Hollow Crownby David Roberts
It is October 1936. Lord Edward Corinth is invited by his friend Joe Weaver, the press lord and close friend of the British royal family, to recover certain letters stolen from the king's intimate friend Wallis Simpson. There is no mystery about who has taken these letters - a woman called Mrs Raymond Harkness, a former mistress of the king and a close friend of… See more details below
It is October 1936. Lord Edward Corinth is invited by his friend Joe Weaver, the press lord and close friend of the British royal family, to recover certain letters stolen from the king's intimate friend Wallis Simpson. There is no mystery about who has taken these letters - a woman called Mrs Raymond Harkness, a former mistress of the king and a close friend of Edward's.
When Edward goes down to Haling, the country house of conservative MP Leo Scannon where Mrs Harkness is also a house guest, he is far from easy in his mind at the task before him, but he cannot guess that retrieving stolen goods is to be complicated by murder...
Roberts combines elements of the locked-room puzzle with French farce. But he's strongest when he's documenting workers' marches, Mosley's rantings, the King's pro-Hitler proclivities, and the unsuitability of Mrs. Simpson as Queen.
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By David Roberts
CARROLL & GRAF PUBLISHERSCopyright © 2002 David Roberts
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAlmost against his will, Lord Edward Corinth gazed up at the sleek, glassy building he was about to enter. It brought to mind, as no doubt the architect intended, one of the new ocean liners - the Queen Mary, say, or the Normandie - and it seemed to make every other building in Fleet Street appear dowdy and old-fashioned. It was the headquarters of Joe Weaver's New Gazette and it stood for everything he had achieved. Lord Weaver, as he now was, had come to England from Canada during the war. With skilful use of his large fortune, he had made powerful friends in the world of politics and it is not too much to say that he was now in a position to make or break prime ministers. His great building, completed in 1931, and in front of which Edward now stood, was brash, brutal and several storeys higher than any of its neighbours.
After dark - it was now nine o'clock - from where he was standing, it looked like a shining curtain, each pane of glass illuminated brilliantly from within. One might be forgiven, he thought wryly, for imagining that its transparency was a symbol of the veracity with which the New Gazette reported the news in its august columns, but, as he was well aware, for Lord Weaver truth was what he wanted it to be. The press lord, for all his bonhomie, was a man of secrets. If he wished to spare one of his friends or dependants the pain of reading in his newspaper the sordid details of their divorce proceedings, he would order his editor to deny his readers the pleasure of schadenfreude. If he wished to puff the prospects of some bright young man he had taken under his wing, he would paint such a portrait that even the man himself might have difficulty recognizing. For every favour there was, of course, a price to be paid. No money would change hands - Lord Weaver had money to spare - but from the men he would elicit information and through them exercise influence. The women were also a source of information and their influence extended beyond their husbands to their friends and lovers - and it was said that, despite having a face like a wicked monkey, Weaver was himself to be found amongst the latter category more often than a casual observer would have thought likely.
And yet Lord Weaver was by no means a bad man. He loved his wife, considered himself a patriot and used what power he had in what he considered to be the best interests of his adopted country. He was a loyal friend, as Edward had reason to know, and he was generous - when the whim took him - absurdly, extravagantly, generous. But still, Edward bore in mind that, even when the tiger smiled, he was still a tiger.
As he stepped into the entrance hall Edward again hesitated. Its art deco opulence was almost oppressive. The designer - a man called Robert Atkinson - had intended to overwhelm the visitor with the power and energy of the New Gazette and its proprietor, and he had succeeded. It was no mere newspaper, Atkinson seemed to be saying, but a Great Enterprise, a Modern Miracle, a temple to the Zeitgeist. The floor was of inky marble veined with red and blue waves of colour which glowed and shimmered in the light of a huge chandelier. The ceiling was silver leaf, fan vaulted to summon up an image of the heavens, but the massive clock above the marble staircase reminded the visitor that time was money. Two shining bronze snakes, acting as banisters, hinted that there might be evil even in this paradise and Edward wondered if it really could be the designer's sly joke. Weaver was clever enough not to have any statue or bust of himself in the entrance hall. No doubt after he was dead, that omission would be rectified, but for now he was content to be the newspaper.
Edward went over to a horseshoe desk - rosewood and silver gilt - and was greeted respectfully by a liveried flunkey and taken over to the gilded cage which would raise him by magic to the great man's private floor on the top of the building. Edward smiled to himself - it really was too much. The porters' frog-footman uniforms were certainly a mistake. He greeted by name the wizened little man who operated the lift. He at least was real - an old soldier who had lost an arm on the Somme. He seemed to read Edward's thoughts for he winked at him as if they shared a private joke before whisking him heavenward.
Edward was in a foul mood. He had dined at his club and had by chance overheard some remarks which, because they were so apt, hurt him to the core. He had finished his cigar in the smoking room and was making his way towards the door when he saw the candidates' book on a desk behind a screen and remembered he had promised to add his signature in support of a friend's son who was up for election. As he turned over the pages, he heard the voice of the man with whom he had been chatting a few moments before. He must have believed Edward had left the smoking room and not realized he was still in earshot.
'Do you know that fellow?' the man was saying. 'We were at Cambridge together - a typical victim of the System. At Cambridge he was considered the cleverest of us all. He had brains, romantic looks, £12,000 a year. A duke's son with every advantage - we thought he would go far. But what has he done or accomplished? Nothing except to be bored and miserable.'
Edward, not waiting to hear the response, slipped out of the room, his face burning. This was what men thought of him, damn it! And what was worse, this was what he thought of himself. It was true he had told no one of his adventures in Spain a few months previously when he had uncovered the identity of a spy and a murderer, but what did that amount to in the scheme of things? He wanted a job and that was why he had decided he might as well go and see what Lord Weaver had to say. He was damned if he was going to hang about London going to dinners and balls, and make small talk with girls in search of a husband and their monstrous mothers. For one thing, he was too old for that - he was thirty-six. The world was going to the devil and he wanted to play some part in preparing Britain for the war which he now believed was inevitable. But how? What part? He was too old for the army. He had offered his services to the Foreign Office and been rejected. Was it possible Joe Weaver could help him? He would soon know.
'May 12th, isn't it?'
'The coronation? Yes - that is, if it ever happens.' Weaver had almost entirely lost his Canadian accent, Edward noted, and affected a bear-like growl.
'What on earth do you mean, Joe?' Edward, his cigarette lighter in his hand, paused and looked at Weaver in surprise.
'You remember what they were saying about Mrs Simpson when you were in New York ... she's not pure as the driven snow, you know. For one thing she's still got a husband.'
'I see but ...' Edward hesitated. He didn't like to speak ill of his king. '... does he really intend to marry the woman? I mean, he's had these ... infatuations before.'
'This is different, Edward, I can assure you. I've seen it with my own eyes.'
'Of course, that's the set you move in. Didn't I hear you had them on your yacht?'
'Yes, a cruise along the Dalmatian coast. You should have come with us.'
'I wasn't asked,' he said drily. 'The King seemed to be enjoying himself.'
Weaver glanced at him. 'You mean ...?'
'With Mrs Simpson. I gather there were photographs in the French papers of them strolling around Corfu almost naked.'
'Oh no, that's nonsense, but the King enjoys being ... casual.'
'I thought you used to be a friend of Freda's?' Edward was referring to the King's mistress when he had been Prince of Wales, Mrs Dudley Ward, whom he had dropped overnight when he met Mrs Simpson.
'I used to be,' Weaver said uncomfortably. 'In fact, it was Fredie who introduced me to Blanche.'
'I remember. Well, she did you a good turn there, Joe. Blanche is the kind of 24-carat woman I would be looking for were I ever to marry, which at the time of going to press seems most unlikely.'
Weaver shifted uneasily in his chair. It happened that his wife, in most respects a sensible woman, had a grudge against Edward. Blanche held him to blame for the death of her daughter by her first husband - a ne'er-do-well who, mercifully, had been killed in the war. Edward, as Weaver knew, had done everything he could to save his stepdaughter from the drugs which had in the end killed her and Blanche had no reason to hold him responsible for her death.
Weaver said, 'I thought the Prince would have remained faithful to Fredie until hell froze. In fact, she told me once, he had sworn never to marry anyone else, but I was wrong. He dropped her just like that. I thought the less of him for it but that's not to say I don't like Wallis. Mrs Simpson may be a divorcee and not particularly careful about the men she chooses to go to bed with but she's done the Prince - the King, I should say - the world of good. She's a levelheaded, clever woman and the King does exactly what she tells him. She's stopped his drinking for one thing. But of course, he can't marry the woman, we all know that. The King likes to forget she's still married to Mr Simpson.'
Edward sucked at his cigarette contemplatively. 'I heard she was divorcing him.'
'The King couldn't marry an American divorcee. The country wouldn't stand for it.'
'Wouldn't it? He's very popular. He goes out and meets the poor. When he went to that mining village - what was it called? - he made a very good impression.'
'The colonies wouldn't stand for it. I was talking to the Prime Minister about it. He says the Australians won't have it. SB was quite crude - I confess to being surprised. His precise words were: "If the King sleeps with a whore, that's his business but the Empire is concerned that he doesn't make her queen." The Australian outlook on life is distinctly middle-class and on morals distinctly Victorian. Mackenzie King says Canadian public opinion would be outraged if it leaked out the King wanted to make Wallis his queen and I gather Herzog in South Africa is categoric.'
'There's been nothing in the papers here about Mrs Simpson.'
'Nothing at all,' Weaver agreed, sounding smug. 'The Prime Minister asked me to see what I could do to keep it all hush-hush and, I flatter myself, I have been successful.'
'You mean, Baldwin asked you not to print anything about the affair?'
'Not just me. SB wanted me to persuade the other owners, Northcliffe in particular, not to print any story which featured Mrs Simpson.'
'Aren't any of the American papers seen over here?'
'The censors snip them."
'Good heavens! He must be worried then."
'The PM hopes the whole thing will go away. He thinks the King will get tired of her as he has of his other women but ...'
'... But you don't?'
'No, I don't. As I say, I've seen nothing like it.' Weaver leaned over the desk and looked as if he feared being overheard. 'I don't know whether you have ever met her - Wallis. She's no great beauty but she has established an ascendancy over the King ...'
His voice trailed off as though for once he was at a loss to know how to proceed. 'There's no direct evidence she's his mistress, you know.'
'Does she want to be queen?' Edward asked.
'She says she doesn't. I don't know. She's actually told me she would like to leave David - as the family calls him - and go back to the States but he begs her not to desert him.'
'You know her well?'
'As well as anybody. She doesn't invite intimacy but she finds me - perhaps because she and I are both North Americans - easier to talk to than some of the young idiots with whom the King likes to surround himself. And she knows I'm genuinely concerned for the King's welfare.'
'So what's going to happen?'
Weaver shrugged his massive shoulders; his turnip-like features wrenched into a mask of disquiet. 'I don't know what will happen. The King is as obstinate as a spoiled child.'
'But it's all got to be sorted out before May 12th.'
'Long before that. The American papers are full of it already and they'll have a feast day when it comes to the divorce proceedings. I've kept it quiet over here up to now by good luck and arm twisting but it can't last. Anyway, there are complications. In fact, that's what I wanted to talk to you about.'
'What on earth do you mean? How has it got anything to do with me? It doesn't matter to me whom he marries. The important thing is what's happening in Germany. All this talk of Mrs Simpson! We ought to be getting ourselves ready for war.'
'There won't be a war, Edward. Hitler's all wind. In any case, the King's fascination with Wallis does affect our relations with Germany. The King, as you know, is bitterly anti-Communist - when he talks about the Bolshies he can't help shuddering - and he admires the new Germany and Wallis is intimate with the German Ambassador.'
'That mountebank, Ribbentrop? The champagne salesman ... isn't that what they call him?'
'Yes, Ribbentrop. And SB has to let the King see all cabinet papers - fortunately he's mostly too idle to read them. What he does read he discusses with Wallis, and in the morning she trots round to the German Embassy and tells Ribbentrop all about it. I'm not joking. If it ever got out there would be the devil to pay. The Foreign Office is having kittens ... Vansittart has threatened to resign.'
'I had no idea,' Edward said, 'but I still don't see what this has to do with me.'
Lord Weaver got up from behind his massive desk and walked over to the window. He beckoned to Edward and together they stared silently into the darkness. Except of course that the city was not dark. A thousand lights twinkled below them, evidence that the city was still awake. Only the slow-moving river, secretive, unstoppable, indifferent, made a broad ribbon of blackness in the brilliance.
At last, Weaver said, 'To think, that if I'm wrong and there is a war, all this may be reduced to rubble.' He waved his hand and his cigar burned angrily. 'It makes me want to weep at the folly of mankind.' He turned away and said, more calmly, 'Vansittart spoke very well of your investigation in Spain.' Sir Robert Vansittart was the Permanent Head of the Foreign Office.
'I didn't know he knew anything about it,' Edward said, moving away from the window. 'In any case, I didn't investigate, I just got involved.'
'Oh yes, he knows exactly what happened there. He seems to think you handled yourself very well. Made some useful contacts too, I understand. I believe he's thinking of offering you some sort of a job but I told him to hold his horses as I needed you first.'
'Whatever do you mean, Joe?'
"I need something investigated ... it's most delicate ... and I thought of you.'
Excerpted from Hollow Crown by David Roberts Copyright © 2002 by David Roberts. Excerpted by permission.
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