seaport for over a month now. I know about the Windermere Hotel and the Doctor. I know about her and even about your Post Office Account. I've been so worried. Please, just tell me the truth."

"Fair enough, old girl," said Benjy, a little unnerved at the extent of his wife's knowledge, "It will be a relief to tell you, after all this time."

"Go on dear, get it off your chest," Elizabeth replied.

"Well Liz, like so much in my life, it goes back to my time in India. I was quite a young buck out there. Enjoying army life and all that it brought: the mess dinners, the polo, tiger shooting, servants and house parties up country. It was a very good life for a young chap.'Sporting Benjy', they used to call me in the Regiment."

"Yes," commented Elizabeth, trying hard to remain as neutral as possible,

"My 'circle of friends,' as you might put it," he explained, "Was fairly wide and included many attractive ladies. Many. They never really pinned me down and I had fun moving from one to another,"

"Ye-e-s," observed Elizabeth again, finding it harder to resist becoming rather more judgemental.

"Well....one of my very best and closest lady friends at the time was a particularly beautiful woman of the highest caste, who was also very popular with my brother officers. She had many friends in my regiment. I think the term might even be a "courtesan" - or some thing like that?"

"Yes, Benjy, I get the picture, dear. I have read novels. Many novels," said Elizabeth, in a tone that was now closer to brisk than sympathetic.

"She was such a legendary beauty, we used to call her 'the Pride of Poona'," he added, oblivious to the mounting irritation of his listener who had never enjoyed her husband's repeated references his legendary long lost love.

"Anyway, you may have gathered, " he continued, "When that Maltravers chap appeared at the time of the Mayor's dinner some months ago, I had a little trouble involving a fellow officer's wife up-country and my Commanding Officer found it advisable for me to return to Blighty pro tem, at least until the dust settled. That was when I also saw the last of the Pride of Poona and thought I would never see her again."

"And?" asked Elizabeth.

"A few weeks before Christmas," he explained, "Completely out of the blue, I got a letter from her, explaining that she was visiting the country and needed to see me urgently."

"So, you agreed to meet her?" asked Elizabeth.

"Yes, I did," he replied, somewhat emboldened by his second stiff whisky, "I didn't think you would take very kindly to my meeting  up again with a close lady friend of forty years ago."

"I have to admit, you were correct in that assumption, Benjy, dear," observed Elizabeth menacingly, "Pray, do go on."

"It's very sad actually, old girl" he explained, "Her name, by the way, is 'Indira Gayatri.' "

"I know, Benjy," replied Elizabeth, by now anxious to assert herself  in some small way and show that she had not been entirely passive.

"How do you know that?" asked Benjy, regretting his words as soon as they had left his lips.

"Does it really matter, dear?" she asked, "I don't really think today is the day for you to be asking me  questions, do you think?"

Recognising the weakness of his position, Benjy shrugged and continued, "I suppose you're right.  Anyway, she told me that her doctors advised her that she was fatally ill and had not got long to live. There were some important things that she needed to put right, before it happened."

"Such as?" asked Elizabeth, continuing to feel more impatience than sympathy.

"Her first bombshell was that when I boarded the P &O at Bombay to come home, she was already carrying my child."

"Good Lord," exclaimed Elizabeth,"Why didn't she tell you?"

"In those days, confronted with the news from someone regarded as, at best, 'a courtesan', what do you think she assumed a British officer would do? Drop everything and marry her?"

"Oh, I see," said Elizabeth, "So what did she do?"

"She quickly married the Tika Raja, who soon succeeded to the title of Maharajah of Maharashtra," he explained, continuing,
"The Maharajah had long carried a flame for her and was happy to bring up the child as his own. He was immensely wealthy and Indira lived a life of utter luxury in his palace outside Poona."

"So the Pride of Poona, eventually became its Queen, so to speak?" asked Elizabeth.

"Yes, she did," Benjy replied, "The good times lasted until the Crash in 1929 when the Maharajah lost virtually everything. He died in 1931 and life has been much, much harder for her since then."

 "And that's why you needed to draw the money from your Post Office Savings - to pay for her hotel and doctor's bills?"  Elizabeth suggested.

Benjy merely nodded and Elizabeth continued, "And what became of the child?"

"A boy Liz, a boy," confirmed Benjy proudly, "Indira told me he followed in my footsteps. After Sandhurst, he joined the Guards."

"You must be very proud," Elizabeth remarked quietly, "And do you have any grandchildren?"

Clearing his throat, Benjy sipped his scotch and replied, "No Liz, that was one of the main things Indira needed to tell me. Our son was lost in the War. He was leading his brigade just outside Ypres. A very brave young man."

"Oh, Benjy, I'm so sorry," said Elizabeth,"You gained a wonderful son and lost him in the same conversation. And now your Indira is so ill."

"Yes, Liz," Benjy replied, "That's why I'm here now and not still in Seaport. Indira passed away this morning. She said she couldn't go before, without my knowing about our son, the soldier."

"And now,"  Benjy concluded trembling, "All I can do is bury her, so you'll have to bear with me whilst I deal with that. It's my responsibility. It's the least I can do."

"Of course, dear. We shall arrange it together. Indira was a friend of the family. Her funeral shall take place in Tilling and the Padre will officiate. The Maharani must be buried in our churchyard here. We shall invite all our friends in Tilling. Perhaps young Neville and Muriel Twistevant will be able to attend?"

"Thank you, Elizabeth, I never thought you could be so understanding," Major Benjy replied, "I always said that as an old campaigner, I've seen a great deal of shikarri in my time. I now realise, you have too, Liz old girl."


THE END

Copyright reserved in all appropriate territories  Deryck Solomon 2012

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