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All the world over, I will back the masses against the classes.
Unlike White's or Brooks's, it was simply known as The Club, lodged in a Georgian building at the bottom of St. James's Street, hard by St. James's Palace. Its membership was mostly comprised of the younger members of the aristocracy, who considered it a livelier place than the other stuffy gentlemen's clubs of London.
Some of them felt that the acceptance of Captain Harry Cathcart into The Club was a grave mistake. When he had left for the Boer War, he had been a handsome, easygoing man. But he had returned, invalided out of the army, bitter, brooding and taciturn, and he seemed unable to converse in anything other than clichés or grunts.
One warm spring day, when a mellow sun was gilding the sooty buildings and the first trembling green leaves were appearing on the plane trees down the Mall, Freddy Pomfret and Tristram Baker-Willis entered The Club and looked with deep disfavour on the long figure of the captain, who was slumped in an armchair.
"Look at that dismal face," said Freddy, not bothering to lower his voice. "Enough to put a fellow off his dinner, what?"
"Needs the love of a bad woman," brayed Tristam. "Eh Harry. What? Rather neat that, don't you think? Love of a bad woman, what?"
The captain, by way of reply, leaned forward, picked up the Times and barricaded himself behind it. He wanted peace and quiet to think what to do with his life. He lowered his paper once he was sure his tormentors had gone. A large mirror opposite showed him his reflection. He momentarily studied himself and then sighed. He was only twenty-eight and yet it a face from which any sign of youth had fled. His thick black hair was showing a trace of grey at the temples. His hard an handsome face had black heavy-lidded eyes which gave nothing away. He moved his leg to ease it. His old wound still throbbed and hurt on the bad days, and this was one of them.
He was the youngest son of Baron Derrington, existing on his army pension and a small income from the family trust. His social life was severely curtailed. On his return from the war, he had been invited out to various dinner parties and dances, but the invitations faded away as he became damned as a bore who rarely opened his mouth and who did not know how to flirt with the ladies.
He put the Times back down on the table in front of him and as he did so, he saw there was a copy of the Daily Mail lying there. Someone must have brought it in, for The Club would never supply a popular paper. There was a photograph on the front of a suffragette demonstration in Trafalgar Square and an oval insert of a pretty young girl with the caption, "Lady Rose, daughter of the Earl of Hadshire, joined the demonstrators."
Brave girl, thought the captain. That's her social life ruined He put the paper down again and forgot about her.
But Lady Rose was possessed of exceptional beauty and a large dowry, so a month later her parents felt confident that her support for the suffragettes would not be much of a barrier to marriage. After all, the very idea of women getting the vote was a joke, and so they had told her, in no uncertain terms. They had moved to their town house in Eaton Square and lectured their daughter daily on where her duty lay. A season was a vast expense and England expected every girl to do her duty and capture a husband during it.
Normally, the independently-minded Lady Rose would have balked at this. She had been refusing a season, saying it was nothing more than a cattle market, when, to the delight of her parents, she suddenly caved in.
The reason for this was because Lady Rose had met Sir Geoffrey Blandon at a pre-season party and had fallen in love-first love, passionate all-consuming love.
He appeared to return her affections. He was rich and extremely handsome. Lady Rose was over-educated for her class and her obvious contempt for her peers had given her the nickname The Ice Queen. But to her parents' relief, Sir Geoffrey appeared to be enchanted by their clever daughter. Certainly Rose, with her thick brown hair, perfect figure, delicate complexion and large blue eyes, had enough attributes to make anyone fall for her.
But the fact was that her support for the suffragettes had indeed damaged her socially, and it seemed as if Sir Geoffrey had the field to himself. Resentment against Rose was growing in the gentlemen's clubs and over the port at dinner parties after the ladies had retired. Suffragettes were simply men-hater, They needed to be taught a lesson. "What that gal needs, Freddy Pomfret was heard to remark," is some rumpy-pumpy.
As the season got underway and social event followed social event, the earl began to become extremely anxious. He felt that by now Sir Geoffrey should have declared his intentions.
One day at his club, he met an old friend, Brigadier Bill Handy, and over a decanter of port after a satisfying lunch, the earl said, "I'd give anything to know if Geoffrey means to pop the question."
The brigadier studied him for a long moment and then said "I think you should be careful there. Blandon's always been bit of a rake and a gambler. Tell you what. Do you know Captain Cathcart?"
"Vaguely. Only heard of him. Sinister sort of chap who never opens his mouth?"
"That's the one. Now he did some undercover work behind the lines in the war. You mustn't mention this."
"I'm a clam."
"All right. Here's what I'll do. I'll give you my card and scribble something on the back of it. I'll give you his address Pop round there and ask him to check up on Blandon. It's worth it. Rose is your only daughter. They say she talks like an encyclopaedia. Wouldn't have thought that would fascinate Blandon. How did you come to make such a mistake?"
"Not my fault," said the earl huffily. "My wife got her this governess and left the instruction to her."
"I hear that Lady Rose is a member of the Shrieking Sisterhood," remarked the brigadier, using the nickname for the suffragettes.
"Not any more, she ain't," said the earl. "Mind you, I think the only reason she lost interest was because of Blandon."
"Well, maybe there is something to be said for love, though I don't hold with it. A girl should marry background and money. They last, love don't. Here's my card." He wrote an address down and handed it over.
The earl put his monocle in his eye and studied it. "I say, old man. Chelsea? No place for a gentleman."
"If Captain Cathcart were the complete gentleman he wouldn't dream of doing your snooping for you. But you'll be safe with him."
Lady Rose was at that moment fretting under the ministrations of her lady's maid. Having abandoned the Sisterhood-but only briefly, she told herself-Rose had once more subjected f0herself to the stultifying dress code of Edwardian society. While she had been supporting the suffragette movement, she had worn simple skirts and blouses and a straw hat. But now she was dressed in layers of silk underclothes, starched petticoats and elaborate gowns with waterfalls of lace. Her figure was too slim to suit the fashion of ripe and luscious beauty, and so art was brought to bear to create the small-waisted, S-shaped figure. A beauty had to have an outstanding bust and a noticeable posterior. Rose was lashed into a long corset and then put into a Dip Front Adjuster, a waist-cinch that stressed the fashionable about-to-topple-over appearance. Her bottom was padded, as was her bust. By the time the maid had slung a rope of pearls around Rose's neck and decorated the bosom of her gown with brooches, Rose felt she looked like a tray in a jeweller's window.
Geoffrey always praised her appearance but had implied that once she was married, she would be free to wear more comfortable clothes. Rose stared at the mirror as the maid put in pompadours, the pads over which her long hair would be draw up and arranged. Sir Geoffrey had said nothing about when we are married. But he had stolen a kiss, just the other night, behind a pillar in the Jessingtons' ballroom, and stealing a kiss was tantamount to a proposal of marriage.
The captain lived in a thin white house in Water Street, off the King's Road. The earl fervently hoped that the man was a gentleman and not some sort of Neverwazzer who wore a bowler hat or carried a coloured handkerchief in his breast pocket or-horror upon horrors-brown boots with a dark suit. He had never met him but had heard about him in the clubs.
The earl climbed stiffly down from his carriage and waited while his footman rapped at the door. To his relief, the earl saw that the door was opened by a sober-looking gentleman's gentleman who took the carl's card, carefully turned down at one corner to show the earl was calling in person, put it on a silver tray; and retreated into the house.
The earl frowned. His title should have been enough to grant him instant admission.
The captain's servant returned after only a few moments and spoke to the footman, who sprinted down the stairs to tell the earl that the captain would be pleased to receive him.
The earl was ushered into a room on the ground floor. He was announced, and a tall saturnine man who had been sitting in a chair by the window rose to meet him.
"May we offer you something?" asked Captain Cathcart. "Sherry?"
"Fine, fine," mumbled the earl, taken aback by the amount of books in the shelves lining the room. His Majesty, King Edward, set such a good example by not opening a book from one year's end to another. Why couldn't everyone follow such a fine example?
"Sherry, Becket," said the captain to his manservant. And to the earl, "Do sit down, sir. I see the sun has come out at last."
"So it has," said the earl, who hadn't noticed. "I come on a delicate matter." He handed over the brigadier's card.
"Well, y'see-" The earl broke off as the manservant reentered the room with glasses and decanter on a tray. He poured two glasses and handed one to the captain and one to the earl.
"That will be all," said the captain and Becket noiselessly retreated.
The captain turned his fathomless black gaze on the earl, wondering why he had come. The earl was a small round man dressed in a frock-coat and grey trousers. He had a round, reddish face and blue eyes which had a childlike look about them.
"It's like this," said the earl, feeling awkward and embarrassed. "I have a daughter, Rose ..."
"Ah, the suffragette."
"I thought people had forgotten about that," said the earl. "Anyway, Rose is being courted by Sir Geoffrey Blandon. He's not an adventurer. Good family. Nothing wrong there."
"And the problem?"
"He hasn't proposed. Rose is my only child. Would like some discreet chap to check up on Blandon. Find out if he's the thing. I mean, does he have a mistress who might turn awkward? That sort of business."
Having got it out, the little earl turned scarlet with embarrassment and took a gulp of sherry.
"I am not much out in the world these days," said the captain, "but knowing how gossip flies about, I would have thought if there was anything unsavoury about the man, you'd have heard it."
"Blandon's been in America for the past four years, came back in time for this season. Might be something nobody knows about. Handy says he's a gambler."
Captain Cathcart studied him for a long moment and then said, "A thousand pounds."
"What, what?" gabbled the earl.
"That is my fee for research and discretion."
The earl was shocked. This captain was a baron's son and yet here he was asking for money like a tradesman. And yet, why hadn't Blandon declared his intentions? He was spoiling Rose's chances of finding another suitor.
The captain let the silence last. A carriage rattled over the cobbles on the street outside and a small fire crackled on the hearth. A clock on the mantel ticked away the minutes.
"Very well," said the earl with a cold stare.
"In advance," said the captain mildly.
The earl goggled at him. "You have my word."
The captain smiled and said nothing.
The earl capitulated. "I'll give you a draft on my bank."
"You may use my desk."
The earl went over to a desk at the window and scribbled busily. He handed the draft to the captain and said angrily, "If there's nothing wrong, it'll be a waste of money."
"I should think to be reassured on the subject of your only daughter would be worth anything."
"Harrumph. I'm going. Report to me as soon as you can," snapped the earl.
The captain waited until Becket had ushered the earl out and then smiled at his manservant. "My coat and hat, Becket. I am going to the bank. I will have your overdue wages when I get back."
"That is most gratifying, sir."
At that moment, Rose was taking tea at the home of her mother's friend, Mrs. Cummings, in Belgrave Square. She looked dismally at the small butter stain on one of her kid gloves, and, for seemingly the hundredth time, damned the mad rules of society, one of which was that a lady should not remove her gloves when taking tea. Although the bread and butter had been carefully rolled, a spot had got onto one of her gloves. Most ladies avoided the problem by simply not eating. What insanity, thought Rose bitterly. She had a healthy appetite and the spread before her was of the usual staggering proportions. Apart from the bread-and-butter, there were ham, tongue, anchovy, egg-and-cress and foie gras sandwiches; chicken cutlets and oyster canapés. And then the cakes: Savoy, Madeira, Victoria and Genoa, along with French pastries, to be followed by petits fours, banana cream, chocolate cream and strawberry ice cream. And all of it sitting there mostly untouched so that the ladies would not soil their gloves.
Did no one but herself notice the poor on the streets of London? she wondered. And again she felt that uncomfortable feeling of isolation as she assumed she was probably the only person in society who did notice. Geoffrey, dear Geoffrey, did have some idea. He had told her that only the other day, the Duke of Devonshire had been visiting a bazaar with his agent and had stopped at a stall displaying wooden napkin rings and the duke had asked his agent what they were for.
"Napkin rings," said the agent. "Middle-class people keep them on the table to put their table napkins in between meals."
Said the astounded duke, "Do you mean that people actually wrap up their napkins and use them again for another meal?"
"Certainly," said the agent.
The duke gasped as he looked at the stall, "Good God!" he exclaimed. "I never knew such poverty existed."
How Geoffrey had laughed at such idiocy.
Copyright © 2003 by Marion Chesney