Friday, 29 June 2012

November : The Surprising Assassin





Nights were now drawing in and the mornings tended to be dull and chilly on the Sussex coast.     
     
Cool and foggy November had begun quietly in Tilling, to the relief of many.     

As had seemed to have become the norm in 1936, much of the drama of the preceding month had centred around Major and Mrs Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, Mayoress and long-time resident of the ancient town – or latterly rather of “Grebe” a presentable freehold messuage, on low ground, a mile outside its venerable walls.     

The fluctuating fortunes of the Mapp-Flints, which now spiralled in a downwards rather than upwards direction, had for several months both worried and fascinated their circle of intimes.    
      
Concern climaxed when, in a moment of extreme stress, the Major made what was later acknowledged to be a feeble effort to stage his own death and decamped to a guest-house in the nearby resort of Seaport.    
   
There, alone and unharmed in room 12,  he was found  and gently persuaded to return by Inspector Morrison, the senior police officer of  Tilling.    

It was soon generally understood around the town that a tearful reunion and reconciliation had taken place upon the Major’s return to “Grebe.”    

Since this was approximately the fourth time that the Major had absented himself without leave in the space of a year, his better-half considered this amounted to recidivism.  She felt that a period of plain living was called for to give her errant spouse due opportunity to reflect upon his flighty ways, to repent and set upon a proper and respectable path forward.   

In the eyes of many in Tilling, this new enforced regime amounted to cruel and unreasonable punishment.  

A day after his reappearance,  he was taken to stay with his wife’s tight-lipped and mean-spirited cousins in Maidstone.  


Practising Plymouth Brethren and teetotal vegetarians, cousins Walter and Enid Mapp had prepared an unheated bedroom and hair shirt for the black sheep of the family. 

They were grimly enthusiastic about becoming the Major’s warders and supervising his penance. 

The fitting motto in Latin on an embroidered sampler which formed the only decoration in his cell-like bedroom was, “What does not kill you makes you strong.”  

Major Benjy instantly recognised what was in store for him, but was too drained by the stresses and disappointments he had suffered in the past few months to put up any resistance.   

He silently determined to “do his time” and hope for some remission for good behaviour.   

Characteristically, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint showed no mercy whatsoever in this process. She determined to maintain the strictest vigilance as to his conduct, alcoholic consumption and even thought processes.   

For the foreseeable future the Mapps in conclave decreed that frivolity, relaxation, humour and all sensory pleasures of any kind were strictly off-limits.    

In their place, a regime of mortification of the flesh, guilt, contrition and obedience would be rigidly enforced at all times.   

Clearly, Benjy would not for many weeks  be enjoying a yarn with his cronies in the smoke-filled saloon bar of the Trader’s Arms or a chota peg or three in the nineteenth hole at Tilling Golf Club.   
   
As Benjy’s “trial by disapproval” continued, a county or so away, the usual civilised daily routine resumed at “Mallards House.”  

                 


Over a breakfast somewhat more substantial than that being served in Maidstone, Georgie and Lucia Pillson read their newspapers, entirely at ease with the absence of conversation.  

The silence was punctuated by the odd clipped remark about snippets from the news, such as the advisability or otherwise of the King’s remarks following his visit to Dowlais in Wales and the continuing fighting in Spain.      

Grosvenor entered the dining room carrying a silver tray with the first post of the morning.  

“A letter from the Antrobus twins,” said Lucia, “They thank us ‘awfully’ for their stay which they ‘enjoyed enormously’ and say they had a ‘simply topping time.’ 

It seems ‘dear Georgie and Per visited Riseholme last weekend and got on with Mother famously.’”   

“How nice,” replied Georgie, “I don’t think I ever saw such a change in anyone as in those two. They arrived as giggling schoolgirls and left us as self-assured young ladies on the arms of new beaux. A more dramatic transformation than in the pantomime, don’t you think?”   

“Absolutely,  Georgie. Yet again they point out that they are ‘not  now Piggy and Goosie’ and sign the letter ‘Perdita and Georgina’. They say ‘Now there will always be two Georgie and Pers. '”   

“Oh, I see 'Georgie and Perdita' and 'Georgina and Per,'” said Georgie, easily controlling such negligible mirth as the increasingly irritating play on words induced, “How bizarre. ‘Twas meant to be, I suppose.”    

“And what news do you have this morning, Georgie?”    

“Strangely, it’s actually a letter from Miss Lyall at The Hall in Riseholme on behalf of Lady Ambermere.”   


“Dear, Cornelia, how lovely to hear from her,” commented Lucia with wholly un-veiled sarcasm, “Good heavens, what on earth can she want?”

After several clashes over the years, Lady Ambermere was one of the few individuals whom Lucia found difficult to take easily in her stride.  

Memorable encounters had included Lady Ambermere’s imperious behaviour at “The Hurst” during the garden party when the fraudulent Guru was in residence whilst hoping to hear the prima donna Olga Braceley perform.     
  
 Later,  battle had been engaged over the thorny questions of the compensation due following the destruction by fire of Queen Charlotte’s mittens loaned to Riseholme Museum  by Lady Ambermere and the public display of her late stuffed pug.   

Although it was widely acknowledged that Lucia had easily won both encounters comprehensively, she had been unnerved by what she described as Lady Ambermere’s “sheer awfulness” and never forgave her.    

“To be frank Georgie, the graceless Cornelia Ambermere was one of the things that I was happiest to leave behind in Riseholme; I had thought we were shot of her. I was quite enjoying it, in fact. What does the old horror want now?”     

“Well Lucia, you may not have realised that there is shortly to be opened in Brinton, a National Museum of Royal Foundation Garments and Intimate Apparel.”  

“No!” replied Lucia, succeeding as she had hoped in parodying both Tilling’s time-honoured response to thrilling and unexpected news and the banal institution  about to be opened in Brinton, “Forgive me Georgie, I must admit I have been most remiss in keeping up with latest developments in the impending  public display of  dynastic drawers and  liberty bodices. How can it possibly have escaped my attention?”   

“Ooo vewwy norty, Lucia” replied Georgie, “But you will be fascinated to know that Miss Lyall writes, 'My mistress, Lady Cornelia Ambermere has indicated that she does remember you when you both had little houses in Riseholme, a village on the Ambermere estate.'”

“How kind,” remarked Lucia, too irritated even to begin to take issue with what she considered to be so many inaccuracies in the space of so few words.

“Apparently, her mistress recalls that I also am a Bartlett on my mother’s side and trusts that aristocratic blood ties and familial regard will encourage me to offer her hospitality. Also Her Ladyship does not enjoy staying in an hotel, especially a strange one,” read Georgie.  

“Or paying for it,” added Lucia,  

“And Lady Ambermere has intimated that she would be minded to do you and Mrs Pillson the honour of staying in your new little house in Tilling, whilst visiting nearby Brinton to do them the honour of opening an important exposition.”   

“’Little house’ indeed. What else does Her Majesty say?”   

“She says that her mistress is minded to place on semi-permanent loan to the new museum her priceless collection of Queen Charlotte’s linen bloomers, flannel comforters and liberty bodices.”    

“How very unpleasant for all concerned," sniffed Lucia, for whom any such garments held no interest, let alone such oft-worn antique relics, “Is there anything else?”   

“She wishes to arrive in Tilling in time for dinner here on Friday, to have breakfast and travel to Brinton for the opening on Saturday morning and dine here again in the evening, unless of course she chooses to accept an invitation from friends amongst gentry in the county, such as Lord Ardingly.”   

“No!”


“ Yes, Lucia, I'm afraid.  On Sunday morning, Her Ladyship will attend divine service in Tilling and take a turn about the town in her bath chair.  She will depart for Riseholme after luncheon. It seems Lady Ambermere will instruct Miss Lyall to list for your benefit  her specific and detailed requirements in relation to accommodation, necessary facilities and diet for herself  her staff in due course.”


“Other than the fact that Lady Ambermere is without doubt the rudest, egotistical and ill-mannered person I have ever met, I confess I’m tempted to suggest that we accommodate her,” said Georgie, “It is only for a weekend and it might be amusing to unleash the Dragon on an unsuspecting Tilling, don’t you think?”   

“Paradoxically I do agree, Georgie. I abhor the woman and her ludicrous airs and graces, but it is hard to resist an opportunity to dabble in social engineering."  

“Or human chemistry: light the blue touch-paper of personality and stand back, so to speak?” suggested Georgie, whilst extending the metaphor."We must be careful not to be seen to endorse her ghastliness though."

“Or let her be too unkind to our friends here; that wouldn't do at all. On checking my diary, I see we are disengaged then and I can’t really think of any reason not to offer our hospitality,” said Lucia.

“Not that Her Ladyship will express any gratitude whatsoever”

“Of course not Georgie; that would be expecting far too much – even from a Bartlett!”  

“It is a shame that the Mapp-Flints will be away for the visit. Elizabeth and Cornelia would be a combustible mixture. The result would be bound to be both  fiery and entertaining.”   

“So true, Georgie, but we can certainly look forward to her meeting the Wyses,”   

“Indeed. I doubt that Her Ladyship will have heard of the Wyse of Whitchurch, let alone the Faraglione’s of Capri.  Other than her time in Madras, I do not think Lady Ambermere really holds much with ‘abroad’, as such.   

I think Quaint Irene would be far to volatile to risk exposing to Lady Ambermere, don’t you?”

“I so agree Lucia, it would be bound to end in tears and threats of the guillotine. I think Diva would be somewhat overwhelmed by her. However,  should we invite the Bartletts?”  

“If only to see what she makes of his brogue of the day. I don’t see her reacting at all well to the music hall Scots or Bog Irish, do you?” 

“Indeed not. I suppose it would be too wicked to invite Olga? You remember how she hated Lady Ambermere?” 

“Oh yes, Georgie, Olga absolutely loathed her. She always talked about her hooked nose –'just like a parrot,' she said. 

“Yes, Olga called her ‘Pretty Polly once. It was very funny. Do you think we dare?”   

“I think we need to consider the guests and placements at our dinner party at our leisure,” said Lucia, “By the way I’m sure you will find it interesting to see Miss Lyall. She will certainly be looking forward to seeing you again Georgie. You were always so flirtatious with her with your ‘little jokes’. I think you were her favourite; she certainly had a soft spot for you.” 

"Don't be tarsome, Lucia. Stop teasing me."

"You can't help it if some ladies find you irresistible, dear, "said Lucia, " You must remember in Riseholme when Piggy - I suppose we must call her 'Perdita,' now - sent you that delicious note saying that she was going to call on you and 'hoped to find you alone?'

"Oh, please stop. That's quite enough!"  

"Or when Poppy Sheffield was 'so terribly taken up with you' and your, what was it? Oh yes, your 'delightful little beard!'"

“Really Lucia, I can’t think what you are insinuating,”declared Georgie, “I only ever tried to cheer up the poor downtrodden creature. Her mistress always gave her such a ridiculously hard time with never a kind word word or thank you. Her day really needed to be brightened. So please so do not blame me for doing what any gentleman should have done.”

“There’s no need to be defensive over my little jokes, Georgie. Of course I knew exactly what you were doing. You always try to help the underdog and were just being kind; that can never be wrong. Being serious for a moment, we must try to do what we can to make sure Miss Lyall enjoys her visit.”

“I agree entirely, Lucia and will do my best. Now, what are you doing today?”  

“I am chairing meeting of my Ladies Luncheon Club today at Diva Plaistow’s tea rooms.   

After dessert I’m giving a talk on references to flowers in Shakespeare’s plays and illustrating it with magic lantern slides of my Shakespeare Garden at “The Hurst.”  

“Perdita’s Garden with the bench and sundial, next to the pleached alley?” asked Georgie.  

“Yes indeed; so many happy memories. I do hope I can convey that to them. We also have to finalise arrangements for our trip to London this month.”   

“And what are you doing with your lunch ladies in the Great Wen this time?”  

“All quite exciting really. We have a charabanc driven by Diva’s brother Leofric  to take us to Drury Lane for a matinee of the new musical by Ivor Novello, “Careless Rapture.”   

“He stars in it too doesn’t he?”   

“Yes, he does, opposite Dorothy Dickson. He’s quite a heartthrob. Some of our ladies refer to him as “Dear Ivor” and are really quite excited. Then, on the way home we are calling in at The Crystal Palace. In south London, it is in the right direction for Tilling.”   

“That should be an amusing day out, Lucia.”

“Indeed. I only hope it will be much less frantic and embarrassing than our last trip to the capital to  Ideal Home Exhibition. We have banned the Twistevant sisters this time and so hopefully there will be no repetition of the drunkenness and exhibitionism that so shamed the good name of Tilling at Olympia."

“I suppose the last thing you wanted was exhibitionism and the Ideal Home Exhibition,” said Georgie, laughing at his own joke. 

 Lucia did not join in his laughter, but resumed the helm, “Very well then, perhaps you will reply to Miss Lyall this morning and I will warn Grosvenor, Foljambe, Cadman and cook of the impending visit.”   

   

Two days later in the mid-afternoon, Lucia and Georgie Pillson sat opposite Susan and Algernon Wyse over a green baize table in the card room at Diva Plaistow’s establishment.

At the other table sat Evie and Kenneth Bartlett with Irene Coles waiting for the proprietor to join them, after serving tea and distributing fresh packs of playing cards.   

As Diva eventually took her seat, play progressed and the review of the news of the day commenced.  

Only her oldest friend Diva had heard from the Mapp-Flints by means of a charming postcard in colour showing the town’s splendid new municipal bus station, “They are having a pleasant and restful break,” reported Diva.    
 
“You know what they say?" joked Georgie, "Seaport for the Continent, Frinton for the incontinent and Maidstone for the malcontent!"

"Oh Georgie, really! " rebuked Lucia.

"Just trying to cheer things up, Lucia.  I do actually sympathise. Poor Benjy, how he must be loathing it,” commented Georgie. 

All present nodded silently in sympathy and agreement.     

Hoping to change the subject, Susan Wyse asked, “And was your latest meeting of Tilling Ladies Luncheon Club enjoyable, Lucia?”   

“Very agreeable, thank you Susan,” she replied, “Due mainly to the excellent catering by our dear Diva, of course. All agreed luncheon was delicious.”   

“Thank you, Lucia, most kind of you to say. It is always a pleasure to host your Luncheon Club; such a charming and refined group of ladies.”    

“I was sorry not to be able to attend, but Tilling Hospital Board business intervened,” explained Susan, fingering the insignia of MBE on her ample bosom, awarded in recognition of this service, “I was particularly looking forward to your talk on flowers in Shakespeare. Did it go well?”   

“I like to think so,” replied Lucia, “Though I must admit I was concerned to note that, judging by her loud snores,  Florence Twistevant appeared to have fallen asleep after half an hour or so.”    

“Surely not Mrs Pillson; quite impossible,” remarked Algernon Wyse chivalrously, “Who in Tilling could be so discourteous?”  

“I think it might have had something to do with several hefty nips from her hip flask, rather than your talk, Lucia,” sympathised Diva, “I was watching her after clearing the dessert. If I remember correctly it was sloe gin: potent stuff.”   

“Aye, tis the season for a warming wee dram or two of the braw gin o’ the sloe,” commented the Padre, who had been in strictly Highland mode all afternoon.  

“Oh, dear, I hadn’t realised. It explains a lot,” replied Lucia, “There was an unfortunate little outburst beforehand, during the meeting proper. We had been settling arrangements for the Club’s trip to London this week. I had been obliged to ban Florence and Nellie Twistevant from attending, after their unfortunate behaviour whilst intoxicated on our trip to the Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia.”  

“So Florence did not take well to being refused a place on the trip then?” asked Evie.   

“You could say that Evie. All she said, and I quote, was, “Our Nellie and I love Ivor Novello to bits and we were so looking forward to seeing him. I don’t care if you and your stuck-up Club won’t let us come on your rotten trip. We’ll find a way to see Ivor and the Crystal Palace one way or other, just you wait and see!”    

“We shall just have to hope it was only bravado,” commented Susan.   

“Perhaps it was the sloe gin speaking?” remarked Irene.  

“Yes, indeed, let us hope so,” replied Lucia, “But we can’t really afford to have a recurrence of their drunken antics at Olympia.”  

"The Gods would certainly frown on it,” joked Georgie, “Though a thunderbolt or two in their direction might have been quite useful, don’t you think?”    

“Very droll, Georgie, but we are all looking forward to the theatre and our visit to  the Crystal Palace on the way back. They have fitted us in for the very last tour of the day. It promises to be a long day and such a busy week. The day after our excursion to London, we expect to receive a visit from Lady Ambermere, an intime from Riseholme.”     

“How pleasant for you,” remarked an impressed Algernon Wyse, bowing first to Lucia, then Georgie and finally roughly in the direction of Riseholme, “And what is the purpose of Her Ladyship’s happy visit?”   

“You may know Mr Wyse that dear Cornelia Ambermere is related to Georgie by marriage, since his mother was a Bartlett. Her Ladyship has been asked to open the new Museum in Brinton on Saturday and will be using us as a base for the weekend, as well as reviving family ties.”   

Wishing to avoid having to divulge the nature of the new Museum, Georgie continued apace,” We are hoping to entertain her to dinner at 'Mallards House’ on Saturday evening and will be issuing invitations shortly.”    

“Don’t get excited Diva. I don’t for a minute expect we will be invited,” remarked Irene bitterly, “I’m much too dangerous and you’re far too dull.” 

“Don’t say that Irene,” chided Lucia, after mentally commending her for the prescience of her prediction.    

“Of course all will depend if Lady Ambermere is disengaged that evening” explained Georgie.   

“You mean , provided the old dear doesn’t get a better offer of a free meal from someone more important,” commented Irene sarcastically, “Anyway, I’m bored with this . If I’m not getting an invite, let’s play some bridge.”    


“Very well, Irene” said Lucia, “Now, qui donne?” 


  

On the morning of the Tilling Ladies' Luncheon Club excursion to London, Leofric Plaistow parked his open charabanc outside the Trader's Arms, as had become traditional for outings from the town.

President, Lucia Pillson and Secretary, Diva Plaistow sat in the front seat and ticked-off members arriving on her official Presidential list.

The sub-text of this  exercise, as all members  knew only too well, was to ensure that banned Florence and Nellie Twistevant did not sneak on board surreptitiously.

The hubbub of whispered conversation grew as the charabanc filled and concerned only the possible appearance of  the Twistevants.  It  turned into a group sigh of relief as the door was eventually closed at 8.30 a.m promptly and the coach pulled slowly away.

In stark contrast to the previous outing of the Club, this one began with quiet and demure behaviour. No popular songs were sung, off-colour  jokes told or hipflasks passed around. Merriment was in  short supply.

This year, the keynote was respectability and restraint and the refreshment break outside Bromley  was uneventful with no untoward behaviour or embarrassing incidents. There were no breakages, arguments, complaints, intoxication, arrests or even police cautions.  On this occasion the ladies all returned promptly to the charabanc, which set off on its way to London promptly.

Assisted by the punctuality and good behaviour of his passengers, Mr Plaistow made such good progress that the charabanc arrived in London half-an-hour early. Lucia was pleased to reward the party extra time for shopping in the West End before a group luncheon at Lyons Corner House, beginning at one 'o clock sharp.

The meal was enjoyed by all and conversation grew more animated as one course succeeded another and pleasant anticipation of the performance and seeing Ivor Novello grew. 

At two' o clock with Lucia and Diva at the head and Susan and Evie monitoring the rear,  a crocodile of the ladies of Tilling Luncheon Club processed like obedient schoolgirls  from the Corner House to the historic portals of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.

With coats deposited in the cloakroom and programmes and every imaginable  form of confectionary purchased, the group took its seats in row F in the centre stalls.

All agreed that the seats were excellent and excitement mounted as the time for the curtain-up approached. Several  of the Tilling contingent and indeed the rest of the audience observed that the chandelier above the Royal Box above was illuminated and a hum of conjecture went about the auditorium as to whether today's performance would be honoured by the presence of a member of the Royal Family.  
Several theories as to likely attendees  emerged. It was known that Queen Mary enjoyed the musical theatre as did the Duke and Duchess of York.

"I do hope it's them; I would so love to see young Elizabeth  and Margaret Rose," enthused Evie Bartlett

"So sweet," agreed Lucia, not generally known for warm maternal sentiment.

Most excitement, however, was occasioned by the possibility that the new King might be present.

"His Majesty has been so busy since his Accession and must be in need of an afternoon's relaxation," remarked Diva  Plaistow.

"As someone so recently honoured by His Late Majesty, I naturally concur," said Susan Wyse, absent-mindedly fingering the lapel  of her sable coat where her Order would be displayed, had she worn it.

As the lights in the auditorium dimmed for the performance, two figures were observed to have entered the Royal Box in the darkness. A buzz of conversation and sound of seats automatically rising took place, as half of the audience anticipated a Royal arrival and began to stand prior to the National Anthem.

All of a sudden as two middle-aged women stumbled forward in the gloom of the box, it dawned on the groundlings below that the performance was most definitely not being honoured by any member of the House of Windsor.




"Oh, good heavens it's the Twistevants!" cried Diva.

You're right, it's Florence and Nellie," added Susan.

"Oh my!" squeaked Evie.

Lucia remained seated and said nothing. It seemed best.

As their eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, Florence and Nellie leaned  over the edge of the box and peered at the Tilling ladies in the stalls below. As the overture began, the sisters bellowed "Yoohoo all!" and waved vigorously.     

  

"Good grief, did you see what they look like?" whispered Diva to Susan as the overture continued, "Just like grocers on an outing in those horrible  common hats and coats."

"Trying to be fair, you have to remember that's exactly what the Twistevants are -'grocers,'" replied Susan Wyse.

Their whispered conversation was curtailed by several hissed "Ssshhh's" and an irritated "Do be quiet" from neighbouring members of the audience and the Tilling ladies settled down to enjoy the performance  with occasional upwards glances to monitor what was transpiring in the Royal Box. 

"More of a tea chest or orange box than the Royal Box today, if you ask me ," though Diva bitterly  and consoled her-self with several pieces of nougat chocolate.

By the interval, the Tillingites  in the audience were entranced with the spectacle of "Careless Rapture" and full of praise for its stars.

"Ivor Novello is so handsome," sighed Evie.

"As well as being enormously talented," enthused Susan, "And Dorothy Dickson is so beautiful and sings divinely" feeling herself uniquely qualified to judge on account of her own vocal talent as evidenced by her own rendition of "La Ci Darem" which she felt deserved its near-legendary status in musical circles in Tilling.

"I notice Florence and Nellie have now left the Royal Box," said Evie, adding charitably, "Do  you think they have been discovered and thrown out?"

"Who knows?"said Lucia, "But this is a free country and we can't prevent them going to the theatre when and where they wish, even if it is the same performance as us. Let us all enjoy the performance ladies and pray that they do not do anything this time to embarrass  us."

"Or to damage the good name of Tilling," added Evie at a never higher pitch than usual. 
 

As the final curtain fell there was a tumultuous standing ovation with four or five curtain calls. Lucia and her ladies then collected first themselves and then their coats from the cloakroom.


Do we have enough time before catching the charabanc to go to the Stage Door to see if Ivor and Dorothy appear and possibly give autographs?" asked Diva.


"Oh yes please, may we?" urged Evie, who was also quite taken with the leading actor. He is Welsh, you know,"she explained, as though this fact explained all, "Such a sensitive and artistic people."


"Very well," said Lucia, not entirely convinced by Evie's Cambriophilia or even whether such a term for "love of the Welsh" actually existed, "We do have twenty minutes before we really must set off for the Crystal Palace. Pray continue ladies."  

   
The Tilling contingent joined the keen  throng of theatregoers and autograph hunters crowded around the Stage Door in an alley at the rear of The Theatre Royal.

Excited chatter swelled and fell as  members of the cast left the theatre singly or in small groups.  Some were asked to sign autographs and good-naturedly took time to chat with their admirers.

As time passed, tension grew as to the possible appearance of the stars. Some of the younger girls even began to chant, "We want Ivor!"

"Do you think Ivor will come out?"asked Evie clutching her programme and pen as hopefully as any teenager in the crowd.

"I wonder what Dorothy will be wearing?"wondered  Susan, ignoring  Evie's  question entirely,"Oh look, here comes  someone!"

As she spoke, the Stage Door opened and  amidst the repeated flash, click and pop press photographers,  two figures emerged. The beginnings  a cheer from the crowd mutated almost immediately into a dispirited groan as it became clear that the pair were most certainly not "our darling Ivor" or "dear sweet Dorothy."

"Oh no, it's them again!"squeaked Evie, positively bat-like in disappointment.




"Not Florence and Nellie?"asked Susan, struggling to see clearly for want of her spectacles.

"Oh yes. And Florence is carrying a huge bottle of something. They seem to be dancing about, if you can call it that," answered Lucia disapprovingly.

Spotting the group from Tilling amongst the crowd of onlookers, Florence and Nellie waved gaily and scampered over to join them. 

"Hello, girls. Enjoy the show?"asked Florence cheerfully.

"We've just been to see lovely Ivor and Dotty in their dressing rooms. They're both so nice!"enthused Nellie.

"But how on earth did you manage that?" asked Diva.

"Oh you know, our Harold sorted it through the Masons," replied Florence with a hugely irritating casualness, "He's in the same Lodge as the Manager here. He asks him if there are any tickets left for today. The Manager says, 'None at all', so our Harold says, 'Is the King coming?' and the Manager says 'No, he's not', so Harold says 'Good, so our Flossie and Nell can have the Royal Box then' and the Manager says, 'Fair enough, but you owe me one'. And our Harold says, 'Done, brother' and that was that!  So, here we are and Bob's your uncle!" 
   
 "How fortunate," replied  Lucia, in a positively glacial tone.

"And what is that?" asked Susan, pointing at a large bottle, apparently of spirits in Florence's hand.

"The biggest bottle of vodka, you've ever seen," enthused Florence, "It was on a trolley in Ivor's dressing room. I wanted a little souvenir, so here it is!"

"You mean you stole it?"asked Lucia in her best magisterial tone.

"Just a souvenir to remember lovely Ivor by, dearie," replied Florence.  

Lucia, who loathed this abominably familiar appellation even more than "Lulu" employed by Elizabeth Mapp-Flint specifically to annoy her,  was for once struck dumb with pure irritation.

"Ivor is filthy rich and a lovely generous man; I'm sure he didn't mind," continued  Florence, "Anyway, we can't stand here chatting with you lot all night. We must be off. Toodle-oo!"

"TTFN all! Abyssinia!"shouted Nellie  as the sisters disappeared hand-in-hand towards Drury Lane in the early-evening gloom.

"Well!" said Lucia,  mortified.

"I cannot believe what I have just heard," moaned Diva, "They went into Ivor Novello's dressing room and stole his vodka."

"But they did meet Ivor. They could even have touched him," said Evie, dreamily.

"Really Evie; the sooner we get you back to Tilling the better, I think,"said Lucia,"Let us go and find our charabanc. The Crystal  Palace awaits!"  


As Leofric Plaistow weaved his charabanc through the streets of London away from Drury Lane toward the Thames, the sole topic of conversation on board was the Twistevant twins.

"But how did they get there?" asked Diva,"And fancy letting that pair in the Royal Box, of all places!" raged Diva.

"I dread to think what impression they now have of Tilling," remarked Lucia sadly.

"Yes indeed!" squeaked Evie. Her further remarks concerning the Twistevants were at a register so high as to be heard only by dogs and certain species of bats.

Well ladies, at least we still have our exclusive guided tour of the Crystal Palace to enjoy," observed Lucia, trying to lift the mood.

The charabanc sped across London Bridge and on through the suburbs of South London towards Penge Common where the great glass edifice which had housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 had been relocated.

The ladies of Tilling were naturally impressed as the glass and metal wonder that was the Crystal Palace loomed up before them on Sydenham Hill.   

They disembarked and waited by the charabanc as their President went in search of the guide for their tour.   
   
As Lucia strode off, the sharp-eyed Evie Bartlett emitted yet another high-pitched squeal and pointed excitedly to a vehicle approaching them at considerable speed across the large car-park, now empty save for their charabanc.   

"It's not, is it?" cried Evie.

"It is I'm afraid.  It's Florence and Nellie again," answered Diva, "I don't think our President will be too pleased!"




As Diva spoke a motor cycle and side car pulled up with a squeal of brakes next to them. Florence, wearing a dashing crash helmet, drove, whilst Nellie in a leather pilot's cap sat in the side-car clutching the bottle filched from Drury Lane, as if nursing a baby.

"At least now we know how they managed to make it up to London," whispered Susan to Diva.

"Hello again girls!" beamed Florence, "We have booked for the grand guided tour too. We hope you don't mind if we tag along?"

"We shall have to see what our President says," replied Diva testily, "Oh look, here she is." 

Taking in the latest development in a single glance Lucia bowed to the inevitable,"I don't see that we can reasonably stop you from taking the tour if you choose to. However, Florence and Nellie, I would ask you as a favour to us all not to do anything to spoil our tour  or bring shame to Tilling. My members have been so looking forward to it."   

We promise to behave, Mrs Pillson," chorused the sisters and Lucia simply nodded.

"Then off we go," said the Guide, "Kindly follow me."      
   
The ladies of Tilling trailed after their guide all looking forward to their exclusive tour of the otherwise empty building.  

Fact after fact was shared with the group concerning the building from its inception and construction to its relocation and onwards to the present day.  

The ladies viewed original design drawings and heard of the huge success of the Great Exhibition in 1851.    
   
They were encouraged to imagine themselves as Queen Victoria on the arm of her beloved Prince Albert, so proud to be shown what many regarded as her husband’s brainchild.    

The were interested to see Edward Milner’s designs for the Italian Gardens,  the Great Maze and English landscape gardens and to walk around each of his creations.   
   
Susan Wyse speculated how well the statuary, urns and tazzas would fit into the garden at “Starling Cottage.”   

Evie admitted to being a little frightened by the thirty three life-sized models of newly discovered dinosaurs and other extinct animals in the park.    

After viewing vaulted gallery after vaulted gallery in the enormous cast iron and glass structure, and walking what felt like miles, the attentive crocodile of the bloom of Tilling had stretched.   

Still at the front, Lucia and her intimes kept pace with their Guide and bombarded him with perceptive questions about all aspects of the edifice.   

Keenness diminished down the file of ladies.    
   
Although they began with the best of intentions, the stamina  of Florence and Nellie Twistevant eventually flagged, so that all too soon they were relegated to the vanguard at the rear of the column and eventually became detached.   

“My plates are killing me, Floss,” moaned Nellie, “Do you think we could stop for a bit?”   

“I was hoping you’d say that, Sis,” replied Florence, “I’m dying for a sit down and a ciggie; how about it?”    

“Good–o” said Nellie, “We need a break after all this culture. Fancy a drink too? I left our bag with Ivor’s vodka in the Ladies over there. Shall we?”     
 
“Don’t mind if I do, Nell!” said Florence, who needed no further persuasion. And they did.   


  
Two or so hours later, a small crowd waited outside the Traders' Arms as  Leofric Plaistow parked the charabanc and the Tilling Ladies’ Luncheon club disembarked.    

“How nice of you to take the trouble to come and greet us, Georgie,” said Lucia, “Have you been waiting long?”   

“Not at all, Lucia,” he replied, “Having just heard the news bulletin on the wireless, we were all a little worried.”    

“Why on earth is that, Georgie?”    

“Apparently there is a huge fire tonight at the Crystal Palace. By the sound of it, it is still alight, as we speak.”  

“No!” exclaimed Lucia, Diva, Susan and Evie in unison.   

“It is a huge conflagration apparently” explained Georgie, “The BBC say they called 89 fire engines and over 400 firemen to fight the blaze, but it doesn’t look like they will be able to save the building. They say the glow is visible across eight counties. That’s why we were worried, in case you were caught in the fire. We’re so relieved you are safe!”   

“Thank you Georgie, but you can see that we’re all fit and well.” Lucia replied, “ As you can tell, we didn’t even know there was a fire. By the time we arrived it was virtually empty.”   

“And ours was the last tour of the day,” said Susan.    

“Just us and the Twistevant sisters, who seemed to tag along all day,” added Diva.   

“I will explain later, Georgie,” confided Lucia, in an aside.    

“We seemed to lose sight of them during the tour,” explained Evie, “And they made their way home on their motor cycle and side car. Look, you can see it’s parked over there outside their shop.”      

“So now we know we have all returned safely,” said Lucia, “I think we have all had quite enough excitement for one day and should now return to our homes, don’t you Ladies? I am sure that we all want to listen-in on the wireless to hear the latest news of the fire.”   


All agreed and, after a round of farewells, went their separate ways.  

Leofric’s charabanc drove off in the direction of Brinton and the High Street was silent once more. 
   


Next morning, the only topic of conversation on the streets of Tilling was naturally the great fire at the Crystal Palace and the close brush with death and disaster of the ladies of its Luncheon Club.  

It was reported that the whole world had been shocked by the fiery end of the Crystal Palace and that over a hundred thousand people had gone to Sydenham Hill to watch it's death throes. 

Observers of the inferno included Winston Churchill, who was reported to have said, "This is the end of an age."

Following her exertions yesterday, Lucia Pillson had decided to not to join in the marketing hour  in the High Street that morning.

In any event, she had received an early telephone call from Mr Meriton of the "Hastings Chronicle" asking if she was willing to give an exclusive interview following her "near immolation at the Crystal Palace the last evening." 

Naturally disinclined though she was to court personal attention or publicity, Lucia thought that it behove her "as Mayor and Chief Magistrate of the town to give Tilling's civic perspective upon this event of national and even global importance."
 

When a knock came at the door Lucia was surprised to find her visitor  was not Mr Meriton but Inspector Morrison.

"What can I do for you Inspector?"

"I have been asked by my colleagues in Penge to interview all members of your Club who visited the Crystal Palace in case they can cast any light on what caused the fire.  Yours was the last party of the day and it seems clear that the fire had certainly not started before your arrival. Thus your evidence may be of critical importance in finding out what happened. May we start with a list of everyone on the trip?"

"Of course, Inspector. Let us go to my study and I will give it to you immediately."

"Thank you, Mrs Pillson, now may we review the sequence of events from your arrival at the Crystal Palace?"

Lucia then explained how upon arrival she had gone to locate their  Guide for the visit and that upon her return to the charabanc she had found that Florence and Nellie Twistevant had arrived on their motor cycle and side car . 


"They begged to be allowed to come with our group on the tour and to be honest I couldn't see any way of stopping them. It wasn't even really up to me, it was up to the Tour Guide. So I agreed, provided they promised to behave themselves."


"And were the sisters with you for the whole tour, Mrs Pillson?"


"No, Inspector. They seemed to get tired and lose interest and dropped behind. We didn't see them for the rest of the tour."


Lucia pointed to a location on a diagram of the interior of the building at which the Twistevants were last seen by her group.


"I see, Mrs Pillson. Do you have any means of knowing what they may have done after leaving you?"


"I'm afraid not; we didn't see them again. "

As the Inspector wrote in his notebook, Lucia took a deep breath and continued, "As you know only too well from my time on the Bench, Inspector, I refuse to jump to conclusions, but I must draw what may be salient facts to your attention. First, they were seen to arrive at the Crystal Palace with a very large bottle of vodka and secondly, they were both well known to be very heavy smokers. Thirdly, both were inclined to drink heavily when the opportunity arose and finally were  equally prone to what one might call 'carelessness' or even 'recklessness' when intoxicated. I will leave you to make of those points what you will."


"I see Mrs Pillson. Thank you for your lucid analysis; most helpful. It combines worryingly with the first reports from the scene of the fire."


"In what way, Inspector?"


"The forensic examiners have reported that the fire began in a small office after an explosion in the women's cloakroom nearby. I am concerned to hear that Florence and Nellie have taken a substantial quantity of highly flammable spirit into the building and were well known to be careless with matches and cigarettes. Furthermore,  the point at which they were last seen by your group was extremely close to the ladies' cloakroom which was thought to be the seat of the fire."  
  

"It does look rather damning, but is essentially  circumstantial evidence without the support of a credible witness or confession, is it not Inspector?"


"Indeed, Mrs Pillson, exactly right. If you will excuse me,  I really must go and interview Florence and Nellie Twistevant as a matter of urgency."


"I  fear they will simply deny any involvement."


" I must do my duty, Mrs Pillson, although like  you, I fear the interview is unlikely to bring us anywhere nearer the truth of what happened last night."


I  do sympathise with you Inspector.  I have tried to deal with Florence and Nellie several times and invariably failed. I am horrified that they may have caused this terrible event, but are so unlikely to be brought to justice."


"So it seems," agreed the Inspector


"I do now know that there is one thing that I can and must  do, Inspector."


"And what is that, Ma'am?"


"Since I clearly am powerless to prevent the Twistevants from trespassing on our excursions,  bringing  shame upon the good name of Tilling and endangering the public,  I am going to disband the Club forthwith."


"You will appreciate that I have no standing to comment officially on such a  private civil matter," remarked the Inspector, "But I would go so far as to say to you as the husband of  a member and resident of  the town, that were I in your position, I would do exactly the same thing."


"Thank you Inspector. I appreciate you need to go to see Florence and Nellie. I hope it goes as well as it can."


When the Inspector had left, Lucia telephoned Mr Meriton  and cancelled her  interview, "owing to unforeseen  circumstances." 


   
Within the hour Lucia answered the telephone in the Garden Room at “Mallards House,”"Hello Inspector Morrison. How did your interview with the Twistevant sisters go?”  
  
“I’m not surprised to have to report that I have not been able to speak to them, Mrs Pillson.”  
“Why ever not?  They definitely returned to Tilling. They arrived back before we did. We saw the motor cycle outside the shop last night.”   

“When I arrived at his premises, Mr Twistevant told me that Florence and Nellie had been called away urgently. He didn’t say what their business was, where they were going or how long they would be away.”  

“I imagined something like this might happen. The Twistevants are hardly inexperienced in evading the arm of the law. I do not expect we will be seeing or hearing of either of them for a very long time - if ever.”   

“So it looks as though the history books are destined only to record that the great fire, which  destroyed the Crystal Palace, started with a small explosion in the ladies' cloakroom,” commented the Inspector.

“And that ‘the cause of the explosion was unknown,’” added Lucia, “It’s Cleopatra’s Nose all over again really, isn’t it?”   

“Excuse me, Mrs Pillson, I don’t understand. ‘Cleopatra’s what?”   

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be obscure, Inspector. Blaise Pascal once said centuries ago ‘Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.’ So, in other words supremely trifling things can have a huge effect.”   

“Yes, indeed, Mrs Pillson, important events are often the result of  inconsequential things or the acts of  even more inconsequential people. In this instance however, History will not record the truth that our most striking monument to the great Victorian Age was actually destroyed by ‘two tipsy sisters from Tilling’ and something as  prosaic as 'spilled vodka and a dropped cigarette.'"  

"Well put, Inspector, so you see that as well as ‘Cleopatra’s nose,’ we now have ‘Ivor Novello’s vodka!’”   

“Absolutely Ma’am,” laughed the Inspector, “I wanted to let you know what happened, but I know you have a busy day ahead and will let you get on.”    

“How did you know that?” queried Lucia.  

“I received a letter from Ambermere Hall a few days ago.”   

“From Miss Lyall?”   

“Indeed. Apparently her Ladyship is concerned to increase the vigilance of my force during her visit to ensure both her own personal safety and security from Bolshevik attack and to safeguard certain priceless items, being loaned for display at the new museum in Brinton.”   

“Ah yes, the royal undergarments,” laughed Lucia, “And how did you respond Inspector? I trust you showed due concern, and indeed gravitas, in your reply?”   

“Naturally Ma’am. I responded promptly that all of the known Bolshevik assassins in Brinton would be kept under strictest surveillance throughout the visit and that the security of Lady Ambermere’s heirlooms would be our very highest priority."   

Resisting the urge to coin the term “heirblooms” in respect of the royal drawers, Lucia commented, “So in effect you will be doing what might be called 'nothing whatsoever', Inspector?”  

“Assiduously, Ma’am,” replied the Inspector.”I do hope Lady Ambermere’s visit goes smoothly. Good day.”   

“Thank you Inspector, good day,” she replied, putting down the receiver,” Now I really must check with cook, Grosvenor and Foljambe whether all preparations are in hand for today’s royal visit.”
   


At three ‘o clock Lady Ambermere’s Rolls Royce pulled up outside “Mallards House.”   
  
Five cases were piled on the rack  at the rear and bizarrely a large old-fashioned bath chair in wicker and cast iron was strapped to the roof.  

Georgie and Lucia Pillson stood patiently at the top of the steps outside their front door waiting to greet their distinguished visitor.  

Jenkins, the chauffeur and Miss Lyall jumped from their places in the front to open the passenger door and offer help to Lady Ambermere.   
   
After several minutes struggle, her helpers succeeded in extracting their celebrated employer onto the pavement.  

With considerably more effort, Her Ladyship was manoeuvred up the steps and through the portals.  

With all concerned well past the first flush of youth, this exercise induced considerable wheezing and panting. It seemed best therefore to deposit the aged visitor as near as possible to the front door to enable her to collect herself and for her staff to recover their breath. 
 

Welcome to Tilling, Your Ladyship," said Georgie, extending his hand.


Waving it away, Lady  Ambermere replied, "How do you do Mr Pillson. This seems a rather small house. I do hope that  there will  be sufficient room to accommodate me and my staff. Had I appreciated this, I could have taken up a long-standing offer from Lord Ardingly."


"Shame you didn't then," thought Georgie in silence.


"I am sure you will find it quite adequate for your short stay," said Lucia with gritted teeth.


"We shall have to see, Mrs. Pillson," replied Lady Ambermere suspiciously, "I am extremely tired after my journey from Riseholme  and would like to partake of  a cup of Darjeeling tea and three Rich Tea biscuits before resting for three hours.  I think Miss Lyall wrote to you detailing my requirements regarding beverages and foodstuffs?"


"Yes, indeed, thank you," said Georgie, "We do think a great deal of our cook and believe that you will share our enthusiasm,"


"Again, we shall just have to see, will we not?" she replied icily, "Perhaps you will kindly show me to my bedroom. Come along,  do stop  daydreaming Miss Lyall, I shall require  your assistance with the stairs. Unlike those at Ambermere  Hall , they do appear dangerously steep her. Give me your arm.  I do hope that  I will not fall. How disappointed they will be in Brinton if  I am injured and unable to do them the honour of opening their little museum tomorrow."


"Pray let me lead the way, Lady Ambermere," replied Lucia, directing a meaningful look towards  her husband, which he knew only too well signified raging unspoken  fury.


Lady Ambermere retired to the best guest bedroom.


She made no inquiries about arrangements for her staff other than to instruct that no fire was to be lit in Miss Lyall's bedroom, since none was provided for her at Ambermere Hall and she did not wish to increase her expectations as to the level of comfort to be provided to staff.


Upon entering the guest room, she raised immediate objection to the cut flowers  on display,  "Mrs Pillson. I do not care for white chrysanthemums or red carnations. They befit only a gipsy wedding, funeral or sickroom. Pray remove them forthwith."


Instead of joining her hosts for a dinner that they had gone to considerable trouble to prepare, Lady Ambermere decreed  that she was too  tired after  her journey to dress and come down to dinner.


She instructed Miss Lyall to advise Mr and Mrs Pillson that, "I require something simple  on a tray in my room. Please advise my hosts that I do not insist them to go to any trouble: a morsel of foie gras and some lightly sautéed  lobster will be adequate with figs or a white peach or two to follow.  A simple white burgundy such as Puligny Montrachet, thoroughly chilled,  will be adequate accompaniment."


Somewhat taken aback her hosts found it simpler to acquiesce to her demands and enjoyed a delicious supper a deux. 



Next morning, Lady Ambermere found it more convenient to breakfast in her room and required only freshly squeezed orange juice, kedgeree, poached haddock with scrambled eggs,  devilled kidneys and porridge.


After her light breakfast,  she set off with Miss Lyall to Brinton for the opening of "their little exhibition."


As Lady Ambermere's hostess and Mayor and Chief Magistrate of the neighbouring Borough of Tilling, Lucia had fully expected to be asked to attend the opening of the museum but no invitation had been forthcoming.


"I feel  as though we were running a cheap bed and breakfast establishment putting up travelling  salesmen for two shillings a night," remarked Lucia to Georgie as she watched her visitor's Rolls Royce draw away from "Mallards House..


"I know what you mean Lucia" sympathised Georgie, "But please do not let her upset you. You have been an exemplary hostess as ever and  her rudeness reflects badly on her and not on you,"


"Thank you Georgie, it is kind of you to say that. Her unremitting rudeness and ingratitude can eventually make one doubt oneself. It is very debilitating. How Miss Lyall manages to put-up with working for her every day, I cannot imagine."


"Courage mon brave," encouraged Georgie, "It is not like you to let creatures like her upset you. We must just get through dinner tonight - assuming, of course, that she bothers to turn up - and she will be going away after church and luncheon tomorrow. We must both grit our teeth and endure."


"Very well Georgie, I will try my hardest," replied Lucia, "Now I must discuss dinner with cook."   
   
In Brinton Lady Ambermere graciously opened the new Museum and its inaugural exhibition entitled, “Royal Intimate Apparel Though the Ages."

Upon doing so, she was pleased formally to present the Chairman of the Board with “a fine set of Queen Charlotte’s monogrammed linen bloomers to represent my  semi-permanent loan to the Museum.”  

In a lengthy speech in response, the Chairman thanked Lady Ambermere profusely for her generous  loan. He hoped that beautiful Brinton would soon become a national and indeed international centre for scholarly research into significant undergarments of the Royal Family. He earnestly hoped that it would play a significant part in increasing the understanding the role played by intimate apparel in the development of this noble island race.

The peroration was greeted with tumultuous applause by all present save for Lady Ambermere herself who, if truth were known, was more than slightly disappointed that the opportunity had not been taken to re-name the new institution “ The Lady Cornelia Ambermere National Museum of Royal Foundation Garments and Intimate Apparel.”   

In the light of this, Her Ladyship had determined that the semi-permanent loan would certainly be more "semi" than the Museum Board had ever anticipated.    

As these bitter thoughts remained unspoken in Lady Ambermere’s mind, the Chairman invited her to join him in a celebratory fork buffet in the boardroom.   

Whilst his proceeded, Miss Lyall sat outside in the Ambermere Rolls, next to the chauffeur, Jenkins.   

Since their employer had not thought fit to provide any lunch for her staff, Miss Lyall popped into the bakery opposite and bought sandwiches for herself and Jenkins out of her own pocket.   

“Thank you Miss Lyall; that was kind of you,”said Jenkins,"I was talking to Mr Cadman in the kitchen at “Mallards House” this morning. You know, he says Mrs Pillson always makes sure he has a packed lunch and flask for times when he’s waiting for her like this. Lady A never thinks of us, does she? It happens time and time again.”  

“I suppose she just forgot,” said Miss Lyall , nibbling her ham sandwich with her protruding molars, not unlike a hare chewing a lettuce leaf, "She has had a busy day and is getting on, don’t forget.”    

Jenkins continued to eat his sandwich in silence, but was not convinced. 


  

   
Lady Ambermere’s day had been mixed. Although sorely aggrieved that the Museum had not been re-named after her, she was gratified by the degree of deference displayed towards her in Brinton, which could not have been more pronounced had she been Queen Mary.  


She was also disappointed that no invitation to dine that evening had been received from Lord Ardingly, the Lord Lieutenant or anyone else of note in the county.   

Reluctantly, she conceded that it would be necessary to accept the invitation from her hosts to dine with them in their little house that evening.   

Miss Lyall was therefore dispatched at 6.30 to advise the Pillsons that “Her Ladyship was minded to do them the honour of dining at ‘Mallards House’ this evening.”

“Splendid" remarked Georgie with what can best be described as a “fixed expression”, “Kindly advise Her Ladyship that my wife, the Mayor, and I, very much look forward to seeing her for drinks with our other guests at 7.30 for 8.00pm. We do hope you will be joining us also, Miss Lyall?”   


“Me? Really? Oh thank you so much, Mr Pillson,”  she replied, eyes ablaze with gratitude and pleasure, “I would love to come.”   
   
Dinner guests began to arrive at “Mallards House” shortly after 7.45.   

Since the embarrassment over matching velvet dinner suits in ruby red, George  Pillson and Algernon Wyse had taken the precaution before all set piece social events in Tilling to liaise over their attire to avoid any  similar clash.   

It had been agreed tonight that Georgie should wear his favourite burgundy dress suit with matching amethyst studs and that Algernon might premiere a creation in brown velvet only lately received from his tailor in London.   

“Very smart, Mr Wyse,” remarked Georgie discreetly on his guest's arrival.  

“Thank you Mr Pillson, I am humbled by your generosity and reciprocate your kind remarks with great enthusiasm. A most stylish ensemble, I must say.”

Georgie Pillson blushed like a debutante receiving her first compliment at Queen Charlotte’s Ball, and added hastily,  "And if your husband will permit me, might I say you look particularly fetching this evening, Mrs Wyse. Would you like me to ask Foljambe to take your sables now; it is quite warm in here?”

Susan for once allowed her sables to be placed amongst the other, lesser cloaks, to reveal an evening gown in ivory satin with the insignia of her prized MBE displayed proudly in the centre of her formidable embonpoint.   


“Edward Molyneux?” asked Georgie, who was one of the few men (or indeed women) in Tilling with a subscription to “Vogue” and who knew these things, “Charming! Now who would care for an aperitif?”    
   
As the Wyses accepted the flutes of champagne proffered  by Foljambe, the Bartletts arrived and were welcomed by Lucia.   

This evening, the Padre was in full Highland brogue and both his hosts were fascinated and a little apprehensive as to what their guest of honour would make of the idiosyncrasy that Tilling had come to accept, if not particularly enjoy.    

“Aye, ‘tis a braw bricht moon-lit nicht tonicht , tha noos,” opened the Padre in pure Harry Lauder vein, before sipping his champagne whilst Evie Bartlett squeaked something enthusiastic but virtually inaudible.

Conversation amongst friends continued pleasantly and it was learned that nothing further had been heard from the Mapp-Flints in Maidstone.  

The door of the Garden Room then opened and the prow a large bath chair entered the room like the new RMS Queen Mary edging into its berth down the coast from Tilling in Southampton.   

It was followed by its incumbent Lady Ambermere and her companion (and pusher) Miss Lyall.   

“Good evening, Lady Ambermere, welcome!” beamed Georgie, “We are so glad you are able to join us this evening. Not forgetting Miss Lyall of course, who, if you will pardon me saying, is looking particularly ravishing tonight.”   

“Oh, Mr  Pillson really, how kind!” gushed Miss Lyall, tonight a vision in taupe cotton with a questionable fox-fur tippet, hiding her face behind a lace-gloved  hand.   

“That will be quite enough, Miss Lyall!” intoned her employer gravely, “Now kindly push my chair over to the bay window there, so that I may see the company in a better light.”   

“Of course, Lady Ambermere, immediately,” said her companion, utterly cowed.  

Airily waiving away the champagne offered, Lady Ambermere decreed, "I should like a pink gin and Miss Lyall will have a weak barley-water,” and remained silent looking out of the window drumming her fingers on the arm of her bath-chair until Foljambe returned with it. 

  
“May I introduce you to our guests?” asked Lucia. When Lady Ambermere merely nodded, she continued, "First, we have our dear  friends and neighbours, Susan and Algernon Wyse.”  
  
The Wyses stepped forward compliantly, as though in a royal receiving line, and shook the limply proferred Ambermere hand. 

“Not to be confused with the Ambermere Arms,” thought Georgie, distractedly and for no particular reason.   
   
"How do you do, Mr Wiseman,” said Lady Ambermere,  “I am pleased to see your people are now accepted in these elevated social circles in Tilling. Parts of Worcestershire are not yet quite so advanced.”   

“No, dear lady, you misheard,” wailed Algernon, quite perturbed, “My family name is Wyse – spelled 'WYSE' – an ancient and honourable Hampshire family – the Wyses of Whitchurch. Perchance you have heard of them?”  

“I am afraid I have not,” replied Lady Ambermere, waving her empty glass in the general direction of Foljambe, by way of request for further refreshment.   

 Foljambe did not like this at all, but complied.    

 “Oh dear,” thought Georgie.    

Sensing something of an impasse, Lucia decided it was opportune to introduce the Bartlett’s.  
 “Lady Ambermere, may I introduce our good friend and Padre, Reverend Kenneth Bartlett and his dear wife Evie?”   

“You may,” Her Ladyship replied, more cheerful since the arrival of her second pink gin, “How unusual to refer to your local clergyman as ‘Padre’ rather than ‘Vicar.’”  

“Aye, ‘tis been the way in Tilling for many a year now,” revealed the Padre in his broadest Scots.   

“Are you sure you are not appearing at the Music Hall rather than Tilling Church, Mr Bartlett?” asked Lady Ambermere, “I remember seeing Dan Leno there in the role of a humorous clergyman once. He spoke in all sorts of accents. I cannot say that I cared for it at all.”    

“Nay, Yer Leddyship. I am Vicar here. Just check Crockfords Clerical Directory and you will find me listed in black and white,” said the Padre, so irritated that his natural Birmingham accent was distinctly discernible for the first time in living memory.   

The Pillsons had hoped that the atmosphere would improve over a good dinner but were soon disappointed.   

Lady Ambermere did not find the fillets of sole to her taste, but allowed turbot to be substituted and, to the relief of her  hosts, raised no objection to Beef  Wellington, served medium rare with a fine vintage claret.    

Talk turned to holidays during the year and Algernon Wyse was more than pleased to direct conversation towards his sister Amelia, who he explained, "is married to the Cont di Faraglione in Capri."  

“The dear Contessa has enjoyed many happy visits with her brother and sister–in-law in Tilling in recent years and has often dined with us at this very table,” remarked Lucia pleasantly, hoping at last to steer the evening towards safer waters.   

Instead of following the lead of her hostess and charming her fellow guests, Lady Ambermere effectively dismissed their aristocratic relations and, in effect, the whole Italian nation, “Sadly excitable people, the Italians. So much noise and fuss and more tin-pot titles than you can shake a stick at. And none of it worth anything at all, if you ask me.”   

Expert though he was in Chesterfield terms, Algernon Wyse was wholly at a loss to frame a response in his usual suave and diplomatic way to such a contemptuous dismissal.    
  
For once defeated, he merely drank his claret in silence and exchanged meaningful glances with his wife, who still reeled from Her Ladyship’s earlier remarks.    

For Susan Wyse, already badly holed below the water line, the coup de grace came during dessert.   

She was encouraged by the thought that Lady Ambermere was actually complimenting her upon her striking evening gown in ivory satin, when she began, “A charming garment Mrs Wiseman,” but sadly continued, “But I always think that a darker tone is more flattering and indeed slimming for ladies of a certain age with a fuller  figure, don’t you?”   

This comment, as vicious as it was unprovoked,  elicited a suppressed gasp of horror around the table as the victim rose, saying, “Please excuse me” and left the dining room.   

Algernon Wyse also excused himself and rushed to assist his wife.   

“I trust Mrs Wiseman is not unwell,” observed Lady Ambermere, entirely oblivious to the havoc her remarks had wrought, “Now Miss Lyall, please make yourself useful and prepare a peach or two for my dessert. They do not appear as fresh and sweet as those we grow at Ambermere Hall, but needs must.”     


Glancing at Georgie, Lucia suggested, ”Now might  be a convenient time for the ladies to retire for a short time to allow the gentlemen to enjoy their port and cigars?”    

“Of course, Lucia,” Georgie replied as he and the Padre stood to allow the remaining ladies to take their leave.    

Miss Lyall, whose adoring gaze had hardly left Georgie throughout the evening, appeared downcast to have to leave his presence, but obligingly pushed her mistress in her bath chair to the Garden Room.  

As the ladies settled themselves for coffee, Grosvenor entered and spoke to Lucia, “Mr Wyse sends his compliments Ma’am, but Mrs Wyse is unwell with a severe migraine and must return immediately to ‘Starling Cottage.’ Naturally he has accompanied her and sends his apologies and thanks to you and Mr Pillson for your kind hospitality.”   

“Thank you, Grosvenor,” replied Lucia, “Please be good enough to advise Mr Georgie that Mr Wyse will not be rejoining him and the Padre this evening.”    

When Grosvenor had carried out her instruction, the Padre thanked his host for “an interesting evening” and remarked that, since the hour was advanced, he and Evie should be returning to the Vicarage. For once, he appeared to have lost the urge to express himself through any particular regional dialect.   

“I understand completely Padre,” said Georgie, “Let us go to the Garden Room to see if Mrs Bartlett is ready to depart."  

When the Bartlett's had left and Miss Lyall had assisted Lady Ambermere to her bedroom, Lucia and Georgie also climbed the stairs..  

Pausing on the landing, Georgie commented, “Well Lucia, what a terrible evening. Never, ever again; that is the last time I ever wish to indulge in social engineering.”  

“I agree entirely Georgie. It is clear that Lady Ambermere and our friends in Tilling are oil and water; they simply do not mix. Tonight she has ridiculed Algernon’s family and Susan’s beloved decoration and new gown. She has mocked the Padre as a music hall turn and has also found time to be scathing about virtually every aspect of our hospitality.”       

“I feel belittled and guilty that we subjected our friends to this. I do hope they will forgive us,” said Georgie.  

“We have quite a lot to make up to them, Georgie. We must start to try as soon as Her Ladyship leaves for Riseholme.”      

“The sooner the better. Goodnight, Lucia.”    
    
In the morning Miss Lyall advised that her mistress was "indisposed and would not be joining her hosts for breakfast."  Lady Ambermere would make do with something simple on a tray and would accompany her hosts to church later in the morning.     

“That is something of a relief,” said Lucia when Miss Lyall had gone, without looking up from her newspaper.   

“I think ‘indisposed’ means ‘hung over,’” remarked Georgie, “Foljambe told me this morning. Last night Lady Ambermere drank five pink gins and two bottle of my best claret.”     

“It really doesn’t do to upset Foljambe, does it, Georgie?”    


“Not at all, Lucia, not at all.”




As its clock began to strike ten, Georgie and Lucia Pillson approached the church in Tilling with Lady Ambermere in her bath chair,  pushed by Miss Lyall.  

Over the mossy cobbles, this was hard work and even after a few yards Miss Lyall was breathing quite heavily.  

Normally, friends gathered in front  of the west wing to pass the time of day before the service before entering the church together.

This morning however, upon seeing the approach of the Mayor and her party, the Wyses, Evie Bartlett and diva Plaistow scuttled into the porch without any of the usual pleasantries. 

“How strange” remarked Lucia, “I wonder why they did not wait for us as usual?”   

“After last night, I think we know why,” replied Georgie, inclining his head meaningfully towards Lady Ambermere.   

“Pray let us enter, Miss Lyall,” interjected Lady Ambermere, "It is a little cool this morning. I do not wish to catch  a chill,”

Miss Lyall obediently pushed her employer down the aisle and parked it in a prominent position immediately in front of the altar.  

“It resembles a coffin with the dear-departed at a funeral service, don’t you think? whispered Susan Wyse, apparently recovered from her ordeal of the previous evening.   

“Indeed, Susan” replied Algernon, “But I suspect this may not be Lady Ambermere’s final journey.”

“We  can but hope,” replied Susan, enjoying the ambiguity of her  riposte. 

That morning’s service passed relatively painlessly with a lively and topical sermon from the Padre following the end of British Summer Time.  

He railed about the continuation of the unnatural practice of  daylight saving imposed by the intrusive Mr Lloyd George during the War. Many in the audience nodded throughout to signify their agreement.   

Although the Padre had bidden farewell to his other parishioners in his normal way, he had mysteriously absented himself by the time that the Pillsons reached the door of the church.   

They hastened outside to meet their friends and engage in conversation as was their usual practice, but only caught a brief glimpse of the Wyses and Diva Plaistow walking briskly away in the direction of “Starling Cottage.”  

“I do believe that they have all cut us, Georgie,” said Lucia.   

“Hopefully we can see them all during marketing tomorrow to rebuild some bridges?” suggested Georgie.

“In the meantime, perhaps we might take make the best of the morning and take a short turn about the centre of the town before returning to ‘Mallards House’ for luncheon, Lady Ambermere?” asked Lucia.   

“That would be quite agreeable, Mrs Pillson,” she replied, “Chop, chop,  pray hurry up, Miss Lyall, do let us proceed before the rain begins.”      
   
The Mayor of Tilling and her consort then took Lady Ambermere on a short walking tour of those parts of the picturesque centre of Tilling accessible by bath chair.   

This included the Town Hall and Council Chamber where the Civic  Plate was laid out for inspection by the Mayor and her honoured guest.   
  
Next came the Ypres Tower and the Tilling Institute with its Emmeline Pillson Wing, where the gallery currently offered an exhibition by the celebrated local artist Irene Coles, RA.  

They then  proceeded to the Belvedere with its antique canon and panoramic views over the Sussex countryside to the sea.  

To conclude the tour Lucia, wished to show Lady Ambermere more evidence of her largesse towards the town.   
  
The ancient flight of steep stone steps next to the church, recently refurbished at Lucia’s expense, gave a stunning view of the grove of blossoming almond trees,  the planting of which had, as Mr Meriton  of the “Hastings Chronicle had put it , “been generously funded by the Mayor of Tilling and chatelaine of  the epicentre of civic affairs, ‘Mallards House,’ Mrs Emmeline Pillson.’”   

Miss Lyall wheeled Lady Ambermere in her bath chair to the very top of the steps which cascaded with authentic medieval steepness to the foot of the town wall many feet below.   

From this eyrie, her employer was able to take in the completed renovation to the stonework and the freshly planted trees spilling down the precipitous grassy slopes to the ancient walls and beyond.   

Interested to check on the quality of the stonemason's work and to check on the health of  “her” almond saplings, Lucia strode down the steps some yards ahead and below the rest of the group.   

Suddenly and without warning, the heavy bath chair together with its formidable passenger sped forward out of control and plunged down the steep steps.  

Miss Lyall screamed and Lady Ambermere emitted an ear-shatteringly loud howl of purest terror as the mass of wicker, cast iron and elderly passenger flew through the air.    


“Watch out Lucia!” cried Georgie, as the bath chair gathered speed down the slope.   
   
Lucia turned around but looked up too late to avoid the collision as the flying bath chair struck her a glancing blow.   

The Mayor of Tilling was propelled head over heels to the foot of the steps where she lay motionless and silent.  

Diverted onto the grassy slope, the bath chair continued its headlong descent with its screaming passenger until it eventually collided with a zinc horse trough and Lady Ambermere splashed to a watery halt.  

“Help me, help me, I cannot swim”,” she bawled.   


At the top of the steps Georgie and Miss Lyall stared at the carnage below, open- mouthed and catatonic.  
  
Suddenly the awfulness of events dawned upon them and they rushed down to attend to the casualties.     
  
Within minutes the foot of the Church Steps was crowded as by-passers including an off-duty Police Sergeant rushed to assist and ambulances were called.   

Still unconscious, Lucia was carried away on a stretcher as was a loudly protesting Lady Ambermere.

Deeply concerned about his wife, Georgie boarded the ambulance after her and looked around for Miss Lyall in the crowd.  

Since she was no-where to be seen, he assumed she had gone with her mistress in the other ambulance.   

Within the hour, both ladies had reached Tilling hospital and  been thoroughly examined, X –rayed and admitted.

Lady Ambermere was unscathed apart from severely bruising. Given her age and general infirmity, however it was deemed appropriate to keep her in hospital for observation for a few days.

Georgie was relieved to learn that Lucia had regained consciousness shortly after admission and appeared to have fully recovered her faculties, although monitoring for concussion required to be continued. 

Her injuries were less extensive than originally feared and apart from a broken collar bone  consisted only of a badly sprained ankle, cuts and bruises.   

“Given the force with which Mrs Pillson was struck by such a heavy object moving so fast she was extremely fortunate not to have been much more seriously injured,” remarked the senior consultant.”  

“And the same applies to Lady Ambermere, I suppose?” remarked  Georgie,  

“Yes, indeed, Mr Pillson.”

I was also understood that the bath chair was damaged beyond repair by the collisions.  

Later that afternoon, when the medical treatment for the day had been completed and both patients were resting as comfortably as they might in the circumstances, Inspector Morrison and Georgie entered the small side room  in Women’s Surgical Ward where Lucia’s bed was located.   

“Good afternoon, Mrs Pillson,” said the Inspector on entering and placing his leather gloves in his cap under his arm, “I wanted to call in to see how you were and to update you upon events. This is entirely dependant upon whether you feel up to seeing me and Mr Pillson’s view upon the matter.”  

“Thank you for your consideration Inspector,” said Lucia sitting up in bed with her injured arm in a sling and a white lace bed coat over her shoulders. Pray continue. Don’t you agree Georgie?”   

“Of course Lucia, the decision is entirely yours, but you must be careful not to overtire yourself. Do please remember what the consultant said.”   

“Thank you both,” said Inspector Morrison, I will try to be brief. You recall that Miss Lyall appeared to absent herself from the scene of your unfortunate incident on the Church Steps today?”    

“Yes, Inspector. One moment  she was standing next to me helping Lady Ambermere, whilst I attended to Lucia and the next she had disappeared completely. Whatever happened to her?”    

“Well Mr Pillson, an hour or so later one of my constables found her standing in the rain by the bus stop in the High Street, clutching her portmanteau.”  



“Miss Lyall must have been very upset by the shocking accident earlier, Inspector. Is there really anything untoward with that?”   

“In normal circumstances, not at all Ma’am," replied the Inspector,  "But it was immediately clear to my constable that all was not right with Miss Lyall."

“How?” Georgie asked.

“Miss Lyall was humming Mendelssohn's 'Wedding March' and kept repeating, ‘Now that Lucia is dead, I’m going to marry my dear, dear Georgie at last and we shall be together forever. I’m going to Brinton to buy my wedding dress.”  

“Oh dear,” said Georgie.  

“Poor Miss Lyall,” added Lucia.  

“The police surgeon is of the opinion that Miss Lyall has snapped completely and is in a state of complete delusion. And I’m afraid the position is even worse than that.”   

“You mean, it wasn’t an accident?” asked Georgie perceptively.

“So it seems,  if we can believe what Miss Lyall is now suggesting. She says that on the spur of the moment, she pushed Lady Ambermere's bath chair down the steps with the specific intention of hitting and killing Mrs Pillson. The fact that it might also remove Lady Ambermere, whom she had hated for years was, and I quote, 'just an added bonus.'”  

“Good heavens,” said Georgie, “So you really mean that Miss Lyall was really trying to kill my wife using Lady Ambermere in her bath chair as a weapon, just so that she could marry me?”    

“I’m afraid so, Mr Pillson. I have been thinking of any number of charges that might be appropriate, ranging upwards from careless or dangerous driving of the bath chair. This by the way, would be problematic since the incident did not take place on the public highway. Then we have Grievous Bodily Harm."

"What about 'Assault with a Deadly Bath chair' or even 'Deadly Dowager?'" asked Georgie, trying, and failing, to lighten the mood.

"Most amusing, Mr Pillson," lied the Inspector, continuing,"Most seriously, we have 'Attempted Murder', since she has freely admitted that she was trying to kill Mrs Pillson to secure her husband for herself. Miss Lyall was also reckless as to whether she killed or injured Lady Ambermere.”   

“But surely, owing to her mental condition, it must be unlikely that Miss Lyall will ever be deemed fit to plead?” asked Lucia.

“I agree entirely Ma'am,” answered the Inspector, "From current information, it seems most likely that Miss Lyall will be charged with your attempted murder. Psychiatric reports will be requested by the judge and Miss Lyall will probably be deemed unfit to plead and sent away to a mental institution for treatment."  

“Poor Miss Lyall,” said Georgie.

“And so it will be recorded in history that I was the very first Mayor of Tilling to suffer an attempted assassination whilst in office, Inspector?”  

“And that the attempted murder weapon was a vintage  wicker and cast iron bath chair, containing a screaming dowager," he replied.

“And that my assailant was a Miss Lyall, a tiny and utterly deranged  spinster ?"  

“Yes indeed, Mrs Pillson, a most surprising assassin!” said Inspector Morrison.


THE END.


Copyright reserved Deryck Solomon 2016 



  

2 comments:

  1. Awww. Poor Miss Lyall. THAT WAS TERRIFIC! I didn't guess AT ALL!! Well done. It was very exciting and struck just the right tone. WONDERFUL! WONDERFUL! WONDERFUL! This has been such a fun week, reading the instalments of you latest IM. Again congratulations.

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  2. A truly entertaining read Deryck. Thank you for keeping our beloved Tilling alive for us.

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