Veronica Well’s Journal, 14 Match 1916 – Continued
Although a painful glare, such that I had to hold a hand to shield my eyes, the winter light through the tall windows was warming, standing before them to look out to the pavement and the street beyond. I had felt chill all morning. Tired. At times listless. My sleep having been fitful. Disturbed by unsettling dreams. I worry perhaps I have become accustomed to Miss Minver’s morning elixir. And then, there was the fright of the motor. I am not prone to fainting – but there have been times I thought I was upon the precipice. As I stood, holding back the drape, to watch those passing by in their coats and hats, silk and cloth, veiled and ribboned, I wondered what each was about. Their thoughts. Filled with work and errands, haste to an appointment; calling to mind some trivial task they may have forgotten in their rush; a correspondence that needs writing; the reverberation of an echo of some argument at the breakfast table, words too hastily said, or not said; concern for a son, or father, husband, or brother, in the trenches, upon the waves, anxious, ever imagining the ringing of the doorbell, the delivery of the telegram – the war, the horrible haunt of the war, the seeds of it – their fretful worry of a lack of funds, in having fallen behind to indifferent creditors; their lingering remembrance of the touch of someone’s lips, in saying good-bye, or the excited anticipation of the touch of them upon arrival — life. The simple pleasure of an ordinary life. How easily I could call out, open the door and hurry away from it all. Join them. I have the key. And yet — I stand in the warmth of the day mindful of the decision of my dark ambition. I want to say: self-preservation. But that would be deluding myself. The temptation of Christ was upon a mountaintop, whereas mine was at a dining table with fine china, flatware, and the thinnest of crystal. And I did not want to say — get behind me.
Hair pinned up, proper behind the window-glass: what do they see, when upon occasion, one of them glances towards me?
I could not even see my reflection there, hidden, in the glare of the sun upon the panes — I am an Icarus bedazzled –
We had finished our breakfast in a seemingly unguarded casualness, for the situation, in that she well knew Pym had threatened, rather than propositioned, me to betray her; and had really no evidence to the contrary that I wasn’t in league with him – whereas in fact, all supporting evidence to the contrary sustained the likelihood that I was – being as I was, obviously, susceptible to intimidation — her own threats having persuaded me to acquiesce to her extortion, to having taken her Chemist to bed. But she had said looking at me was as if looking at herself — had ever been, since our oddly leisurely stroll amongst the lively crowd in the Golden Calf — and so, as we sat in that long moment of decision, my look, in return to hers, was such as to assure her that wherever, and to whomever Pym held his loyalties – which I firmly believed to be to no one but himself – I knew of the two of them, who held the most power. And power is what it was – sitting there with her. I have been in the company of those who welded it versus those who believe it to be theirs, owing of course to father’s connections, and so at breakfast with her, I was ever more aware of hers. Even as I was becoming aware of my admiration – my envy – my jealousness – of it. To have forged a feminine criminal network in a world of men. The accomplishment of it. The sheer weight of it — What unimaginable things she must have had to endure. What things she must be capable of – and I? What she had said of me – harsh and hard and horrid in the extreme, but what of it was not true? Vain, arrogant, egoistical, self-absorbed – how had she said it: wantonly selfish. Yes. I am a Narcissus with a looking glass rather than a pool. Self-importance – without giving a rap to self-sacrifice — it was true. All too true. Canongate proved that — for had I not adjusted to the acquiescence of the comfort of a untrampled life. Lowered my flag to father’s conquest. The conditions of his benevolence. A chameleon clinging to the wall of his house. His possessions. His wealth. What a fraud I am. A socialist? A suffragette? Until it had all become far too inconvenient. It is so obvious what I have become. A traditor to my own desires. For Freedom. To do—and be what I want. And that is the transgression of it – at the core of it. I – I – I. What I want. What I desire. How like Elizabeth Bennett, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! Whereas vanity had been her folly, mine is self-deception. I am not good. There is no virtue in me. I am vain and selfish and self- absorbed. Lady Hélène – she says she sees herself in me – and now, she offers the avenue to my emancipation — not to the river but to take a seat at her table. An apprentice to my Moriarty? Even now I am unsure, as horrid as I am, am I a criminal? At heart, I am beyond vexed – and in thought, yes, once passionately, violently so — against the ‘strictures’ of society, the inequality of womankind. I have listened to violent rhetoric and contemplated anarchist pamphlets of the extremist kind. Rallied to the cause in remembrance of Black Friday and Emily Davidson, who gave her all; I have been arrested — prematurely before we were capable of what we intended — having thought myself stalwart in my convictions. My convictions? It is horrid to see it written in my own hand. My convictions— my capitulation. Too remorsefully discomforted in inhabiting a cell. There’s the truth of it. Remorse of my discomfort. Not the remorse of deed, or of the actions I had taken, or their consequences. Or of those who had been vilely and violently detained as I — forcefully thrust into a foul and filthy van. Shackled and rocked about to the police station. The only consequences of concern the ramifications to me. The indignity of being dragged, and touched, and felt. Leered at, insulted. Feminine cattle hustled before snide stock herders. Laughed at, sermonized. Rudely brought before an arraigning magistrate, who spoke of the bible, quoting Paul about wimmins hair, and going on and on about whenever did wimmin come to think to know more than their Maker about Christian wimmin’s place in the home. Where unable to be bound over for one surety of fifty pounds—I was shuffled and shoved from the dock into an yet another awaiting, windowless van and driven to Canongate. Incarcerated. Forced to strip and reprehensibly washed — by some vulgar prisoner so privileged to do so. To slosh me with cold filthy water from a leaking bucket. Forced to dress in some dirty garment of horrid serge that smelt of she who had but previously worn it, along with her under-linen – insufficient and stained. Shiveringly, shoved along constricted corridors to be thrust into some communal cell – there to wait until they found the narrow, dank, dim, claustrophobic one for me. Left, with the startling clank of the steel door, amongst harden women with hungry eyes and bad complexations hinting of the horrors of skin disease – slouching, ill-tempered, harden wimmins, who gave not a tinker’s cuss as to their Maker’s place for them. Nor mine amongst them. Their intense observation, judgemental and predatory. Even as I gaze upon myself now—
In truth, dear Gwen, in true reflection – the sudden loss of my convictions to my self-absorption, had little at all to do with father’s proselyting, the rightness of his attitudes, or the strictures and conventions of our place in society — but of the freedom from the cold hours of prison — and the rather abominable imaginings of those forms of life I had seen with the microscope which were surely alive and in full contact with me in the unwashed under-linen I had disgustingly removed and tossed into the darkness of a corner (which of course – did not go unnoticed by the wardress, who, upon the morning, snatched them up and tossed over to me, with a harden slap across the face, and I told to wear them). In Canongate I was cast into the comeuppance of the discovery of my want for the very comforts of our social class, I had so intellectually argued against – even now I recall the fierceness of my sudden snap at Cora, huddled as we were that night before our arraignment, to stop, stop right now; I don’t care three damns about whose to take care of Little Nat. As I come back to it now — It is as stark as my seeming lack of reflection lost to the painful glare of the sun. I am not good. Not one whit.
Of course, in hindsight, I could say what choice was there laid before me – but I am more than well aware that in looking back upon breakfast of my growing admiration of her – of having wanted to have been her, to have had her imperial magnetism, with its subtle hint of dangerousness, her resoluteness, in those dark moments of Canongate.
Looking back upon these first few pages — when I had first begun this accounting. Undone. Foolish. Reckless. I am appalled at the horror of my contradictions. Prior to I had thought myself still a radical, an anarchist – but that night looking upon those horrid photographs, why was I so undone — and I have to come to the hard truth of it – it seeing what I had written, just how far I had freely submerged myself down into the fathoms of Father’s Sea of Propriety. It all seems as if my anger was less in the deception, by my apparent naïve, but in some odd regards to shame and the threat against my reputation, my good name —my good name — what good name – I had come out of the tomb of Canongate for Christ’s sake. What with the apparent goodness of my name having been salvaged, resurrected, with the rolling away of the stone by father. His connections – his corruptions. A reputation held together merely by secrecy. For my promiscuousness — it was of course very well known — to me – to you certainly, Gwen. How many times had you said I was ever wilfully skating upon the edges of risky ice? But upon having seen those photographs, no matter how fraudulently manufactured, it was laid bare even as I was splayed naked. Confronted by my sin – by my Milverton – my secret promiscuity and the tatters of reputation in their hand; their smiling faces and hearts of marble – I was overcome by the sordidness of what you might think seeing me thus laid bare – and of what Bradley would think of me – yet another capitulation. I am horrid. My freedom taken by Canongate, appropriated in the prison of father’s reprieve: I was to give it away to Bradley?
Oh, my hypocrisy! For I see it all written out in my own hand. For I had become that hysterical woman we are all purported to be – just as Lady Hélène had so succinctly stated – I had indeed been shackled, once again to father’s patriarchal morality, by mother’s holy strictures and societal mores. In my capitulation to father for his having brought me out of Canongate – no more nonsense, Veronica; you are now twenty-two and your future is stark, stark indeed, if you do not come to your senses; this absurdity must end; you must unfeignedly come to some acceptance of the tempering of a well-established marriage – however reluctantly – if you are to have a future, you must come to realize the fortunes of a respectable, restrained life, else, my dear, you have seen the horrors to which your path lies; the prodigal’s father only killed one calf, Veronica: I shall not risk bringing you out of the pit of Canongate a second time.
Having been driven to the river – is this the world I want to die in?
Occurring only months before that fateful 5th of August upon which everything in the world changed seemingly as much as I. Just how much of it owes to the suspension? Has it become too easy to forget those who felt no surrender, those who had sacrificed far more than me in my time of incarceration? Those who had been belittled. Mocked. Scorned. Have we so easily forgotten throwing ginger beer? Black Friday? Emily? In some forsaken patriotic expedience have we not forgotten those who, worse than I, had been left in freezing wet clothes, dragged along the streets, the gaol floors, force fed, shackled, pinched and twisted, grabbed by that which a man wants. For it is and will, even were we to get vote, a man’s world – beyond political and economic, father’s cultural strictures. Society’s. Are we ever to be but the inferior of humanity— Weak. Simple-minded. Emotional. Hysterical – I cannot express what I feel in having seen what I have written. How I have allowed myself to have lost all my passions – I had them once. Anarchist! How can I have allowed myself to have become but a paler shade of myself, corrupted with the contagion of father’s pernicious thoughts, shackled to his economic allowance. The mesmerism of our upper-middle class comforts – a Lydia Languish! Only with Pym’s inducement had I truly seen a glimmer of my former shelf only to run headlong into Bradley’s arms condescendingly to father’s echoing forbearance or my own lustful nature? Or yet another attempt at horrid escape – oh, to think of it, to write of it – a plotting to proposal and an acceptance of my Maker’s place. Acceptance. Dominance – submission.
To have real power – to be as Lady Hélène – beyond good and evil, one must wield power as a man does. Pankhurst was right to use force. Darwin’s theory of survival. A will to power. In having been so terrorized in a car – I now realize how I have allowed myself to become precisely what they think of us all — and somehow this morning, I have been awakened. Oh, how this had all begun as an accounting but has now become a confession. Gwen, when and under what circumstance this may find you, I cannot guess – perhaps, as I write, I hope it will be upon my death. For I don’t know what the future holds for me – even as I am filled with harsh imaginings and anxious anticipations of what I am willing do. Or, want to do — as I said, I want. I desire. And to desire one needs power. It is a hard truth.
And so, I have chosen perdition.
I am now accounted among the damned of Lady Hélène’s dissenting congregation.
The thin-lipped corner of her mouth — did I not detect the slightest hint of a smile – in happy affection for the successful acquisition of new recruit — or in the pride of yet another conquest. So assured, she had revealed what she had been commissioned to discover from The Chemist, the location of a meteorite which had fallen eons ago — or so, she had been informed. It bore she said what was known to the alchemists as Red Mercury – hitherto a fanciful fiction. Although apparently, some geologist working for an American petroleum company had made extensive surveys in Hungary and Romania, and unknowingly noted the location of this purported aerolite, unaware of what he had stumbled upon – or so it was rumoured.
“And it is now in the possession of the Chemist?”
“It is believed.”
“But you are not certain?”
“I act upon information provided. Those that commissioned me having done the research.” She sat all but regally; there being at times, wherein the aristocracy could not help but be revealed – and I find myself, even now, in some slight ways, mimicking her. “As I said, he is an Alchemist as well.”
“Then he knows of the location?”
“That is uncertain – if so, he had not acted upon it – although, with the war . . .” She allowed a slight wave of her hand, “Until recently. An old acquaintance. Julian Pettigrew — a geologist and a rather dubious speculator in petroleum — with, to say the least, bothersome ties to the British Government. I strongly suspect an intelligencer— He reached out to him, in regards to Red Mercury.”
“Petroleum — from what you had said, I had thought Winston, and all of this, was in some way involved with petrol, but he says he is in cosmetics.”
“Branching out from heroin, as I understand.”
“Heroin—” Not at all shocked as I had suspected something suchlike. The fine linen, rich furniture, the luxurious house – certainly financed by something other than soil and chemistry.
“Yes – amazing quality. He has an odd aesthetic; his product comes in small bottles much like Bayer’s once did. I find it rather appealing, actually. An artist in what is a rather vulgar business. As it is becoming.”
“So—then, he is aware – of Red Mercury and this meteorite?”
“As I said that is uncertain – the communication from Pettigrew was intercepted.” She gracefully lifted her tea, “The war. So many tangled lines of communication. What with all the clandestine intrigue and complicated alliances, and the ever-evolving conspiracy of the Near East – made worse of course by this interminable conflict. Everyone stealing secrets from everyone else – which is why the need for subterfuge, and you my dear. I have interests that overlap with your Winston.”
“At the moment no. But one must not preclude a possible avenue of future ventures. What with the Hauge Convention? And the War — and more importantly: its aftermath. I foresee an ever-growing demand.” She took a sip, “So you see, mutual acquaintances can sometimes be a bit complicated.”
“No honour among rogues?” I asked.
“You will find in my world there are very few rules and absolutely no laws of consequence. You do what you have to at the moment –
Yes — you have to do what you have to do. Coercion I am now inclined to believe is but an excuse to do what you want, but are only too ashamed or afraid to do so.(A different colour of ink)
Having sought a cup of tea from Lampton, I try once gain to steel my hand – for a moment I had felt faint, the tour, the unpacking. For the whole of the day I have felt all too listless. At times even breathless. On the verge of collapse. As I had felt in the back of that bloody horrid motor – as I was nearly upon having arisen from the desk – to ring for him. Growing all too quickly light-headed, and for some long moments it seemed as if I had lost all breath to some strong exertion. I had had to grip the edge of the desk. A weakness I cannot let them see. I steeled myself and proceeded to ring for him to request the tea. Moving back about the desk — I am reinforced now, as he brought it, as well some wonderful biscuits, observing, as he said, despite my best effort, he felt I needed a bit of strength, as I appeared pale.
Though I am of an absolute certainty someone has been reading my accounting – my journaled confessions – in that having purposefully placed upon a certain page something so as to allow me to know whether some other than I have opened it – turned its pages. I feel it to have been you Mrs Willingham — still I wish to put it down as I remember —
Regally arising from our finished breakfast, leisurely, Lady Hélène began her tour. Ascending so as to work our way down. The townhouse has four floors: the basement, for servants, ground, first, second, third. One floor more than father’s house which we thought grand. There is rather large ballroom and a mezzanine. A coach house — with stables. Converted so as to house the motor as well. From the furnishings, expensive and well matched, colour and texture; the gilt moulding; the rich carpets, thick and carefully placed; the subjects of the oils and watercolours hung throughout admirably discerned, such that everything gave all the appearance of a single-minded devotion and taste, and of having been left heartfelt by whomever had been forced to let go of the townhouse to save their country estate.
“Death Taxes – what an ingenious method to raise funds.” Lady Hélène had commented as stood in the last of the first-floor rooms, having made our leisurely way throughout the house, “And a sword ever hanging over one’s head, in some instances double sided, now, as to the war and succession.” She was delicately inspecting the hand-painted rosework of a vase in the last bedroom receiving our inspection, “Something that legal mind of your father’s must have found his way through the labyrinth of, in that your brother – should his most convenient post give way to a call to the trenches – not be the one in line to inherit.”
I gave her a look — as she alluded not only to that horrid prospect and outcome, but of the possibility of Andrew being moved to the front; and slyly as well, a hint regarding his current situation as an aide to some officer in the administration of the Islington Internment Camp — I had thought only I, having inadvertently overheard father on the telephone, knew he had in some way arranged for Andrew’s posting — a favour called in, some relationship at the club, or as I suspect money. Just as he had done when he had intervened after my arraignment and incarceration – having been well aware I did not have sufficient funds for surety, bound over, assured the bleakness of my situation, knowing the horrid treatment I had and would endure, awaiting to finally appear in all of his haughty imperious disapproval – but with my freedom in hand, as well as its record to be expunged—if, and only if, I agreed to his terms. Her seeds of insinuation now sown to bloom to a thought to come to mind – was there genetically in us something disposed to conspiracy and corruption? Father as a high member of the Bar Council, whose duty it was to take in hand breaches of a barrister’s professional etiquette, while all the while secretly bribing, suborning, extorting favours – perhaps even judgements? See Veronica — not said, but so implied — your world and mine are not that far apart —
Ever more importantly Gwen, is there any evidence of it to be found—
“Not too labyrinthian, I would think. Being not so much for your sister, what with her ill-advised and unblessed marriage,” Her fingers ever so carefully holding the vase, “And you? Yet another new codicil? I would imagine. After that brief incarceration – a known shrieking sister? An avowed anarchist? I would expect neither of you should be seeing much in way of such an unfortunate distribution. And there is of course the prospect of the property—” The forefinger of her left hand ever so lightly running along the surface of the vase, as if she were contemplating a braille from the hand-painted roses, “Coverture – will see it in some way – should that most regrettable prospect arise – to your eldest sister, where it will of course find its way into her husband’s pocket.” It was all so ever cleverly and off-handily said. Alluding to the fact that we would even in death be recipient still of his extreme ire – and that, whatever eventually, of his three daughters, he would assure that the inheritance would ever fall, as we know, to his favourite — Lydia. Even as she once again demonstrated just how much she knew of my life – although, I detected something in her voice — some such familial similarity in own?
“I would expect.”
“Oh, but then – you are your father’s property.” She put the vase back down carefully. “Ever handed back from jailer to father, to husband — or son – but ever some man’s property.” She looked not at me, but admiringly of the furnishings of the bedroom. “Too bad the Pankhursts have yet to secure the vote – although,” and she turned, standing now at the door, to look at me, “That wouldn’t give you but — what? A ballot?”
“Yes – from which to make those changes –”
She smiled, disingenuously, “Of course.” And she strode out into the corridor.
“I myself have an estate, in York.” She continued as we moved along once more, “Can’t own it – they say.”
We strode along slowly, our feet a silence upon the heavy, sand hued, within which the carmine and purple design, of the carpet of the corridor, was inlaid; she in her silk dress, I in my white laced muslin —
“A distant cousin, third-removed – and for whom the solicitors had to scurry the registries to find – in his late-fifties, bad back and eye sight, from some drudgery of a public clerk’s office, will soon reside there.” She continued, “With so much violence in the world — anything can happen. The current Beltham, a Lieutenant Colonel, on leave no less – such a tragic mishap. On his way to Paris and two weeks home. Never got the chance to see my estate that one last time.”
She gave me a look, “In the process of eviction.”
As we moved along, I could not help but feel a pang of horror at the statement: a mother’s world thrown into chaos, the loss of a beloved husband, her children looking to her expectantly, they now thrown out of their home – their estate. And then the thought soon came to me – my sentimental imaginings replaced – of tenant farms, rolling landscapes and hedges, servants, footmen in livery, milord and milady – but which of them were true — and did it matter? Could I have done such a thing – more than the eviction, what she had implied?
To drink from the cup she offers —
“You may choose from anyone of the bedrooms, save the master, which is mine.” She said as we leisurely strolled along the first-floor corridor, our lengthy tour completed, “Until such time as I relinquish to you the keys.”
“When I retrieve what you want?”
“What we have been commissioned to retrieve, my dear.” Our stroll ever so tranquil for the subject, “Ever keep that in mind. It is not mine, or Neville’s – or yours.”
“So — you are but some criminal staffing agency?”
“Rarely do I take such commissions.” A gracious smile, “Anonymity. My dear. Anonymity. That is how I have cultivated my career. There is so little intrusion when no one knows you exist. Bankers, politicians, wealthy industrialists, criminals, spies. I have a rather dedicated menagerie. At the moment, rather constrained, I will admit — owing to this interminable conflict. Mostly in Paris. Bordeaux. Marseille. Morocco. But, as hampering as this war has been, it has as well its opportunities. For investment. Expansion. Amsterdam. Brussels. Copenhagen.”
“London.” I added.
“Alas, there are – shall we say – grander cliques of criminality, some of which are ruthless in their competition.” We approached the end of the corridor, “But there are some far more future minded, who are seeking alignments. Or realignments as the case may be. And this, my dear, is a most opportune moment for the both of us.”
And we had come to the end of the corridor, opening upon the gallery that led off to the mezzanine, and we stepped over to the balustrade to look down upon the entry hall. “But, yes. London. A strategic beachhead, as it were – if we are successful.”
“But I thought –” Feeling a bit breathless from our excursion of the house, “Mrs Willingham. Pym. The Misters.”
“The Misters?’ She gave me a momentary look of perplexity, “Ah — Mr Crump and Mr Ferguson. They are Mrs Willingham’s.”
In that I had willingly assented to becoming a part of her ‘menagerie,’ I felt I should no longer be kept at arm’s length — it was time for her to explain my circumstances. For either I was still but a suborned captive or now an entrusted participant. For all the confidence she had expressed earlier at breakfast, and then amidst our tour, I was still uncertain, least of all, of my standing with her, but as well among the others. Where precisely, within their hierarchy, would I, did I, fall: —
“And Mrs Willingham — ” I began even as I felt once more the edge of light-headedness. From the height? The recollection of my dream of falling? “Her socialism — being but a façade – it is quite obvious she directs some nefarious criminal enterprise.”
“Not all criminality is associated within a larger organization.” She said looking up from the hall below, “For all the Illiegalists propaganda, to the contrary, Robin Hood is but a fiction. Stealing from the rich? (There was a wry smile) I for one have never stolen from the rich and given to the poor – and neither has anyone else. More or less – a good intention. Here and there, of course. There was Marcel’s family—but that’s a different story, altogether.” And for a moment there was the sudden look of a fond memory, “There are small entrepreneurs. Privateers. Mrs Willingham — she is an expeditionary force, if you will. The Mister’s are hers.”
“But your interests are aligned?”
“For the time being. In this matter — we have an accord. If we (a cut of her eyes to indicate the two of us) are successful there are assurances of a most beneficial alliance within which I will be given far more access in London. And she sees this as beneficial opportunity to both our interests.”
“I am disinclined to her stock and trade. Prostitution and pornography. She is someone from whom I usually avail the services of — when the need arises.”
“Such as myself.”
Her whole posture and countenance now relaxed, easy; her eyes having grown far more amiable as she said now the most unorthodox of things, “Such as yourself. In that, she’s an associate of Neville’s.”
“Neville—” His name being ever a slur I cannot conceal, “What of him?
“A necessary evil—” Said as an explanation not in any way as an apology – I feel she has never apologized to anyone for anything. “He has a seemingly inexhaustible trove of connections. As I said, there are far more formidable enterprises, criminal and governmental; although, you will find the demarcation a bit murky.”
She smiled, “Ah, the Secret Prikaz.” Surprisingly amused. “The Secret Chancellery. The Secret Expedition. The operative word being secret. You would surmise. The Foreign Agentura actively coordinates with Special Branch. Whereas the Sekretnyi Sotrudniki?” And she gave the slightest wave of a hand. “Rather than secrecy, it is deception. Masters of the game. The False Pose. Shadows moving among the margins of society. Provocateurs. Doubling one against the other. Oddly enough — many of them were revolutionaries themselves.” Her voice, ever soft, her tone as casual as if we were but merely gossiping, “Now, rather than Bakunin and Kropotkin, it is power they seek. Creating false conspiracies, fostering true ones, assassinating superiors, killing friends and lovers. In Paris, at times, it is difficult in determining who among the Illegalists are working for the revolution or in fact fostering it for the Tsarists. Or themselves. Why not turn treason into profit. I have found at the end of the day, there is only one thing I can reasonably rely upon and that is greed and avarice. And so—there is a need for a Neville.”
Somewhere there was a sound. A door.
“A liaison to navigate the rather convoluted channels and canals of byzantine alliances and labyrinthian deceptions of national, governmental, as well as political interests. Many of which are but aspects of a far more ancient and fragmented conspiracy.” She paused slightly. “There are, my dear, far more clandestine brotherhoods operating in the shadowy nooks and obscure crannies of government intelligencers — the fretsaw-pieced edges of criminal enterprises. One of which is at the very roots of this conflict. The bogeyman under the bed we are told does not exist. Once disjointed, driven by personal appetites and lusts, having become ever aware of the advances in industry, invention, communication, and transport, awakening to the possibilities of the potential for a global cabal.” There was the slightest leftward tilt of her head as if to ascertain the effect upon me – but no more than if she were suggesting some veracity to the rumours around the next girl about to be put forward in the season. “Imagine the map of the continent and upon it two great Frederick Rose octopuses stretching out their tenacles, making use of this war in extending their grasp. And as they do, those within a once formidable but highly fractional conspiracy, as treacherous as it is shadowy, are being made to take sides.”
Conspiracy – some actor behind the scenes, a puppet master of national, international, marionettes? It sounds at first all too fanciful – and yet, as I listened to her it recalled to mind similar discussions by Mr Stickell – whom perhaps you have not met, who father and Aunt Agatha, after he had retrieved me from Canongate, invited to dinner several times, with of course the hopeful expectancy of an acceptance of a proposal. Nearly forty, short, and with fleshy lips and a thin moustache, which only made them ever more distracting when he spoke – buttering his bread, having cut it cut with some curious precision, discussing particulars of continental politics with father at the dining table, of suspicions and ceaseless speculation upon Germany’s, rather than Austro-Hungarian, motivations of the war — as I recall, some Serbian in Sarajevo? A single gun firing the shots that had brought death to the Archduke and poor Duchess Sophie; shots having already been fired upon them; and then, incomprehensibly, to follow back along the same rout – rest assured Lloyd, there was a guiding hand in that
I looked at her for a moment, quizzically: – “Neville?”
“No, my dear, you and I.”
There aloft in the gallery, the whole of the grand house once more seemingly hushed, I suddenly felt the tingling sensation of the rising hair of the implications of what she had said, she and I – me – amidst a conspiracy that had – that had started a war? A protracted conflict beyond anyone’s imaging when such declarations had been made: — “So — what you are saying is that those who have commissioned you – and me –” Indignation tinging my voice – “Are behind the war?” – less than my incredulity of it.
She gave me a look, “Heavens. Turning France into uniforms and rubble; muck and blood; and shallow graves? That is malevolence beyond even my comprehension. Peace and prosperity for all is really best for business – or so I thought. Profiteers have shown otherwise. Even now, in anticipation of the windfall from border realignments, the give and take of an armistice – peace and politics. Reparations,” she said with a smile, “Oh my, reparations – a licence to steal on such a grand scale.”
And those hazel eyes narrowed slightly, as if seeing some trace of weakness in my resolve: – “Sentimentality is for family. Well, in some instances, not even for them. You claim the mantle of anarchist. Which I admit, for some – is but a fashionable parlour room expostulation on the socialist struggle against elites. To secure a better opportunity for the working poor amidst the on-going futurist revolution of invention – and the capitalistic consequences on social structures and the outdated mores of a class evolved civilization.” From wherever she was quoting, I have no idea. “Erstwhile enthusiasts working up the Higher Thought. The world as it ought to be. A coming New Age. Lions and lambs lying before a manger. Whereas for others — it is sheer contemptuousness and disdain for the current order. A near religious fervour for individualism. Anarchy. A belief in no authority other than the rule of I. The need to sculpt oneself as the revolution being and begins within. The Renovation. The New Salvation.” All said with such ironic mockery. “But to whichever you subscribe – collectivism, individualism, syndicalism, socialism — to place the need of the one, of I, above that of all, only comes about in my experience by the imposition of the will – which in conflict inevitably leads to violence. Bombs and Browning’s. You’ve read L’Anatchie in Mrs Willingham’s parlour. Mother Earth. Emma Goldman. You, yourself, subscribed to the Propaganda of the Deed.”
In the pursuit of the ideal — the will always suffices the means, I recalled having fervently said before we had agreed upon the Deed put forth by Laticia – of which we had failed, and for which father had retrieved me —
How does she know so much—
Willingham — my evil grandmother.
“Destruction as a creative passion.” She continued, “And yet — criminality is the ultimate I. And you gasp at what I am willing to do. You either have the will of your convictions – freedom from all to do whatever you wilt – or you have no true desire for freedom at all. From the moment I saw the look in my mother’s eyes, when she killed my father and then her lover to place the blame – so as to be free of them both – I knew what freedom meant. The freedom you desire. The very freedom, my dear, you want so badly you can taste it. It’s not an apple I am offering – but an opportunity.” And there it was – a clue, perhaps, to the temper of her emotions—the avenue to her criminality. How old had she been to witness such an event? How like her mother? Whereas ours prim and ever pious. The thought of her with a lover, much less father, unfathomable – much less ever the word, than the thought of sex, something only if at all said before her lady’s maid, mine own having been dismissed for reading novels— whom father blames for everything. Whereas for Lady Hélène, I knew from her baring, her walk, sex was a weapon – and standing there with her, the two of us in such close confidence, recalling the look I had given Winston, the whispered yes; it was now, for me as well –
“As for the true nature of the orchestration of the interminable conflict—” and she paused for a moment, her eyes narrowing, just the slightest, as if for the merest fraction of a second making some significant determination, “— as I said — there two struggling octopuses grasping across the continent. One which long planted the seeds and nurtured the war. While the other, the one with whom we are aligned – you and I – is preparing to take advantage of the world as it will become in the aftermath and demobilisation of this war. And with it, an opportunity to establish some enfranchisement within England. And I am ever the opportunist.”
Suddenly it came to me. The estate. The evictions. “You want to come home.”
“I am coming home.” And there was a sudden wistfulness in her voice, losing now the seemingly casual nonchalance, the occasionally irony, she had used for the entirely of our tour and most of our discussion, “To reclaim my mother’s estate.”
A distant cousin, third-removed – in his late-fifties – will soon reside there. Those self-same solicitors, who had had to scurry the registries, were no doubt even now meticulously establishing ways to assure her possession and ownership, no matter what the previous patrilineal entanglements, when the distant cousin found his way to mishap —
And what of her family? Having given but the vaguest of hints. The homicides investigated? A scandal in London or Paris — the Transvaal? There was the odd mix of her accent. Forced to flee from dogged detectives, inquisitive journalists, headlines and gazetteer’s columns? A young girl and her fugitive mother. Avoiding apprehension. Her mother abandoned by family? An implacable father? A pious mother? A powerless sister? A querulous one? A haughty Aunt? Is there some similarity she sees in us?
As we stood there before the balustrades, their white contrasting against the dark wood of the railing, the open expanse of the height of the entry hall stretching out before us, she speaking now so casually, with such familiarity, for a moment it seemed so similar to when we would have our talks — before I lost you so to father’s will for vengeance. Antonymy, she had said – solitary at her pinnacle? Did she feel it as well? Our tour, our moments here, revealing for a brief moment the tragedy of a childhood witness to her mother’s double homicide; a glimpse of her desire to return to a home she may have never lived in – separated by mishap and murder.
Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Having moved along the galley and descended the stairs to the entry hall — having given her assurances that though yes, I must admit to some reticence – in that, as she had said, my earlier predisposition had been such as to have been susceptible to the ardour for passionate, extreme action – but that the circumstances of my incarceration had so tempered my enthusiasm – in that I had no desire whatsoever to return to the confines, to the odious, oppressive stench, the austere bleakness, the microscopic filth, of a cell – such that I, in promissory to my father, had become ashamedly obsequious to his desires for self-rehabilitation; having over time truly abandoned much of my convictions — she silently listening to what had begun at the top of the stair as some explanation, but so like my journal, had become a confession – that merely to satisfy an intellectual longing to remain on the periphery, seemingly but a by-stander longing to participate, finding only courage for hollow discourses with Mrs Willingham – reflecting, at the time, what I felt to be nothing less than the passivity promoted by the WPSU, or so I thought, but really, having become more like some heliotropic flower – closed in the darkness of my capitulation to my father and aunt’s demands, and my own concession to comfort – and that – and it pains me even now to say it, I had given way to some wrong-headedness of Lord Morley, such that I had acquiesced to the accommodation of the complete self-abandonment of my former self in the acceptance of a wrappered life – abandoning all hope of imaginings that mocked the social order, regardless of the haunted whisperings of them – but, rather than succumbing to the disingenuous refuge of tea and strawberries and cream – having awakening in Winston’s bed, I had arisen to find myself, again – like that heliotropic flower in response to rays of the sun – opening to the resurrection of whom I had once been – vain and arrogant, egoistical, and so wantonly self-absorbed; and so, she needn’t take me to the river – and that – with a smile which must have seemed most wicked – I boldly offered my terms: – “Whereas I am told there are many mansions awaiting in heaven, the keys to this one are quite sufficient; with as well, a seat near to hand at your future London table.”
And as we alighted from the last stair, she responded with a called to Lampton, who – where he had been apparently awaiting – stepped forth from a shadowy niche.
“Pressing business, Lampton. I shall be out for the reminder of the day.”
And with a nod he turned and stepped away.
“Your things should arrive shortly.” She turned to me.
“Miss Miniver —” I enquired, “I have grown accustomed to her every morning, but she seems oddly missing.”
“Miss Miinver? Our Naughty Librarian.” She said with some faux chagrin, while her eyes seemed to reflect upon a memory perhaps of having seen those photographs — the curiosity of which makes me so long as well to see. “I am sure she is but distracted in some other lovely bedroom.”
“She is —” We had not discussed her among the hierarchy. “With Mrs Willingham – or Neville?”
She gave me that winsome smile that ever said nothing about what she was thinking, “Miss Miniver is an associate of an associate of Neville’s – but I wouldn’t say she is with him. At the moment, she has agreed to terms with Mrs Willingham.”
From the entry vestibule, Lampton returned with coat, hat, and purse in hand.
“A watchful eye. A helping hand.” She continued,
“Alaine is bringing the motor around.” Lampton informed.
She strode over to him: –
“See to it that Veronica has whatever she needs,” as he helped her into the coat, “As we discussed.”
“Yes, mi‘lady.” He carefully saw to the shoulders.
“I am uncertain as to whether d’Avary will arrive this afternoon or evening.” She informed him as she moved over to a large, gold-gilt framed mirror and adjusted her hat to pin. “Nevertheless, I do expect workmen to arrive shortly.” She turned to give him a look to which he nodded.
She reached out for her purse, opening it for a moment. “As I said, Lampton runs the house.” And suddenly she turned to me and tossed a set of keys, “I accept the terms.”
Though surprisingly distracted in catching them, I noted she gave Lampton another look, to which he nodded, “As you wish.”
Purposeful to the day, she strolled away into the vestibule of the entry, her fixed footsteps upon the dark wooden floor ever lightly echoing — before the sound of the opening and closing of the front door, leaving Lampton and I to look at one another.
“Have you been with her long?” I enquired.
“We may speak of many things, Miss Wells, but her Ladyship is not one of them,” As if at a lectern, before a slight lift of a brow, “As you will not be discussed amongst any who may so enquire of you.”
I gave him a look and took his meaning, even as I felt the weight of the keys in the closure of my hand.
I asked if the front bedroom of the third floor was acceptable to which he nodded, replying that any bedroom other than ‘her Ladyship’s’ was available. He took notice, and I stopped idly fretting with the larger of the keys. “We have four on staff. Mrs Hadfield is housekeeper. Mrs Tremaine is cook. Lane the footman. Alaine chauffeur.” Then, after a pause: – “Mademoiselle Minou, her ladyship’s maid, will arrive shorty.”
“Are they all —”
“They all aware, ma’am.”
Which by his look was that they all knew the nature of Lady Hélène’s affairs. “If I were to walk out the front door?”
“Madam is aware of her Ladyship’s affairs.” He said evenly, his look saying: she has accepted your terms, you best abide by them—
I gave a slight smile, clasped my fingers about the keys, and he asked if there was anything I needed. I indicated I was fine, and as he turned, I called out to him. He stopped.
“Mr Crump and Ferguson—” I wanted to see what authority I had, “When they arrive see to it, they use the back door.”
He nodded, “Certainly.”
“And that they are given rooms with the least comfort.”
“As you wish.” His look one of approval.
I ascended to once more take my leisure in looking through the rooms. Although some pieces of furniture, and I am certain other items of sentimental attachment, had been removed, for the most part the previous owners had fairly well abandoned it, and I wondered to whom it had been sold, as Lady Hélène had merely let it. How much pain must have been felt by those taking their last walk through it as I was taking my first solitary stroll. Mine – I could not help but smile as I moved through. It was mine – I felt the reassurance of the weight of the key in hand. Even as thoughts appeared as to how to explain it. What would I say to you Gwen when you arrived – for I have already selected the bedroom for you to stay when you come for your first visit – thinking how best to be assured you see nothing of what must in the future transpire here — As I strolled from room to room, I was filled with such a complexity of emotions – that I would be mistress here, that whatever I said Lampton would see to making it so – recalling his look of approval of my disposition of the Misters – even father, if I were to invite him, would be but a guest, and when his imperiousness arose, I could lift her small bell upon the table and as Lampton would arrive – My father is just leaving. Yes, madam. As well as what am I to say to Winston? How to explain my having come to be not in Long Street, but here – perhaps in some way Lady Hélène way be connected with father? Asked to intercede, to restrain, to check the rash behaviour of an incalcitrant daughter? Yes – how he will love the conspiracy of it, which we shall discuss in the dim light of an obscure little restaurant –
For reasons I am now totally unsure of I set about opening the window to examine whether there was some possible access to be gained from the rooftop, rather than from the attic, to which such access is to be gained, when my attention was called away. There was a lot of banging and thumping echoing from the corridor beyond my open door. My curiosity pulled me down to the servant’s stairs, where below the Misters were struggling with my trunk and belongings. I moved quickly upon tip-toe, to cautiously peer down the narrow interior stair well — watching them hoisting it up as Lampton oversaw their efforts – and with a smile of satisfaction listened to their outcries of a rapped knuckle or elbow; their vexed vulgarities; and with quite some considerable delight at being called a bitch. If I had thought Lampton would not defend me I was very much surprised to hear him admonish Mister Crump in that he was not to use such familiarity in regard to Miss Wells. All this for fucking a chemist? Perhaps I should fuck a few more.
As they grew closer to the landing, I hurriedly slipped into another bedroom. I must admit I waited for them to leave before I made my way to the bedroom, began to unpack, and in finding my journal, decided I needed to record all that had transpired this morning. I sought the sanctuary of the library – which I had overheard her to say she wishes to turn into a lady’s drawing room, as I sit at the desk and look about at the sheer masculinity of it, I find I would much rather she leave it as it is — there is something about sitting here, at the desk – the feel of it.
Writing, I suddenly heard her familiar voice:
“So, she has seduced you.”
I looked up to see Miss Miniver. She was dressed in a trim, well-tailored verdant day dress; her hat removed, but a few strands of hair amiss from its unpinning. She stood primly upon the threshold of the Library.
“In that you said you would do your best to keep me alive,” I looked at her with annoyance, “And then you were nowhere to be found this morning — as the Misters took me on a smug drive to show just how easily they could do it. Kill me. Dice me up. Toss me in the river – and you could do nothing to avert their pleasure—”
She strolled in with that gait so reminiscent of Mrs Cranworthy, “You seem to be alive.”
“No thanks to you.”
And yet today, there was something different – in the way I saw her, the way she moved, lithe, her step ever so soft, to be almost undetectable; predatory, so much like the approach of a lioness at the zoo.
“Until she gets what she wants, Vee, you can be assured you are secure from Lady Hélène.”
“Unlike Hester Rawley — ”
She stopped before the desk; her right hand effortlessly holding her left; her eyes behind those wire-thin rims looking at me intently, “You are not Hester Rawley.”
I put down my pen and closed the journal – “You said she was tossed in pieces into the Thames for insufficiency – you neglected to tell me, she was killed by Winston’s Molly McIntire, owing to her alliance with Neville.”
“There are a lot of things I haven’t told you.”
We looked at one another.
“That you are with his smeariness – Pym!” Do not fall back into vain self-indulgence. He performs a service. Until he does not. The thought came suddenly to mind.
“You apparently have no recollection of Francis.”
“Aytown? You work for the smut dealer?” I sat back, “But I thought you merely – posed.”
“Mrs Willingham signs my uncrossed cheque.”
“Uncrossed cheque – how much am I worth.”
“To do what? Certainly not to keep me alive.”
She strolled around the desk, “You were considered by some impertinent, impetuous, and far too imprudent.”
“And your estimation?” She drew close and I could hear the rustle of the silk of her day dress.
“Immoral.” She said and I felt her fingers, reaching out, touch the lace of my collar and seemingly adjusting it, “But lacking conviction.”
And suddenly I felt oddly anxious and perplexed at the approach of her fingertips to the high laced collar of my dress, to the possible exposure of my throat, for it felt strangely of a slight summer’s breeze upon one’s flesh, that thrill of the wisp of a wind one wants to lean into – and I moved away from her touch, “Of my immorality?”
I looked at her —
“She has seduced you.”
“She has offered me this house. A place in her organization here in London”
There was the briefest of a quick smile at the corners of her mouth, “I was unaware Hélène had an organization in London.”