The Washington Post
Something Dangerousby Penny Vincenzi
Something Dangerous is a riveting drama about an embattled dynasty, and a passionate, multi-layered tale of love and politics.
The dazzling Lytton twins, Adele and Venetia, are born into the great Lytton publishing empire. In 1928, on their eighteenth birthday, they are rich and admired, with a confidence verging on arrogance. But the specter of Nazi Germany is
Something Dangerous is a riveting drama about an embattled dynasty, and a passionate, multi-layered tale of love and politics.
The dazzling Lytton twins, Adele and Venetia, are born into the great Lytton publishing empire. In 1928, on their eighteenth birthday, they are rich and admired, with a confidence verging on arrogance. But the specter of Nazi Germany is growing…Gradually their privileged world darkens in unimaginable waysbut it is not just the twins whose lives have been irrevocably changed. Barty Miller, rescued from the London slums in babyhood by Celia Lytton, is clever, ambitious, and a complete contrast to the twinsand she faces temptation of the most unexpected kind…
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Table of Contents
Part One - 1928 – 1939
Part Two - 1939 – 1942
Part Three - 1943 – 1946
ALSO BY THE SAME AUTHOR
ALSO BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Almost A Crime
An Outrageous Affair
An Absolute Scandal
This edition first published in the United States in 2007 by
The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.
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Copyright © 2001 by Penny Vincenzi
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For Paul. For an unfailingly pliant ear and an astonishingly absorbent shoulder.
With much love.
A small army of people helped me get this book settled in a moderately tidy way between its covers: led once more by my agent and informant Desmond Elliott, walking research library that he is on the subject primarily of publishing, but on other crucial matters too, most notably New York between the wars. In that area I also have to thank Edna McNabney, who provided so many delicious anecdotes, and so much inside information and breathtaking detail about the city.
Many, many thanks to Mme Nicole Delava, who held me spellbound with her reminiscences of Paris before, during and after the war, and of her journey down some of the same road followed by Adele. And to Annick Salters and Laurence de Lasnerie for putting me in touch with her and for other hugely helpful suggestions, and to Noni Holland for acting so tirelessly as interpreter, translator and guide. For further assistance in Paris I have to thank my niece Rebecca Vincenzi and her friend Mathieu Lis, and for a particularly memorable evening at the Café Flore; and much gratitude also to Nina Salter and her colleagues at Calman Levy in Paris, which was the inspiration, but in no way a model, for Constantines, and also the wonderful archiviste at Hachette.
Hugh Dickens was not only an inexhaustible and patient military consultant but a most creative and imaginative one; and I am also deeply grateful to Beryl Thompson for her vivid and charming reminiscences of her war in the ATS and to Joanna Lycett for hers in the WRNS. And I owe a great deal to Matthew Parker for his knowledge of the battles waged by the flying aces, and indeed his book The Battle of Britain.
Special mentions to Helen Pugh and other archivists at the Red Cross in London; and to Kit Sparkes, Colette Levy and Sue Stapely, all of whom gave me their time and expertise most generously; to Clare Alexander who has been such a great support to both Desmond and me; and to my daughter Claudia who also acted as translator and researcher. And Maria Rice-Jones, who gave me a crash course in French, thus enabling me to do even a little translating of my own.
Several books were of great help to me: The Week France Fell by Noel Barber; Swastikas over Paris by Jeremy Josephs, Occupation by Ian Ousby; London at War by Philip Ziegler; The Viceroy’s Daughters by Anne De Courcy and The Great Crash by J. K. Galbraith.
As always, huge thanks to Rosie de Courcy, not only for her creative, inspiring and sympathetic editing, and her now legendary capacity never to so much as mention that the deadline has passed this many a long day/ week/month, but also for her ability to stop me panicking and make me laugh.
Much gratitude to lots of people at Orion: to Susan Lamb, Geoff Duffield, Dallas Manderson, Richard Hussey, Jo Carpenter, and Lucie Stericker, who between them produced, packaged, marketed, sold and dressed the book up so prettily; Emma Draude and the team at Midas who told the world about it, and last but absolutely not least to Kirsty Fowkes who saw the whole thing through with awe-inspiring calm and good cheer.
And of course, and as always, to my family for putting up with me and the bookmaking process for yet another year.
In retrospect, it all looks quite easy…
The Main Characters
Oliver Lytton, head of Lyttons publishing house
Lady Celia Lytton, his wife and senior editor
Giles, twins Venetia and Adele, and Kit, their children
Margaret (LM) Lytton, Oliver’s elder sister and business manager
Jay Lytton, her son by her dead lover Jago Ford
Gordon Robinson, her husband
Jack Lytton, Oliver’s younger brother
Lily Lytton, his actress wife
Barty Miller, brought up in the Lytton family by Celia
Sebastian Brooke, bestselling children’s author published by Lyttons
Boy Warwick, Giles’s old schoolfriend
Abigail Clarence, a teacher, and friend of Barty
Cedric Russell, a society photographer
Lord Beckenham, Celia’s father
Lady Beckenham, her mother
Billy Miller, Barty’s brother
Robert Lytton, Oliver’s older brother and successful property developer
Laurence Elliott, his estranged stepson from his marriage to Jeanette, now dead
Jamie Elliott, Laurence’s brother
Maud Lytton, Robert and Jeanette’s daughter
John Brewer, Robert’s business partner
Felicity Brewer, his wife, a poet published by Lyttons
Kyle Brewer, their son, an editor
Geordie MacColl, an author published by Lyttons
Guy Constantine, head of a French publishing house
Luc Lieberman, a senior editor
Madame André, Adele’s landlady
1928 – 1939
Venetia Lytton was extremely fond of telling people that the whole country had gone into mourning on the day of her birth.
This announcement, although historically accurate, and guaranteed to win her attention in whatever company she chose to make it, gave nonetheless a slightly erroneous picture; it was left to her twin sister Adele, naturally inclined to a slightly more prosaic view of life, to explain that their birth had coincided almost to the hour with the death of King Edward the Seventh.
‘Oh – all right,’ Venetia would say crossly, ‘but it was still a terrifically dark day, Mummy said the nurses were sobbing harder and harder each time they brought in another bouquet of flowers and when Daddy arrived, the doctor actually greeted him wearing a black tie. So of course he thought something terrible had happened.’
Whereupon someone, usually one of the twins’ two brothers if they were present, would inevitably remark that indeed it had, and that she and Adele had been launched upon an unsuspecting world, then Venetia would pretend to sulk, Adele would smile serenely, and someone else (usually another young woman in search of a little attention for herself) would endeavour to change the subject.
It was not easy to divert attention from the Lytton twins; not only were they extremely pretty (beautiful, some even claimed) and very amusing, but they really were quite extraordinarily alike. It was said that the famous Morgan twins, Thelma and Gloria (better known as Lady Furness and Mrs Reginald Vanderbilt respectively), could not be told apart unless you were close enough to detect a small scar under Thelma’s chin, the result of a roller-skating accident when she was a child; the Lytton twins offered no such helpful clue. Venetia did have a small mole on her right buttock, and the twins had also observed, from the first moment such a thing was observable, that Adele’s nipples were darker and slightly larger than her sister’s, but since these were facts extremely hard to verify, and certainly of no use at all in normal social situations, most people had no idea much of the time which of the twins they were talking to, sitting next to, dancing with. Even their closer circle found it virtually impossible to tell.
It was a state of affairs that the twins still found amusing to encourage. They had gloried in it at school, each claiming constantly to be the other, confusing and enraging their teachers beyond endurance until their mother discovered what they were doing and, being immensely – and most unusually for her class and age – concerned for their education, threatened to send them to different boarding schools, which frightened them into submission, so deep was their dread of separation.
At their coming-out dance earlier that year, dressed in identical white satin dresses, large white roses in their gleaming dark shingled hair, they had produced so strong a sense of dizzy confusion that several members of the older generation at least had felt themselves to be rather more intoxicated than they were; and it was even rumoured that when they had been presented at court, they had changed places. But those who knew them best said not even Adele (at heart more outrageous if less extrovert than Venetia) would have dared do so appallingly dreadful a thing.
They were enjoying their season hugely; their mother had chosen one of the early Easter courts deliberately, feeling it would be more memorable, more distinguished: ‘By June it’s getting so dreadfully busy, you’re in danger of being just another dance.’
Not that the occasion, held at Celia’s parents’ London house in Curzon Street, was in danger of being any such thing: had the house itself been less magnificent, the guest list less distinguished, the champagne less fine, the music less fashionable, the very fact that it was a dance for the twins, with their almost eerie identical beauty, would have made it remarkable. They were, unarguably, two of the most popular and brilliant debutantes of their year, caught up in a heady haze of dances and parties and country house weekends, with all the excitement of the actual season – the Derby, Ascot, Henley and the rest – still ahead of them. Their photographs appeared constantly in the society papers, invitations were still arriving in large numbers, and they had even been awarded the great accolade of a whole page in Vogue, wearing their Vionnet presentation dresses. Their mother, while complaining ceaselessly (and fairly inaccurately) that their season was absorbing too much of her time, was extremely pleased with their success. To launch one beautiful and popular daughter would have been gratifying, to be able to claim two was triumphal.
Today, their eighteenth birthday, there had been even more reference to the country-in-mourning than usual; so much so that Giles, their elder brother by five years, said at breakfast that he would withdraw from the evening’s party if he heard any more about it.
‘And then you’ll be sorry, Venetia, because I shall tell Boy Warwick not to come either.’
‘I couldn’t be less bothered,’ said Venetia airily, pulling out a compact from her pocket, dabbing more powder to her small, perfectly straight nose. ‘It was you who invited him, not me, he’s your friend—’
‘Venetia, darling, don’t do that at the table, it is so dreadfully common,’ said her mother briskly, ‘and for heaven’s sake don’t do it tonight, your grandmother will have a heart attack. Now of course Boy will be coming, I can’t have the arrangements upset at this point in time. I will check with Cook that everything is in order for dinner this evening – we’re only nineteen I think, now that Barty can’t come—’
‘Such a shame,’ murmured Venetia to Adele, and then seeing her mother’s eyes on her, smiled brightly and said, ‘I was just saying what a shame that was. Still, I suppose it is a long way. From Oxford. Just for dinner.’
‘Well, she would have stayed a couple of days,’ said Celia, ‘over the weekend in fact, she said. But her finals are looming now, and she is very anxious about them. I think we must respect that, don’t you?’
‘Of course,’ said Adele.
‘Absolutely,’ said Venetia.
Their eyes met over their coffee cups: then fixed with sweet innocence on their mother.
‘We will miss her,’ said Adele, with a careful, quick sigh. ‘She’s so clever, I’m sure she’ll get her first anyway.’
‘Absolutely bound to,’ said Venetia.
‘Absolutely nothing of the sort,’ said Celia, ‘I cannot understand how you two can still have so little grasp of the connection between hard work and success. No achievement is automatic, and especially no academic achievement. However clever the person may or may not be. Your father got a first, but he worked unimaginably hard for it, didn’t you, Oliver?’
‘What’s that, my dear?’ Oliver Lytton looked up from The Times, frowning gently.
‘Apparently you worked very hard to get your first, Daddy,’ said Venetia.
‘I really can’t remember much about it,’ said Oliver, ‘I suppose so.’
‘Mummy says you did.’
‘As I hadn’t met your mother then, I really think it’s a little difficult for her to say.’
‘Mummy doesn’t find anything difficult to say,’ said Adele, and giggled; Venetia echoed her.
Celia glared at them briefly. ‘I really have more important things to do than engage in extremely silly arguments. And if I’m going to be able to be home in time for your birthday dinner I shall have to leave for the office in half an hour. Giles, do you want to come with me?’
‘I – think I might go on ahead,’ said Giles quickly, ‘if you don’t mind.’
‘Mind? My dear Giles, why should I mind? I’m delighted you’re taking your work so seriously. What particular aspect of it is to occupy you this morning?’
‘Oh – just all sorts of things,’ said Giles.
‘Really? What exactly? I’d like to know; it must be very urgent, that it can’t wait thirty minutes? Nothing’s gone wrong, I hope. Because if it has, we certainly need to know.’
God, she was so unfair, thought Giles; so awkwardly, arrogantly unfair. Putting him in his place, underlining his lowly position at Lyttons even here at the family breakfast table. She knew nothing was wrong; knew too that if it was she would most assuredly have heard of it long before now.
‘Nothing’s wrong, Mother,’ he said, ‘of course it’s not. But I have pages of proofs to read and mark up on the new Buchanan book and—’
‘It’s not going to be late, I hope,’ said Celia, ‘it really is imperative it goes on sale in July. I would be very worried to think—’
‘Mother, it’s not late. It’s absolutely on schedule.’
‘Then why the rush?’
‘Celia, do leave the boy alone,’ said Oliver mildly. ‘He simply wants to get on with his job. Probably before the telephones start ringing and there are other such distractions. Proof correcting is time-consuming and painstaking work; I always liked to do it early in the day myself.’
‘I’m perfectly aware of the mechanics of proof correction,’ said Celia, ‘I’ve done a great deal of it myself. I simply wanted to—’
‘Celia—’ said Oliver quietly. His eyes met hers; she stared at him for a moment, then stood up, pushing her chair back loudly, throwing down her napkin.
‘Well, clearly I must get to Lyttons myself,’ she said, ‘since Giles is setting such an extremely good example. If you will all excuse me.’
She left the room; Giles waited a moment, looking miserably down at his plate, then hurried out after her. The twins watched him; then ‘Poor old Giles,’ said Venetia.
‘Poor old boy,’ said Adele.
‘I’m afraid,’ said Oliver, ‘I fail to see quite why Giles should be deserving of such sympathy.’
‘Daddy! Of course you can see. Mummy never loses a single opportunity to put him in his place, make it clear she’s boss, at the office as well as here.’
‘Adele! That was quite uncalled for. I think you should apologise.’
She looked at him, serious, almost shocked just for a moment, then the small, beautiful face melted, broke into a sweetly flirtatious smile.
‘Daddy, don’t be silly. I didn’t mean it. I was only joking, you know I was.’ She jumped up, went over to him, kissed him quickly. ‘Don’t be silly. Of course Mummy’s not the boss. You are, everyone knows that. You couldn’t think I was serious. Goodness, I wouldn’t have said it if I was. If you see what I mean. But – well, Giles is so nervous about his new job. And Mummy going on at him doesn’t exactly help. Does it?’
‘She wasn’t going on at him,’ said Oliver firmly, ‘merely making sure there was no problem.’
‘Yes, of course.’ She sounded contrite. ‘Sorry. Sorry, Daddy. It’s sort of hard for us to understand, I suppose. Not being part of Lyttons ourselves. How important it is that everything goes well.’
‘Adele,’ said Oliver, ‘nothing would make me happier than for you to be part of Lyttons. Or at least to think you would be one day. As you very well know.’
‘And maybe we will,’ said Venetia. ‘Let’s hope.’
‘Let’s hope,’ said Adele, echoing her, giving her father another kiss. ‘One day.’
He smiled at them both and stood up, scooping up the daily papers. ‘Well, we shall see. Meanwhile, you must enjoy yourselves as much as you can. Time for such self-indulgence is far too short. Now I, too, have work to do. What are your plans for the day? Some important shopping, no doubt.’
‘Desperately important,’ said Venetia.
‘Absolutely desperately,’ said Adele. ‘Big country house party on Saturday for a start. We need new shoes, we’ve danced all ours through. Bye, Daddy. See you later.’
Left alone at the table, they looked at one another.
‘Poor old Giles,’ said Venetia.
‘Poor old boy,’ said Adele.
Giles walked briskly along the Embankment away from Cheyne Walk, away from his parents, wishing passionately he was not going to see them again in little less than an hour’s time. He felt angry; angry and depressed. He had been working at the House of Lytton on Paternoster Row, unarguably one of London’s great publishing companies, for almost two years now, rising in its hierarchy from post boy to clerk to the trade counter to junior editor; the rise had, of course, been swift, hardly a proper apprenticeship, but he had still had to go through it.
‘It’s important you do,’ Oliver had said, ‘you have to understand what every phase in the process means, how it forms the whole.’ And of course Giles agreed with that, he had not expected to come in as Mr Lytton the Third, and start publishing his own list on day one. He had worked with a will, had enjoyed it, especially his time as a looker-out on the trade counter. He wasn’t sure why, but it seemed to him a most satisfying part of the publishing process, collecting books from the great store in the basement of Lytton House and bringing them to the counter at the front of the building for the collectors, as they were called, from the various bookshops to take away.
He had made friends, had enjoyed the others seeing for themselves that he was not stuck up, did not consider himself too good for such lowly tasks. But this new phase was much more interesting; it wasn’t difficult in itself, it was largely mechanical. Spotting the typesetters’ errors, the misspellings, the wrong placing of punctuation marks, and then copying the corrections from one master proof on to other secondary ones, was more like proper publishing, reading each new book as it came off the presses, discovering exactly what lay behind the titles in the catalogues, the endless editorial meetings, the discussions as to whether this or that cover might be more suitable, the growing excitement that accompanied a new publication.
He enjoyed it all really; and he didn’t mind working late, he didn’t mind working hard, he didn’t mind being told to do something again and again, he didn’t even mind being told he had done something wrong. Or stupid. What he did mind, almost unbearably, was his mother and her overpowering presence, her interference in everything he did. When his father pointed out mildly, or even firmly, that he had sent a second proof down with errors still on it, he felt mortified, angry with himself, apologised and put it right; but when his mother leaned over his desk, watching him as he marked up the proofs, pointing out a mistake he had missed, when she had stood in the reception area of Lyttons, studying his piles of books, checking them against the orders that lay on top of them, when she had come into the sales office and said she would like to go over some invoices with him personally, ‘just to make quite sure they’re absolutely correct’, he almost felt like crying, or even on extreme occasions, shouting at her. It did not seem to be her desire on those occasions to help him to do things right, rather to point out that he had done them wrong; or was in serious danger of doing them wrong; and to make sure that everyone in the place saw her doing it, saw her stressing her superiority over him, heard her correcting him, observed her making it clear that he was frequently, so frequently at fault, that he might be her son, but she was not prepared to tolerate his ineptitude.
Her own perfectionism, her attention to detail, her almost visionary capacity for predicting literary taste, were legendary in the industry at large, let alone within Lyttons; she was talked about, admired, adulated, a legend in her own time. And it was well-earned that admiration, that adulation; the beautiful, brilliant Lady Celia Lytton moved among the great literary figures of her day, took her place alongside the greatest editors, the finest publishers, the most brilliant authors. And that was quite right and as it should be, Giles knew; his own father admired and respected her skills as much as anyone. But it did seem to him that she could afford to be at least a little generous in furthering the ambitions and supporting the career of her own son: rather than crushing them at every turn with something so fierce and ferocious he would have called it jealousy, had not the very notion seemed absurd.
‘I think we’re getting it,’ said Venetia, bursting into the small sitting room that she and Adele shared, ‘isn’t that thrilling?’
‘Don’t tell me!’
‘I am telling you. I heard Mummy talking to Brunson. She said to be sure to see he kept the area in front of the house clear this afternoon. Now why else should he do that?’
‘Can’t think. Does sound promising, doesn’t it? Oh, how marvellous. Mind you, it is time. I mean—’
‘I know. Her very own too. Just for driving herself up and down to Oxford.’
‘Well, but we’d rather share, wouldn’t we? I wonder what it’ll be. I mean one of those darling baby Austins would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?’
‘Utterly wonderful. Of course, a sports car would be more – dashing. Bunty Valance has got an Aston Martin, can you imagine. You don’t think we might—?’
‘Not a chance,’ said Adele, ‘we can’t really drive yet, they’re bound to give us something tame to learn on. Can’t be very difficult, can it?’
‘Of course not. Bunty said it’s simply a matter of being able to keep going in a straight line, and learning which pedal to stop and which to go.’
‘Well, there you are then. What heaven. I must say, I’m looking forward to tonight as well—’
‘Me too,’ said Venetia.
Adele looked at her. ‘Especially seeing—’
‘Well – yes. I suppose so. I mean – yes. Adele, you do think—’
‘Definitely. Couldn’t have been more obvious—’
‘Truly. And Babs says he’s left—’
‘But you didn’t say—?’
‘Of course not. Because she rather does—’
‘Herself? I thought so.’
‘But you’re much more—’
‘Do you think so?’
‘Not just think,’ said Adele. ‘I know.’
‘Goody,’ said Venetia with great satisfaction. This was the kind of conversation the twins had all the time; not quite telepathic, but truncated, a kind of verbal shorthand, phrases, subjects anticipated and therefore the need to actually speak them removed. It had driven two nannies and a governess close to madness; fascinated their friends, irritated their brothers, and absolutely enraged their mother, who could not bear to be excluded from anything.
‘I wonder what Maud’s doing?’ said Adele suddenly. ‘On her birthday.’
‘Still asleep, at this very minute I expect. It’s only six o’clock over there.’
Maud Lytton was their cousin; born by some strange quirk of human biology exactly one year after them; they only met occasionally, but they were rather fond of her.
‘Of course. I always forget. One of these years we ought to spend the day together. She’s such fun.’
‘Bit of a long journey for a birthday tea. But – yes. It’s time she came over again. We should suggest it. Mummy’s a bit funny about her, though, isn’t she?’
‘Only because she’s American. She thinks they’re all common. She kept saying how absurd it is Maud being a debutante next year. Without any royalty or court to be presented at, just something called the Assembly or something.’
‘She’s so ridiculous,’ added Venetia with a giggle. ‘Mummy, I mean, and to think she used to be a socialist.’
‘Oh, I know. You should hear Barty and Giles on the subject.’
‘I’d rather not, I think. Come on, let’s go. Now, shall we have the Marcel wave or not?’
Venetia hesitated. ‘Not today. We might not like it and that would spoil tonight. Next time?’
They arrived back just before lunch. The morning had not been quite absorbed by the hairdressers, they had made a trip to Harvey Nichols where they bought each other a birthday present, a tradition since they had first had their own spending money at the age of eight.
Today, the presents they bought one another were diamanté clips for their hair, Adele’s an arrow-like shape, Venetia’s a curving crescent moon; they agreed that they would wear them that evening. They went to their rooms to wrap them up, to exchange at gift-time (seven o’clock cocktails before dinner); they always did that as well, it made the presents more formal, more worthy of a birthday than if they just handed them to one another over luncheon.
Luncheon they were taking that day informally, in the nursery dining room with Nanny; they adored her, and felt for her, bereft as she was of charges during the day now that Kit was at school. Kit was eight; unlike Giles, he had not been sent away to Prep school; besotted with her youngest, Celia had refused to part with him, to subject him to the brutality and misery she knew Giles had endured. Time enough for him to go, she had said, at thirteen, and the headmaster of the school she had chosen, a small establishment in Hampstead much favoured by the intelligentsia of the day, had said he was an absolute certainty for Winchester, and possibly even as a scholar; it was one of the innumerable sources of resentment Giles felt against his small brother.
‘Darling Nanny, it’s beautiful,’ said Venetia.
‘Absolutely wonderful,’ said Adele.
They sat side by side on the nursery sofa, smiling at Nanny, holding her gift; it was a small but very pretty cut glass vase. She liked to give them one present between them for their birthday (although not Christmas), and their parents had very often done the same, one dolls’ house, one dolls’ pram (although twin style), one artist’s easel and box of paints, leaving it to others to supply the two dolls, the two pairs of roller skates, the two tricycles.
‘It makes sense, really,’ Nanny would say, ‘only one birthday, after all.’
The twins never minded – as some did – being turned into one in this way; they saw themselves if not quite as one, then certainly two parts of a whole. They still liked to dress identically, partly for fun, partly because, as Venetia had remarked, ‘We always know exactly how we look. We don’t need mirrors.’
This was a slight over-simplification, since they both spent a great deal of time looking in mirrors, but the fact remained that studying a possible dress or suit, hat or hairstyle on a living image made decisions a great deal easier.
‘We just looked at each other,’ Venetia had more than once said, ‘soon after we got to the party, and we knew we had to go home and change.’
Usually they shopped together; but if they were out separately, they always bought two of whatever they chose. ‘Not so we can dress the same,’ Adele would explain patiently, ‘but because we know the other will want it too.’
The hair clips they had bought that day were the occasional exception; deliberately chosen so that they could be swapped halfway through the evening; the childish fun to be had with that, begun in the nursery, was endless. They had always been sent to school with different coloured hair ribbons; amused and surprised that it should not have occurred to anyone that they would, they swapped them over whenever it suited them. It was a whole term before anyone discovered that the rise and fall in Venetia’s achievement in the private arithmetic lessons she so hated was due to the fact that on alternate sessions it was Adele who sat with the teacher; and their both achieving a distinction in their Grade One piano examination was not so much due to extra practice by the less musically talented Venetia, as to Adele entering the examination room twice. For such sins, they were punished, and quite severely, but to little purpose; they continued, with blithe disregard for such consequences, to exploit their situation.
The only thing they could not bear, and the threat of which ensured good behaviour, was separation; when Adele was eleven months old, she had been rushed into hospital for one night, with (happily) misdiagnosed diphtheria. Left with a frantically distraught Venetia, Nanny had, in an inspired and legendary desperation at two in the morning, placed a mirror in her cot; Venetia had fallen asleep almost at once, cradling it in her plump arms.
‘So, what are you doing the rest of the day?’ asked Nanny now, heaping shepherd’s pie (another nursery birthday tradition) on to their plates. ‘Shopping, I suppose.’ She sounded faintly disapproving; she felt the twins were over-frivolous. In this she was not alone; their mother, who had confidently expected them to go to university, or to take a secretarial course at the very least, and then to show some interest in working at Lyttons, was much of the same opinion.
‘I find it quite distressing,’ she said to Oliver at least once a week, ‘that all those girls want to do is first buy clothes and then wear them. That expensive education, totally wasted.’
To which Oliver would reply that one ambitious woman in a family was quite enough and that surely the purpose of education was to enrich the mind, rather than train it rigorously for some specific occupation. ‘Their education will be valuable to them whatever they do. Even,’ he added, looking wryly over his spectacles at her, half smiling, ‘if they settle for marriage as their career.’
But Celia was not to be so easily mollified. ‘It’s appalling. They’re clever girls. I wouldn’t mind so much if they were stupid. Just look at Barty, not a day, not an hour wasted, she works so hard—’
And Oliver would then say (skirting round the matter of Barty as he always tried to do) that she would mind very much if the twins were stupid, and that she should be a little patient. ‘They’re very young, let them have some fun. Plenty of time for them to develop careers if they want to.’ And he would then endeavour to change the subject.
‘No, Nanny darling, actually we’re not going shopping,’ said Adele now.
‘I’m pleased to hear it. Waste of God’s good time, shopping, if you ask me.’
‘You sound like Mummy. Why shouldn’t we shop if we want to?’ said Venetia, piling her fork high with shepherd’s pie. ‘Goodness, this is delicious, Nanny.’
‘Anyway, we’re not going shopping because we’ve already done it. And had our hair done,’ said Adele. ‘So we’re staying in this afternoon and – well, just staying in. Getting ready for tonight.’ She looked at Nanny. ‘You haven’t heard any rumours about – about this afternoon, have you, Nanny?’
‘What sort of rumours?’ said Nanny. She sounded flustered. ‘And anyway, you know I’m always the last to hear anything in this house. Now, Adele, look what you’re doing, you don’t want to get gravy on that pretty dress.’
The twins exchanged a look; Nanny’s inability to deceive over even the mildest matter was legendary.
They were not too surprised therefore – although rapturously delighted – when Brunson called them downstairs in the middle of the afternoon, saying there was a delivery for them, and they opened the front door to see their parents standing in the sunshine, one on each side of a scarlet Austin Seven, and holding a banner across it which said Happy Birthday. The next two hours were spent weaving rather unsteadily up and down the Embankment, under the instruction of Daniels, the chauffeur; they came into the house at six, flushed with triumph and saying there was nothing to it.
‘And we thought we’d drive ourselves down to Sussex tomorrow afternoon,’ said Adele carelessly to her mother, pulling off her gloves, throwing them down on the hall table, ‘so much less trouble for everyone.’
To which Celia replied that it would be a great deal of trouble for everyone if they had a crash and that they would not be driving themselves anywhere for several weeks.
‘That’s so unfair! Barty drove herself up to Oxford last term.’
‘Barty had had hours of driving lessons and had to satisfy both your father and me that she was competent before we allowed that.’
‘Billy told me she was hopeless,’ said Adele with great satisfaction.
‘Billy is her brother. He’d be bound to say something like that. Barty drives extremely well. Venetia, don’t make that stupid face. Really, it’s hard to believe you two are eighteen years old. Now, hadn’t you better go and have your baths? Your friends will be arriving in less than an hour. Not to mention – yes, Brunson?’
‘Telephone, Lady Celia. Mr Brooke.’
‘Oh – yes, thank you, Brunson. I’ll take it upstairs in my study.’
Celia picked up her heavy silver hairbrush and hurled it across her bedroom. It hit the wall above her bed, narrowly missed the wall light and dropped rather ignominiously silently on to her pillow. She glared at it, stood up and stalked over to the window, looked down at the Embankment. It blurred with her tears; the realisation that she was crying made her angrier still. ‘Damn,’ she said, ‘damn damn damn. Filthy bloody manners. You don’t treat people like that, Sebastian, you simply don’t.’
She pulled her dressing-table door open viciously, took out her cigarette case and paced up and down the room, smoking, inhaling hard, trying to calm herself. It was absurd, she knew, to be so upset. But she was. And the twins would be upset too, when they heard he was going to be late for their birthday dinner, very late, possibly not arriving until it was over, simply because he had been delayed in Oxford, because of some ridiculous additional reading he had agreed to give at the last minute. He should have refused, it was outrageous: it was cruel as well as ill-mannered and inconsiderate, to inform her at – Celia looked at her watch – at six, only a little over an hour before he was due at the house.
‘Bastard. Bastard—’ She had not realised she was speaking aloud; very aloud. Kit put his head round her door.
‘Mummy? You all right?’
‘Yes. Yes, I’m fine. Thank you, darling.’
‘I thought I heard you shouting. You don’t look fine.’
‘Well, I am. Good day at school?’
‘Yes, very. Where are the twins?’
‘What’s that wizard car outside?’
‘The little red one? It’s their birthday present.’
‘They’ve got a car! Lucky beasts. Can I go and sit in it? When can I have a ride, I want a go—’
Celia laughed, restored as always to good humour and happiness by his presence. The intensity of her feelings for Kit, her beloved youngest child, was so powerful it eclipsed almost every other emotion she knew. Not only beautiful, with his bright gold hair and his dark-blue eyes, not only brilliant – reading at four, writing stories and poetry at seven – but hugely charming, with the kind of social grace seldom seen in a child. At an age when most boys were able to converse only about cricket, model trains and the beastliness of school, Kit liked to talk about books, other people, adults as well as his own friends, and the events of the day. He read the newspaper quite thoroughly every morning at breakfast, and for his last birthday had requested his own Gecophone radio, with its horn and neat wooden box, so much more convenient than a crystal set, so that he could listen to the news and to concerts in his own room.
The twins found this entirely baffling; their own preferred, and indeed only, form of home entertainment being the gramophone on which they played records of dance music, practising new steps with one another ready for the next party or nightclub. Neither did they read the newspapers or books; fashion and society magazines satisfied all their literary requirements.
‘You’ll grow up dreary and boring like Giles,’ they had warned Kit more than once, ‘or even Barty.’ To which he would reply that he thought Barty was the jolliest of girls, and Giles not boring at all either; but in fact he was not in the least serious himself, he had a sense of humour and fun that was irresistible and inexhaustible and he loved to sit on the twins’ beds listening to them chattering and giggling, asking them about their friends, most of whom made a great fuss of him when they came to the house, and where they were going that evening.
‘You’d better be careful, baby brother,’ Venetia had said one night, ‘Mummy wouldn’t approve of your interest in this sort of thing you know. Far too frivolous.’
‘Mummy approves of everything I do,’ said Kit, with the sublime self-confidence of the youngest child, and although he smiled as he said it, it was perfectly true.
Later, when he had gone to bed, Adele said, ‘He is a dear little chap. He is awfully pretty too. Good thing he’s not going away to school just yet. Perhaps that’s why Mummy wouldn’t let him—’
‘Oh it’s much worse at public school,’ said Venetia airily, ‘Boy Warwick told me he had the most terrible time at Eton until he learned to box. After that they left him alone. Anyway, I’m sure Mummy doesn’t know about that sort of thing.’
‘Kit, run along, darling,’ said Celia now, ‘go and get changed for dinner.’
‘And don’t say OK in your grandmama’s hearing. Please.’
She looked at him sharply; his face was innocently blank. Then he grinned at her. ‘I won’t. I promise. Hallo, Father, just going.’
Oliver disapproved of his rather constant visits to their bedroom; he frowned at Celia. She was stubbing out her cigarette.
‘I wish you wouldn’t smoke in our bedroom, Celia.’
‘I’m sorry, Oliver.’ She so rarely apologised, that she was surprised to hear herself doing it. ‘I was – very annoyed about something.’
‘Then perhaps you should try to be annoyed in your study. What is it?’
‘Sebastian’s going to be very late. Possibly not here until after nine.’
‘Really? That’s unlike him. What’s happened?’
‘He’s been asked to give a second reading. At the Bodleian. The first one was sold out completely.’
‘Well, that’s good, I suppose. For all of us.’
‘You know perfectly well that’s not the point. It’s rude and unkind and extremely arrogant. Clearly being the most prominent children’s author in the country has finally gone to his head. The twins will be so upset—’
‘Celia, I don’t really think they’ll mind very much at all. They have their own friends here, they’re going on to some nightclub, I don’t really think the absence of one rather elderly gentleman—’
‘Sebastian is not elderly, Oliver. He’s our – your age.’
‘And no doubt seems very elderly to them. Of course it’s a shame, but I’m sure he’ll do his best to get here. He’s very professional. You of all people should respect that.’
Celia was silent. ‘I’ll go and have my bath,’ she said finally, ‘someone has to be ready for this birthday party.’
Years of painful experience had taught her when to give in; when – and only when – Oliver had her in checkmate.
‘Celia, dear, you look tired.’
‘Well, thank you for that, LM,’ said Celia, slightly coldly. They were moving into the dining room after cocktails (mixed rather inexpertly by the twins themselves). ‘Exactly what one wants to hear at the beginning of an evening. I’m not in the least tired, as a matter of fact.’
‘Well, I’m delighted to hear it,’ said LM. ‘I envy you. I’m very tired myself.’
Celia looked at her: it was true. LM did look – well, not exhausted, but weary. She worked much too hard; her position as managing director of Lyttons demanded it to an extent of course, but she could perfectly well have more help. She always said it wasn’t worth it, that it would be more trouble than it was worth. Probably right, too; in Celia’s experience, it was usually a great deal quicker and easier to do things yourself. Just the same, LM wasn’t very young any more: Oliver’s big sister, as she always described herself, was fifty-four this year. The initials actually stood for Little Margaret, for she had been named after her mother; but no name could have suited her less and indeed nobody remembered it most of the time. She was a daunting figure, and became more so as she grew older: tall, very tall, over six foot, thin, with a deep voice and extraordinarily probing dark eyes in a pale face. She dressed with great severity, almost eccentricity, even now wearing the uniform of her girlhood, long skirts, tailored shirts and cravats, tailored jackets, and her mass of dark hair, greying now, was drawn tautly back into a rigidly neat chignon. But she was an acutely attractive woman, with an instant and rather surprising warmth and a quick, sharp humour; men still found her sexually attractive and women invariably liked her too for her directness and lack of guile. She was, Celia often said, her very best friend; they had been through a great deal together.
‘How’s Jay?’ said Kit politely as they sat down. He had been placed next to LM at Celia’s suggestion, knowing he would ask her about Jay, and that she would be able to answer at great length.
‘He’s very well, thank you. Enjoying this term. He’s being tried out for the junior First Eleven already, and he’s playing tennis for his junior house team. And then he’s in the choir—’ LM’s voice had softened; her adoration of Jay, her only child, was legendary in the family, and the only time anyone had seen her cry had been when he had gone away to Winchester the term before. Indeed Gordon, her husband and Jay’s stepfather, had frequently said he would name Jay in any divorce petition he brought.
‘No doubt at all about who LM loves best,’ he would say cheerfully, his pale blue eyes twinkling at her, ‘and it isn’t me.’
A lesser man might have been genuinely jealous of Jay and of LM’s passion for him; but Gordon Robinson was blithely unconcerned by it. He had fallen in love with LM and married her only six years earlier; to him, Jay had been a part not simply of LM’s life but of her very self, and her love for him was essential to her own generous and passionate nature. The fact that she was too old to bear him a child of his own was of no interest to him; small children horrified him. Jay, at eight, tough, cheerful, hugely intelligent, with a passion for the countryside and for wildlife that matched his own, seemed to Gordon an ideal child, readily assimilated into his life.
Gordon came into the room now, talking intently to Oliver; he towered over everyone, making even the huge dining room seem suddenly smaller. He was enormously tall, six foot seven, one of the few men LM could literally look up to, as she often said. Celia adored him, said he was the best addition to the family since herself.
‘My dear Celia, may I say again how lovely you look. Incredible that you should be the mother of all these grown-up children.’
‘I’m not grown up,’ said Kit, ‘I keep her feeling young. Don’t I, Mummy?’
‘For now you do, Kit, yes. I don’t want you growing up any more, though.’
Kit smiled at her. ‘I’ll try.’
‘If you succeed,’ said Oliver, ‘I hope you’ll share your secret with the rest of us. Now, Gordon, why don’t you sit next to Celia, Sebastian is going to be late, detained at some reading or other and Venetia, you sit here next to me and then you, young man and—’
It had been a very good party so far, Giles thought; everyone was chattering away, no one sitting awkwardly silent – except for him, of course. He was used to it, to feeling dull and awkward in company, it was as much a part of any social occasion as getting dressed up and then trying not to drink too much in an attempt to feel more relaxed. But it didn’t get any easier. He looked at them all rather wistfully. His grandmother, the Countess of Beckenham, was delivering a rather technical lecture to anyone who would listen on the importance of keeping bloodstock pure and his grandfather was having a perfectly wonderful time with one of the twins’ prettier friends, apparently listening intently to her account of all the dances she had attended that season, but his attention, Giles knew, was fixed entirely on her unfashionably full bosom. (It had been agreed beforehand with the twins that her personality was quite robust enough to withstand such an onslaught.)
Oliver’s younger brother Jack and the lovely Lily – as she had been known on the theatre posters when Jack had first met her – were sitting rather unconventionally next to one another; they liked to do this, being still rather engagingly in love after seven years of marriage. Giles was half in love with Lily himself; she was so absolutely gorgeous with her red hair and her extremely full white bosom. And Boy Warwick, of course, was charming everyone as usual: smooth bastard, thought Giles. God, he envied him. Most of his relationship with Boy was based on envy, he could never quite understand why they were friends. But for some reason, Boy liked him, had always liked him, from the first days at Eton, when Boy had seemed so glamorous and grown up, Giles so young for his age and homesick, through their years at Oxford (where Boy had arrived with his own servant, into a set of the best rooms, and proceeded to surround himself with the most glittering, the most brilliant of friends – and Giles); right up to now, when Boy paid the merest lip service to his job at his father’s bank and spent most of his life spending his father’s money, while Giles worked so earnestly and for such long hours at Lyttons, resisting for the most part, Boy’s invitations to luncheons, endless nights at nightclubs, and four-day country house weekends.
The reason was actually quite simple: for all his self-indulgent, almost hedonistic lifestyle, Boy was in fact a nice person, surprisingly loyal to his men friends (although less so to his women); Giles had several times covered up for him in scrapes at both Eton and Oxford, and perhaps more importantly, introduced him to his own family circle, with its own quite different sort of glamour, one which Boy was nevertheless fascinated by and enjoyed.
Celia had always struggled not to like Boy; she found him oversophisticated, even when he was fourteen, and had said several times that he was clearly heading into exactly the same lifestyle as his twice-divorced, much-mistressed father. But she failed, and was extremely fond of him; he was amusing, and as he grew up, increasingly charming, with a fine line in flirtatious flattery that she found hard to resist, even while she could see through it. His most heinous crime, in her view, and the one which she found hardest to forgive was not his extravagance, nor his libertine ways, not even his occasional vulgarity of dress, but his idleness, his capacity for filling his days with nothing but pleasure, his apparent lack of any real ambition. It was, she often told him severely, a disgrace; he had a brilliant mind and indeed had come down from Oxford with a first in Greats, but ever since then he had scarcely used it. There was the odd distraction, he had a share in an art gallery in Cork Street, he was on a couple of boards of charities, and a yard in Gloucestershire where he kept some racehorses, a fact which went a long way towards endearing Lady Beckenham to him: but that was all.
The twins adored him: he was so good-looking, with his permanently amused dark eyes and slicked, black hair, his extensive wardrobe, his stable of cars, his hyper-fashionable flat in the Albany, so charming, so amusing, so rich, and above all so unconcerned with anything more serious than the next party, the last race meeting, the latest fashion or piece of gossip. Giles, on the other hand, actually found him rather overpowering, however flattering his friendship; but he could see that the girls, Venetia particularly, liked him and moreover why they should. His dearest wish, in many ways, would be to quite closely resemble Boy Warwick.
The twins were terribly over-excited and telling increasingly risqué jokes egged on by Jack and Kit, but nobody seemed to mind; Celia had moved from her initial bad mood into her most witty and charming form, as she often did on these occasions, and was flirting alternately with Boy and an extremely handsome young man none of them had ever seen before but whom Adele had introduced as her absolutely greatest friend Charley. Oliver was almost silent, benignly enjoying the party around him while as usual not being quite at one with it.
If only Barty were there, Giles thought; it would be so much nicer. The family never felt complete without her: ironic, since she was not, strictly speaking, a part of it. She always made him feel happy, happy and at ease; just thinking of her now soothed his discomfort. He imagined her studying in her room at Oxford, quietly and methodically, setting her cool, calm intelligence to work. Not that she’d be exactly enjoying this evening if she was here; she didn’t really like any of the twins’ friends, and she’d hate the idea even more of going on to the Embassy nightclub, as Adele was now suggesting. Just the same, it would have been nice for him . . .
Thank goodness, just thank goodness she wasn’t there, Barty thought, pushing her books back, reaching for her cup of cocoa. She hadn’t dared stop before, partly because she would lose concentration and start thinking about the twins’ birthday dinner and partly because she knew she would realise how tired she was. She still had a great deal of ground to cover that evening, she really wanted to make a start on the Chaucer; but she simply had to have a break. And of course she did start thinking about the birthday party. Most years, even after she had gone up to Oxford she had had to endure it; once in the early days she’d escaped, her mother had been ill, and once she had been ill herself, and there had been the School Certificate year, she’d got out of it then. But that still left quite a few birthdays – for the tradition had started early, when the twins were only nine – of sitting and smiling till her face ached, trying not to feel jealous, trying to enjoy herself, and trying to make the right sort of conversation. It had been especially hard when she was younger, wishing and wishing that Celia hadn’t insisted on it, had let her stay up in the nursery with Nanny, where she felt she more properly belonged. Only of course she didn’t belong there either, and although Nanny was always really nice to her, she knew she found her presence difficult and confusing as well.
As Barty had got older, the feelings of anxiety and envy had been replaced by a sort of resignation, but it was still an especially difficult occasion, with the twins being so over-excited and more likely to patronise her than usual, and some poor boy or other put next to her, having to talk to her while not knowing quite what to make of her – was she a Lytton or wasn’t she – oh, it was always horrible. This year she had the perfect excuse, the perfect escape, no one could be upset. It was wonderful. One of the happiest days in her entire life, she often thought (though of course never said, never would say, to anyone), was when she went up to Oxford, and left the huge house at Cheyne Walk to make a new home for herself, for three years at least, at Lady Margaret Hall. As she waved Celia off – for of course she had insisted on coming up with her, to help her settle in – she had felt only joy, and no regret of any kind, no nervousness even. Except for Celia’s obvious sadness, of course: and at leaving dear Wol as she had always called Oliver. She had turned back into the building, climbed the stairs to her room, and sat there for over an hour, doing nothing at all, contemplating the pure pleasure of being, for the first time in her life, somewhere that was hers by right, where she felt she truly belonged.
And now it was nearly over; she would have to leave again and she was, as well as sad, anxious at where she could go next. Which could certainly not be Cheyne Walk: or not for long, anyway…
Dinner was very much over now; the conversation running down, the early brightness of the evening fading. Venetia felt suddenly and sharply sad; she wanted the day to extend. It must, she would force it. She stood up, smiled round the table. ‘Well, shall we all go to the Embassy? It’s getting late and the others will be there and—’
Adele stood up too. ‘Yes, let’s go. Mummy and Daddy, that was marvellous. Thank you—’
‘Just a moment,’ said Oliver, ‘we’ve forgotten one toast. To Cousin Maud. Come along now.’
This was part of the tradition too: the family raised its glasses, the outsiders had it quickly explained to them.
‘Happy birthday, Maud,’ said Adele.
‘Cheers,’ said Venetia. ‘Happy birthday, Maud.’
‘What a dreadful expression that is, Venetia,’ said Lady Beckenham. ‘Where on earth did you pick it up?’
‘What, “cheers”? Grandmama, everyone says it now.’
‘That doesn’t make it any better. Anyway, how are those relatives of yours, Oliver?’ Lady Beckenham liked to make it clear to outsiders that any vulgarity in the family did not come from the Beckenham side.
‘Very well, thank you, Lady Beckenham. Yes.’ After twenty-four years of marriage to her daughter, Oliver was still unable to address Lady Beckenham by a more familiar name; as she addressed her own husband still as ‘Beckenham’, this was hardly surprising.
‘We were saying, Daddy, it was time another visit was arranged. Either for us or them. What do you think?’ said Venetia.
‘Oh – I don’t know,’ said Oliver.
‘But you’re always going over there. Surely you could take us with you.’
‘I’m not always going to New York, Adele.’
‘Yes you are. It’s so selfish. You and Mummy.’
‘True, I do go twice a year, your mother far less often, but it’s purely to visit the New York office. Not a pleasure trip.’
‘Mummy seems to take enough clothes for a pleasure trip when she goes,’ said Venetia. ‘Trunks and trunks of them. I don’t believe you, I think you have lots of fun. I think we should all go, Giles as well. He ought to go anyway, visit the outpost of the Lytton empire. I’m sure Uncle Robert would be pleased to see us.’
‘Venetia, Robert is just as busy as we are,’ said Celia firmly. She had clearly not liked the reference to trunkloads of clothes. ‘He certainly wouldn’t have time to arrange all sorts of nonsense for you and Maud.’
‘Mummy, Maud and us could arrange things on our own,’ said Adele, ‘you’re so old fashioned. I’m going to write to Maud and suggest it. Now look, we really must go. Come on, everyone, Boy, stop flirting with my grandmother – oh, Sebastian darling, you’ve made it. How absolutely lovely, and how dreadfully, dreadfully sad, we’re just leaving.’
‘Leaving? What for, work? Am I that late?’ Sebastian Brooke stood smiling into the room. ‘I’m so very sorry. Oliver, how good to see you. Celia, do please forgive me. LM, Gordon, good evening to you, and Lady Beckenham, how nice. What a gathering I’ve been unfortunate enough to miss. Lord Beckenham, what a delight, how are you—’
He moved round the room, easily, perfectly charming, giving the evening a new edge, fresh life. Old bugger, thought Giles, who was very fond of him, he could charm the birds not just out of the trees but into a cage, a glittering, golden cage where they would stay entranced with no need for anyone even to close the door. Only his mother appeared unimpressed, unpleased; giving a cool nod, a frosty smile, and even those reluctantly.
‘Sebastian,’ said Adele, slipping her arm through his, ‘we’re going to the Embassy, do you want to come? Please do, you know how you love dancing and the Prince of Wales might be there, as it’s Thursday and—’
‘My darling, how could I leave so lovely a party when I’ve only just arrived? Besides, this claret your father’s just given me is far too good to rush.’
‘But the party’s over,’ said Venetia. ‘We’re all going.’
‘Not all,’ said Oliver, ‘some of us elderly folk are staying put.’
‘Well, I don’t know why. Mummy loves to go out. Jack and Lily, you’ll come, won’t you, and – LM, what about you?’
‘We might join you,’ said LM, her long face very serious. ‘Don’t you think, Gordon? It’s a long time since I went out dancing. And I’d certainly like to see the Prince of Wales, if you really think he might be there.’
‘Oh, well, of course we don’t actually know,’ said Adele hastily, ‘it’s just that if he does go it’s on a Thursday. And—’
‘I really think, my dear, I’d rather not,’ said Gordon Robinson. He sounded alarmed. ‘I have a very busy day tomorrow and—’
‘Well, I could go on my own with the young. I daresay one or two of these charming gentlemen would dance with me.’
There was a polite murmur of assent around the table; LM stood up. ‘Good.’ The twins stared at her, their eyes very wide.
She smiled, her sudden, brilliant smile. ‘I’m glad chivalry is not quite dead. But it’s all right, I won’t come and spoil your fun. Another night perhaps. And we will leave now, I think. It’s late and I, too, have a very difficult day tomorrow. You go off and enjoy yourselves. Gordon, you can stop looking so frightened. And ask Brunson for my coat, would you?’
‘No really, girls, I’ll stay,’ said Sebastian, ‘and here, I almost forgot. Your presents. Now if you don’t like them, Aspreys will change them. I shan’t be a bit hurt. And they come with all my love.’
The twins unwrapped their parcels, drawing silver cigarette cases out of the Asprey packaging with cries of ‘Oh, how lovely’ and ‘Utter bliss’ and ‘Sebastian, you shouldn’t have’ and ‘As if we’d change these’.
‘We’ll take them with us now,’ said Adele, kissing him, ‘and I wish you’d come with them. Won’t you change your mind?’
‘Please, please do,’ said Venetia. ‘Move, Adele, I want a chance to kiss him too. Thank you so much, Sebastian. And Mummy, Daddy, thank you for the most wonderful evening. See you later. We’ll be terribly quiet.’
‘Phew,’ said Venetia, piling into a taxi with Adele and Giles and Boy. ‘That was close. LM, I mean. I really thought she meant it, that she was going to come.’
‘I think she’s splendid,’ said Boy. ‘I would have danced with her.’
‘Boy! When you’ve got me!’ said Venetia.
‘Yes. Even when I’ve got you. I like older ladies. They’re so interesting.’
‘There’s nothing very interesting about LM,’ said Adele firmly. ‘All she’s ever done is work at Lyttons. And she’s so – so old-maidish.’
‘Absolute nonsense,’ said Boy, ‘she’s a very sensual woman.’
Adele stared at him. ‘Sensual! LM! But Boy, she’s so old.’
‘She’s not old, she’s mature. And you shouldn’t confuse sex and youth,’ he added, sounding suddenly rather pompous. ‘Giles, old chap, what do you think? Wouldn’t you agree with me that your aunt is a very attractive woman?’
‘I’m not – sure,’ said Giles. ‘I’ve only ever thought of her as my aunt. And she is quite old.’
‘Well – she is,’ said Adele thoughtfully, ‘but I suppose she is a bit of a mystery. I mean, there’s Jay for a start. I could never quite believe in the husband of only a few weeks being killed in the war . . .’
‘Happy birthday, Maud, my darling. Sorry to be late for our tea. Here, present from your old dad—’
‘Daddy! Tiffany’s! How lovely. Oh, I love these boxes and the white ribbon so much – oh, Daddy! Thank you so much. Oh, it’s lovely. Simply beautiful. Here, put it on me. Let me get to a mirror quickly. It’s – oh, it’s heaven. I shall never take it off again.’
‘Darling, I hope you will. Diamond watches don’t benefit from being put into the bath. Or taken out riding.’
‘I know, I know. But it’s ravishing. Thank you. Here, let me kiss you again.’
Robert Lytton sat back in his chair, smiling at her, thinking that every year made her so much more than a daughter to him, that she was also companion, confidante and best friend. And, indeed, had been for most of her life; and the feeling was, he knew, mutual. Their love for one another was absolute, and remarkably untinged by any serious jealousy or possessiveness on Robert’s part. He had brought her up alone from the age of two when her mother had died; they had faced the world together and made for themselves a very happy life. He had built the house where they lived for her, planned his social life round her, run his company with her always in mind. He refused to travel too much, or to work too late, turned down many social engagements so that he might be at home with her, and at all times endeavoured to encourage her interest in what he did. It was not difficult; Maud was as fascinated by the real estate industry as most girls of her age and social status were by clothes and boys.
Not that those things did not charm and engage her too; but her greatest happiness was found in accompanying her father to building sites, where she would stalk about in the mud, wearing trousers and stout shoes, holding her own set of plans and gazing up at where the next great skyscraper might rise, or the latest chic hotel stand, asking questions, making suggestions (and even, at times, quite sharp observations). She was about to go into her last year at the Chapin school, an exclusive (and academically excellent) establishment in New York for girls; she hoped after that and after her debutante season – to which she had agreed without a great deal of enthusiasm – to go on to Vassar to study architecture, and thence to Lytton Brewer Real Estate as a junior partner and thus become involved in her own right. Most of her contemporaries thought she was quite mad.
‘And you really don’t mind having dinner alone with me and Jamie tonight?’ said Robert now.
‘Of course I don’t mind. I’ll love it. And I want to hear all about Jamie’s latest young lady. I wish he’d bring her.’
‘He says she doesn’t deserve it yet. I don’t know what that means quite.’
‘Nor do I. Here, have some birthday cake.’
‘Mmm. Delicious. Dear Martha. She never fails. Amazing. She must be the oldest cook in New York.’
‘And absolutely the best.’ Maud licked her fingers one by one, then said, ‘I wonder how the twins are. What they’re doing today.’
‘Driving their parents insane as usual, I expect. I had a letter from Oliver, saying happy birthday to you, and that he and, possibly, Celia are coming over next month.’
‘I wish they’d bring the twins. It would be such fun.’
‘Maud, those trips are—’
‘I know, I know, business. Well, we’ll just have to arrange something of our own. I really can’t wait until you old fogies decide to have another big family party or wedding or something.’
‘Well you might have to.’
‘Might not be that long,’ said Maud, kissing him, ‘there must be lots of weddings waiting to happen. When you think about it . . .’
Venetia looked at Boy Warwick, dancing energetically with Bunty Valance, and wondered if she’d been wrong and Adele had been wrong, and whether he was even the tiniest bit interested in her. He’d only danced with her once, and since then had done the Charleston with Babs Rowley – who really was a rather annoyingly good dancer – the foxtrot with Adele – well, that was all right, of course – and was now doing a very showy blackbottom with some other girl he’d met there, not even in their party. It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t. It was spoiling the birthday and – he came back to the table now, smiled at them all, mopping his brow rather theatrically.
‘That was hard work. Noël Coward’s on the floor now, have you seen him, wonderful dancer he is. And yes, we were right, there’s the Prince. And with Thelma. I know how fascinated you girls are by her.’
‘I couldn’t care less who he’s with,’ said Venetia sulkily, but she stared at the Prince of Wales and the beautiful Lady Furness in fascination just the same.
‘Isn’t she lovely?’ said Adele, who had also been watching her, transfixed.
‘Not as lovely as you, my darling,’ said Boy, ‘as either of you.’ And he took both their hands, raised them to his lips and kissed them simultaneously. ‘Come on, let me see if I can dance with both of you at once.’
Later, the band playing a waltz, Venetia danced alone with Boy, felt his smooth hand on her bare back, his warm body pressed against hers. She had had too many cocktails before dinner and too much champagne since; she leaned just slightly too heavily against him.
‘That’s nice,’ he said, into her ear. ‘Very nice. You’re very beautiful, Venetia. Very beautiful indeed. And in that dress, you look exactly like a print I bought the other day, by Lepape.’
She knew who Lepape was, of course, and was particularly familiar with his wonderful covers for Vogue: the twins might spend their days shopping and their nights dancing, but they had not grown up in their father’s house without absorbing certain extremely important tracts of knowledge.
‘Goodness. You’ve got Lepape prints?’
‘I have. In my flat. Quite a collection. Lots of them, many of ladies who look like you. You should come and see them some time. Both of you,’ he added an almost imperceptible second later.
Venetia perceived that second. She also knew what it meant: and she recognised what he was saying. She took a deep breath.
‘We don’t always go everywhere together, you know,’ she said, and smiled up at him. And then felt horribly shocked at herself. It was not so much the clear commitment – as he would quite rightly interpret it – to go to his flat, with all that it implied; it was rather the fact that for almost the first time in her life she had committed a betrayal of her absolute closeness and loyalty to Adele.
‘Good,’ was all Boy Warwick said.
‘Well, Sebastian, do tell us all about your meeting,’ said Celia, ‘it must have been very well attended.’
They were still in the dining room but almost alone; even Kit had been banished, sent protesting to bed.
‘It was,’ said Sebastian. ‘Which was nice for me. And for Lyttons of course,’ he added, leaning back in his chair, smiling at her. ‘I sold a great many books this evening.’
‘Splendid,’ said Oliver, ‘well done. I’m sure you did us proud, Sebastian. As always. And how is Meridian Times Five coming along? We will – I mean—’ His voice tailed off; Sebastian laughed.
‘Oliver, of course you will. Have I ever failed you? You shall have your new book, in good time for Christmas publication. And with luck, all the children are waiting for it; plus a few hundred new ones.’
‘Of course. But I worry about the old ones these days,’ said Oliver, ‘that they will begin to grow out of the books.’
‘I too. But if the reviewers are to be believed, and indeed our own letters, then they will not. Children as old as sixty-five read the Meridians. So perhaps we can assume that our first generation reaching double figures, or even their twenties, should not be deterred either.’
‘Let us hope so,’ said Oliver, reaching out, touching the table quickly. He was oddly superstitious.
‘Indeed,’ said Celia. ‘But of course one cannot take these things for granted. Fashions come and go in publishing as in everything else. These new books of A. A. Milne’s are extremely popular.’
‘My dear, I hardly think some rather whimsical stories and poems about a toy bear can compete with Sebastian’s elaborate time fantasies,’ said Oliver mildly, ‘angst-ridden publisher as I am.’
Celia looked first at him, then at Sebastian, her dark eyes unreadable. Then she said, ‘Mr Dickens has swum in and out of fashion more than once already, I might remind you. And complacency is an unattractive quality.’
‘We are not being complacent, Celia,’ said Sebastian, ‘merely cautiously optimistic. Now then, I would like to apologise again for my late arrival. And—’
‘Oh, my dear chap, don’t mention it,’ said Oliver, ‘you were after all working. Extremely hard, I’m sure.’
‘I – was. Yes,’ said Sebastian. ‘But—’ He stood up suddenly, walked to the sideboard, picked up the decanter of port. ‘May I?’
‘Of course. Shall we go into the drawing room?’
‘No,’ said Sebastian, ‘no, let’s stay here. I – well, I have something to tell you both. I – I hope you will be pleased for me.’
‘If it’s good news, then of course we will,’ said Oliver.
There was a silence. Sebastian sat down again, then stood up, walked round the table; they watched him, unsurprised. Such behaviour was not unusual; Sebastian’s restlessness was famous. He was incapable of sitting through a meal, a play, a train journey without several interruptions. He blamed an old war injury to his leg; in fact, it was far more directly attributable to his emotional and mental over-activity.
‘I – well yes, of course it is good news. Very good news. For me.’ He sat down again abruptly, drained his glass of port. ‘I – well, the fact of the matter is, I have – that is, I would like to tell you about someone. Someone I have met.’
‘Someone?’ said Oliver, smiling at him gently. ‘A female someone, are we to presume?’
‘Indeed. Yes. A female someone. Someone very special, very – very – well, someone who has become very important to me.’
‘This is rather sudden,’ said Celia. Her voice was very quiet. She had become quite still, an absolute contrast to Sebastian; not only was her body totally motionless, but her face as well, quite expressionless, her eyes blank. ‘Do tell us more.’
‘I will. And yes, it is rather – sudden. I have only known her for – well, for a month. Altogether. I met her at another reading I gave. She works for the Bodleian.’
‘Indeed?’ said Celia.
‘Yes. She is a librarian there.’
‘A librarian!’ said Celia. Her tone implied that prostitution might have been preferable.
There was a long silence. Then Oliver said, ‘Well, do go on, my dear old chap. Are we to know a little more about her, her name perhaps?’
‘Her name is Pandora. Pandora Harvey. She lives alone, in Oxford, in a small house—’
‘I imagine she would not require a large one,’ said Oliver, clearly anxious to leaven the mood. Sebastian looked at him gratefully, and smiled.
‘Indeed. I mean, indeed not. She is thirty-one,’ he added, eager now to give as much information as possible, ‘and very charming, and, of course, beautiful. I would have told you about her before, but I felt – what can I say – embarrassed. That I should have – that this should have – happened—’ Sebastian hesitated, then went on, speaking faster with each phrase. ‘Happened so unequivocally and so suddenly. At my rather advanced age.’
‘You make it sound very – serious,’ said Celia. Her voice was louder now.
Sebastian looked at her. There was a long, a very long, silence. Then, ‘It is – serious,’ he said, ‘very serious indeed.’
‘Well,’ said Celia with a rather slight, but gracious, smile. ‘I’m sure she has every virtue. And of course we look forward to meeting her.’
‘You will,’ said Sebastian, ‘of course you will. Very soon. Because you see – well, because we are to be married.’
There was an absolute silence. Then, ‘Married!’ said Celia, and the word cut through the stillness, so loudly it was almost shocking. ‘You are going to be married?’
‘Yes. Yes, I am.’
‘I see,’ she said, and it was as if Oliver was no longer in the room, no part of this conversation, had indeed no need to be. ‘Soon?’
‘Yes, Celia. As soon – as soon as it can be arranged. We see no point in waiting.’
‘I see,’ she said again, and sat back in her chair, staring at him: and then she raised her hand to take a cigarette, knocking over the glass she was holding; the red wine spread slowly across the white tablecloth, sinister and somehow threatening, and looking horribly like blood.
‘Oh, my darling, congratulations. I couldn’t be more delighted, or proud. It’s wonderful news. You must be thrilled. I’m going to organise a big party to celebrate.’
‘Oh no, please don’t!’ Barty felt the familiar panic rising. ‘Honestly, Aunt Celia, I’d rather not.’
‘But – why not? You deserve it and it would be fun—’ She sounded hurt; Barty promptly felt mean. It would be the least she could do, really, to allow Celia to give her a party, small thanks for all her support, both financial and moral through her three years at Oxford. She took a deep breath, forced enthusiasm into her voice.
‘Yes. Yes, of course it would. I’d love it. Thank you. But – maybe not for a week or two. I’m awfully tired and—’
‘Of course. Whenever you like. Three weeks, perhaps? Summer is really more or less over here by then, I’m afraid.’
What she meant, Barty thought, was that the summer season would be more or less over. She smiled; the seriousness with which Celia still addressed the social calendar always amused – and astonished – her. There she was, brilliantly clever and innovative, as important to Lyttons as Oliver himself, if not more so, wielding immense power over authors, books, editors, illustrators, indeed over the entire publishing industry: and she remained obsessed with all the nonsense of her upbringing, country house parties, the London season, race meetings, balls, court dinners, royal garden parties, titles, society gossip – it seemed to Barty, even after all the years she had known Celia, quite extraordinary. And this year, with the twins’ coming out, it had dominated her thoughts and indeed her life more than usual. Well, it didn’t really matter to her; although there had been the hideous time when she had said she really thought Barty should do the season, to have a dance, to be presented. Barty could never remember being so frightened. She had begged Wol to try and talk Celia out of it, but he had said he wouldn’t have a chance; she had even started talking about dates and courts when Lady Beckenham heard of it and told her not to be so ridiculous, and that if she wanted to make both Barty and herself a laughing stock then she was going the right way about it.
‘It’s those absurd socialist principles of yours,’ she said, ‘and I absolutely forbid it.’
Barty, who had been called to the room by Celia while this discussion took place, lest she might wish to express a view, found it difficult to see quite how socialist principles could be applied to a presentation at court, but she accepted Lady Beckenham’s intervention with intense and silent relief. She knew better than to express any emotion of her own, for fear of misinterpretation; but she knew she was safe. Lady Beckenham was the only person in the world who could tell Celia what to do.
Anyway, this was different; a party to celebrate getting a First Class Honours degree in English Literature from Oxford, however terrifying and embarrassing, would at least have some point to it. Again she took a deep breath and said, ‘I think that would be lovely, Aunt Celia. Thank you.’
‘Good. Let me have a list of people you would like to invite yourself as soon as possible, won’t you? And Wol and I will take you out to dinner tonight to celebrate. I expect Giles and the twins and Kit will want to come too. Shall I tell Giles about your success, or would you rather do that yourself?’
‘I’d like to tell him if you don’t mind. Maybe when he gets home—’
‘Oh, I think you should telephone him now. I don’t think I can keep it a secret for long. What did the twins say? They’ll be thrilled—’
Barty said the twins weren’t up yet; she could hardly say what she knew, which was that they would be fairly uninterested in her success, merely annoyed at the contrast with their own lack of academic achievement. ‘But Kit is really excited.’
‘Of course he is. Tell Cook to make a special lunch. Goodbye, darling. Congratulations again.’
‘Thank you. For everything, I mean. See you later.’
She put the phone down, thinking sadly as she always did on such occasions how much her mother would have loved to hear about this, how proud, if uncomprehending, she would be, how she would cry with emotion and then tell Barty how silly she must think her. Billy would be pleased of course; she could tell him. And that was it; nobody else in her own family would understand what she had achieved, nor care. There was no point in telling any of them.
It was at such moments that Barty felt truly alone . . .
‘She’s got her beastly first,’ Venetia walked into their sitting room; Adele was painting her nails.
‘Oh God, now there’ll be trouble. Can’t you just hear Mummy going on and on about it. Did she tell you?’
‘No, Kit did. He’s very excited. They want to take us all out to dinner tonight to celebrate.’
‘Can’t we find something to do?’
‘Don’t think so. Everyone’s away, aren’t they?’ She sounded cross. Adele knew why. Boy was on a cruise in the Mediterranean. He had asked Celia and Oliver if she and Adele could go too, but they had refused, on the grounds that there were no chaperones. Venetia had pointed out that Boy’s mother and her latest lover would be there, but Celia had said briskly that Letitia Warwick, as she still thought of her, was no chaperone for anyone and that her latest lover was no better than a gigolo.
‘Moves from one rich divorced woman to the next. And he’s a dago,’ she had added, clearly feeling that entirely settled the matter.
The Lyttons were taking a villa in the south of France a little later in the year; ‘Madly fun that will be,’ Adele had said darkly, ‘no one but the family, not even Sebastian. God, it’s depressing.’
Their season over, the twins were extremely bored. Several of their friends had already put engagement announcements over moony photographs in the Tatler; for such stars in the social firmament, they had not done as well as either they or their mother might have hoped.
‘Well, we’d better go. I suppose. I mean it is rather clever of her, we mustn’t be mean. But I don’t want to have to talk about it over lunch as well. Let’s go shopping quickly. She’s got Kit after all . . .’
Brunson came into the morning room; Barty smiled at him.
‘Telephone, Miss Miller.’
It always surprised her to hear that. She had been Miss Barty to the servants for so long, until she had gone to Oxford in fact. Then by some strange social process, via Celia she supposed, she had become Miss Miller: more important, a grown up, but at the same time awkwardly further removed from the Lyttons.
‘Oh, thank you, Brunson. Who is it?’
‘It’s Mr Miller, Miss Miller.’
Billy! How had that happened? He never phoned, wasn’t allowed to, naturally.
‘Billy? Hallo, what’s wrong?’
‘Nothing. Just wanted to say congratulations. Well done. You deserve it.’
‘Oh, Billy, thank you. But how did you know and how—’
‘Lady Beckenham come to tell me. Running into the yard, all excited. Said I had to come up to the house and telephone you.’
‘Oh, Billy! That’s really kind of her.’ Barty’s eyes filled with tears; she swallowed hard.
‘Yeah, well, she is kind. Course she is. I know that more than anyone. Anyway, pleased as punch she was. So am I. You got brains, Barty, you really have. Mum would have been pleased, wouldn’t she?’
‘Yes,’ said Barty, ‘yes, she would.’
‘Barty, my darling, it’s Sebastian. I just wanted to congratulate you. It’s fantastic news. I’m so proud of you. Not that I have any right to feel pride, but – well, I’m thrilled.’
‘Who told you?’
‘Oliver. I went into Lyttons this morning. He and Celia are sitting there looking like cats that got a whole cow-full of cream. Can I buy you lunch?’
‘Kit and I are having lunch here,’ said Barty. ‘Cook’s already at work on a feast, I don’t like to disappoint her. Why don’t you come too?’
‘Well – it’s tempting. Will the Terrors be there?’
‘No, they’re going out.’
‘Then I might. No, then I will. I’d love to see you.’
He arrived just before midday, with a huge bunch of roses in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other. He handed the champagne over to Brunson and took her in his arms and hugged her.
‘You clever girl. You clever, clever girl. It’s so marvellous. Pandora sends lots and lots of love.’
‘Thank you. Send mine back, won’t you. Is she well?’
‘Very well. Busy with plans for the wedding.’
‘Which is to be in September, Wol said. At her house in Oxford. Lovely idea, it’s so pretty.’
‘I know. I think so too. I’m having the devil’s own job persuading her to come down and live here afterwards though. She wants to stay there.’
‘Why don’t you?’ said Barty.
‘Because I love my house in London.’
‘Well, why not spend half the time in each?’
‘Oh, much too complicated. Everything is always in the wrong place at the wrong time, clothes, friends, parties. And where would I keep my books?’
‘Well, you could keep one set in each place.’
‘Have you been talking to Pandora?’ said Sebastian suspiciously.
‘No, of course not. It just seems quite – obvious to me. And it is so lovely, her house.’
‘So is mine. Now come along, let’s open that champagne. Kit, hallo old chap. How are you? How do you feel about this brilliant creature in our midst? Something to live up to, eh?’
Kit grinned, shook his hand then gave him a hug; they were extremely fond of one another. Barty watched them as they sat together on the sofa, chatting easily, and thought how oddly alike they were. Both with the same golden looks, both so easily charming; two of her favourite people in the world. One of the proudest moments in her childhood had been when Celia had asked her if she would like to be Kit’s godmother. And Sebastian had always been so kind to her, such a good friend, so interested in everything she did. And she was so proud of knowing him, the most famous children’s author of his day, probably the most famous ever – except, perhaps, for Lewis Carroll. All her friends had been so impressed.
For years she had had something of a crush on him; even now, she thought he was quite absurdly handsome. He hated his looks, said they were a liability rather than an asset, not in the least suited to a children’s author and it was true, he looked more like a film star or at the very least some rather romantic poet. His hair was still dark gold, his eyes an astonishingly brilliant blue, his features perfectly sculptured; he resembled, everyone said, a blond Rudolph Valentino. He was quite heavily built, and had been a fine athlete until an injury in the trenches early in 1916 had left him with a permanent limp – which of course added to his romantic image. Women found him irresistible, and his photograph on posters in bookshops sold a great many books to susceptible young mothers, looking for presents for their children. Even LM agreed he was extremely good-looking, and the twins were always saying he was swoon-making – their latest silly expression. Only Celia seemed impervious to his looks; the twins had once asked her if she didn’t think he was the most handsome man in the whole wide world, including the ones on the silver screen, and she had said quite crossly that she had never really thought about it and that she was a great deal more interested in whether his next book was going to be delivered on time and not be as late as the last one had been.
Barty sometimes wondered if Celia liked Sebastian at all; her attitude towards him was very cool, and she seemed to enjoy nothing more than arguing with him at the slightest opportunity. Giles had reported that she had been absolutely vile to him when he had turned up two hours late for the twins’ birthday dinner: ‘poor chap, he’d only been working as usual, giving a second reading because the first one had sold out’, and that she’d been horribly awkward about meeting Pandora. ‘But then she suddenly gave a big dinner party for her and was unbelievably charming and kept saying Sebastian didn’t deserve her.’
Sebastian actually felt much the same about Pandora himself; and at finding her at a time when he had never thought to experience any such emotion ever again. Men of forty-seven, with a considerable past, containing one marriage and several love affairs, selfish, solitary men, set in their ways, with a breathtakingly successful career to absorb their attentions and their lives, did not, could not, expect to fall in love. And yet he had done so: helplessly, joyously and without any kind of warning.
It had been her voice that he had first fallen in love with; he had been sitting in the Bodleian library after a reading, signing what appeared to be an unstoppable flow of his books, smiling courteously up at his young readers and their parents as they came up to the table one by one, saying he was so glad they liked the latest, that it was most interesting that they still preferred the first, that no, he did not actually have a favourite of his own, that yes of course he would put ‘To Freddie’ above the signature, that no, naturally he would not mind signing an old copy of the first edition, when he had heard it. That soft, low, extraordinarily sweet voice, that nevertheless could be heard quite clearly above the hubbub, offering to fetch him more books from the pile of boxes in the corner; he looked up and saw a small heart-shaped face, a pair of large brown eyes, a gently sympathetic smile, and felt a pang of what he could only call recognition, but so violent it was like a physical blow, leaving him feeling odd, disorientated, slightly dizzy.
‘That would be very kind,’ he had said, trying to steady himself, to find normality, ‘but of course only a few, or get someone to help you, find Mr Jarvis, he usually—’
She smiled again, and turned away; she was small, he noticed, very small, with a long snake of golden brown hair falling down her back, held by a large tortoiseshell slide, and she moved swiftly, gracefully, almost gliding across the room. When she came back with the books, and opened a few of them at the title page, ready for signing, he thanked her profusely and felt bereft when she left him; at the end of the function, he saw her carefully documenting what had been sold and went across to her.
‘I was so grateful for your help,’ he said, ‘thank you.’
‘Don’t be absurd,’ she said, ‘it was nothing. I enjoyed your talk,’ she added, and went back to her task; he felt at once dismissed and encouraged.
‘I get so tired of it,’ he said, and ‘Of what?’ she said, looking up after a long moment, as if distracted, and unwillingly so, from what she was doing.
‘The talk. I do it so often, and it seems to me to be so boring. It probably is,’ he added, ‘but they seemed to enjoy it this afternoon, didn’t they?’
‘Oh, yes, I think so,’ she said.
‘And quite a good number of people, didn’t you think?’
‘Oh, I did. Yes.’
‘It’s always a strain, you know. Wondering if anyone will come, wondering if they’ll laugh at the right moment, all that sort of thing.’
‘I imagine, yes.’
‘You never get used to it. Not really. Absurd, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. I mean no.’ She looked at him very levelly. ‘Mr Brooke – I don’t want to be rude. And I did enjoy your talk and I’m sure everyone did. But I would like to finish this now, it’s getting late.’
‘Oh God, I’m so sorry. How self-centred and selfish of me. Do forgive me. And thank you again.’
‘That’s perfectly all right. Good night.’
‘Good night Miss—’
‘Harvey. Pandora Harvey.’
‘Sebastian Brooke,’ he said, and only realised when he had gone upstairs with Mr Jarvis, the assistant children’s librarian, how absurd she must think him, absurd and self-aggrandising.
He had stayed the night in Oxford, having business to discuss next day with the manager of Blackwells; and then, drawn by what seemed some totally irresistible force, had walked into the Bodleian. She was actually walking out of it at precisely the same time, to go to lunch and then to stay with her mother for a week; he had often wondered since, and trembled at it, what might have happened if his conversation with Blackwells had lasted for even five minutes longer. He smiled and said how very nice to see her again, and might he perhaps take her for tea to show his gratitude for her kindness the night before and his remorse at his fatuous and self-centred attempts at conversation, and she laughed and said she had enjoyed the conversation and could not remember any kindness, that tea would be nice and perhaps even a sandwich since she was hungry.
After that, they went for a walk by the river and then he drove her in his motor car down to the Trout pub on the great wild flats, where she surprised him by asking for half a pint of beer and they watched the peacocks and discovered they shared a passion for (amongst a great many other things) the paintings of Modigliani, the music of George Gershwin and the literary works of A. A. Milne. ‘If you wouldn’t find such fondness for a rival author offensive,’ Pandora added anxiously.
Sebastian, who was growing accustomed to such remarks, said that of course he would not. And then she agreed to telephone her mother and tell her she wouldn’t be arriving until the next day and he bought her dinner at the Randolph. They sat there talking until they were quite alone in the restaurant and the waiters were half asleep, and Sebastian said that he didn’t suppose she would take it at all seriously, but he appeared to be falling in love with her and she said (with a glorious lack of foolish feminine guile) that she would certainly like to take it seriously, and also to think about its implications.
A week later, she telephoned him from her small house in Oxford and invited him to dinner on the following Saturday evening; Sebastian arrived with a bottle of very fine claret, a large bouquet of white roses and a signed, first edition of The House at Pooh Corner. A few other friends were coming, she said, which disappointed him a little, but by one o’clock in the morning and after a very happy evening, and a wonderful meal which she had cooked, the friends had all left and she told him that she did seem to find herself also in love, and if he was still of the same persuasion, then she would be extraordinarily happy. Sebastian woke in the morning in her bed, her small body with its almost alarming capacity for pleasure coiled against his; he asked her to marry him later that day and she accepted.
That had been the simple, straightforward part.
Of course he had known Celia would be upset. He had expected it all: the icy disdain, the anger, the hurt. It was why he had put off telling her for weeks, why he chose – cowardly, for one of the few times in his life – to break the news on the twins’ birthday, when she was in determinedly family mood, when Oliver would be benignly present, when he thought that with luck, LM would be there too, with her level, calm courtesy. He had not expected the party to be over, the house emptied so soon of distraction. But still – it had been done. Oliver’s insistence on the celebratory champagne was unfortunate; but it had distracted attention, notionally at least, from the spilt wine and Celia’s rage at having spilt it. They had somehow got through the hour or so it required for courtesy to release him again, and return, exhausted, to his own house. He had hardly slept the rest of the night; when he did, he dreamed, fretful, sorrowful dreams and woke more than once to find himself weeping. In the morning he felt better: simply knowing that it had been done. And then he had discovered it had not been done quite as successfully as he had hoped.
‘Of course I want to meet her,’ Celia said, smiling at him brilliantly across her office desk a few days later, ‘I can hardly wait. We must arrange it as soon as we can. I will talk to Oliver and see if we can find an evening when we are both free. It’s just that we are extremely busy at the moment, the twins’ season is so hectic, you know, I have a lot of extra entertaining to do, and a lot of country house parties, and then there’s Ascot and—’
‘Celia,’ said Sebastian, keeping his voice level with an effort, ‘Celia, we are not asking for an elaborate visit. A dinner, just the four of us, will do, so that you can—’
‘Oh, Sebastian, don’t be absurd. You never did have the faintest idea about running a household. Even the smallest dinner has to be planned; and I would certainly not want Pandora to feel less than properly welcomed. I want her to meet the entire family, naturally, nothing else would be acceptable to me, and that inevitably requires organisation—’
‘It would be perfectly acceptable to us,’ said Sebastian firmly, ‘a quiet evening, I mean, or I could even bring her to Lyttons—’ He stopped; he could see she had not liked the ‘us’.
‘No, Sebastian. I could not possibly agree to that. And certainly I don’t want her brought to Lyttons. Now give me a week or two and I will find a date.’
The week, and then two, passed; dates were even proposed and then cancelled, changed and then changed again. Apologetic notes were written, elaborate explanations offered; Pandora was first amused then irritated.
‘It’s absurd. I think I shall just walk into her office one day, and introduce myself. Then it will be done.’
‘Please don’t,’ said Sebastian. ‘Please, please don’t.’
He looked genuinely anguished; she sighed.
‘I am finding this – difficult, Sebastian. I really am. Whatever the reason. Please get it settled. Please.’
Sebastian said he would.
Finally he lost his temper: Celia had just cancelled a fourth firm arrangement, had asked Janet Gould to telephone him and express her great regret. Her mother was giving a court dinner, had asked her to step in at the last minute, she felt she couldn’t fail her when she had done so much for the twins that season, she did hope Pandora would understand.
Sebastian put down the phone, looked at it thoughtfully for a minute or two and then called a taxi and went to Lytton House. He was in Celia’s office for less than five minutes; that afternoon Pandora received a note, delivered by hand, inviting her and Sebastian to a family dinner at Cheyne Walk on the following Thursday.
I do hope it will be convenient for you; the entire family will be there, including Barbara Miller and my parents, the Earl and Countess of Beckenham, all of whom are most eager to meet you. As of course am I. I look forward to receiving your acceptance.
It was, as Pandora remarked just slightly huffily, strongly reminiscent of a royal command: ‘Suppose it wasn’t convenient?’ but Sebastian told her that as with a royal command, convenience was not even a consideration.
‘She has asked us, my darling and we will be there. And I daresay you will fall in love with her as everyone does and forgive her all her monstrous behaviour.’
‘I have no intention of falling in love with Celia Lytton,’ said Pandora firmly.
Sebastian grinned at her. ‘Well, we shall see,’ was all he said. And then watched her struggling not to let it happen.
‘So, my little genius, what are you going to do now?’ he said, refilling Barty’s glass.
‘Oh – I haven’t thought yet.’
‘I bet you have.’ His dark blue eyes were on hers, thoughtful, probing.
‘Well – only vaguely. You know.’
‘Enjoy a bit of well-earned leisure?’
‘Goodness no. Nothing I’d hate more. I like to be busy, all the time.’
‘I know you do. But a few weeks wouldn’t be a bad idea. Are you going to this villa of theirs?’
‘I suppose so,’ said Barty with a sigh, ‘I really don’t want to. But what excuse do I have, and—’
‘Might be fun.’
‘It won’t be fun,’ said Barty.
‘What won’t?’ said Kit. He had left the room to get himself some lemonade.
‘Oh – nothing,’ said Barty quickly, ‘just leaving Oxford, looking for a job.’
‘Why do you have to look for a job?’
‘Because she likes working,’ said Sebastian, ‘she’s addicted to it. Like your mother.’
‘And you,’ said Kit.
‘But not the Terrors.’
‘They don’t seem too addicted to work, no.’
‘Anyway, Barty, you don’t have to look for a job,’ said Kit, ‘you’ve got one already.’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘What is it?’ said Barty, intrigued.
‘Well, working at Lyttons,’ he said, adding with all the simplistic logic of a child, ‘everyone in the family does.’
‘But I’m not—’ said Barty and stopped.
‘The Terrors don’t,’ said Sebastian, cutting into the conversation smoothly.
‘I expect they will. Mummy – Mother – says they will one day. When they’ve grown up a bit. I heard her talking to Father about it.’
‘You shouldn’t listen to other people’s conversations, young Kit,’ said Sebastian, ‘it’s not the done thing, you know.’
‘Oh, but I was there,’ said Kit, looking hurt. ‘Not listening outside the door or anything. I was reading, they never take any notice of me, just carry on talking. Mostly about boring things. Anyway, that’s what she said, Mummy, I mean. And then she said that of course Barty would too. As soon as she came down from Oxford.’
Barty had gone rather pale. ‘Did she really, Kit?’
‘Yes, of course. She said you should train to be an editor, that you’d be wonderful. Better than Giles, she said you’d be,’ he added with a sweet smile.
‘I think Giles will be a wonderful editor,’ said Barty staunchly.
‘Mother says he has no idea.’
‘But—’ said Barty and stopped again.
‘Of course he could be,’ said Sebastian quickly, ‘a wonderful editor, I mean, but I know Oliver sees him moving into the managerial side. He will be Mr Lytton the Third after all. LM says he’s marvellous with figures.’
‘Well, there you are,’ said Barty. ‘Much more important than being an editor.’
‘Anyway, she wants you to be an editor,’ said Kit, picking up the newspaper, ‘so I expect you will be.’ He smiled his seraphic smile. ‘Did you know Dame Ellen Terry has died? That’s sad, I liked listening to her on my wireless.’
Later after lunch, Sebastian and Barty walked along the river walk; she was quiet and seemed distracted.
‘What’s the matter?’ he said.
‘Oh – I don’t know.’
‘Yes you do. Penny for ’em.’
‘It’s well – it’s – you won’t say anything to Aunt Celia, will you?’
‘Of course not. I never speak to her these days without full written permission.’ He grinned at her.
‘It’s just that I really don’t want to work at Lyttons.’
‘You don’t like the idea of publishing?’
‘Yes, of course I do. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about actually. But—’
‘But not at Lyttons.’
She nodded soberly.
‘Because it would be too easy? Because of what people would say?’
‘Well yes. And—’
‘And what?’ He put his arm round her shoulders. ‘Come on, you can tell me.’
‘It’s just that – well, it means more – more gratitude. More knowing how lucky I am. I’m so tired of it, Sebastian. So terribly tired of it.’
Later that night, safely back in Oxford with Pandora, Sebastian told her of Barty’s problems. She listened intently, her large brown eyes fixed on his; then ‘Poor Barty,’ she said, ‘poor little thing.’
‘Not so poor,’ said Sebastian, feeling a rather surprising and disconcerting rush of defensiveness towards the Lyttons, ‘she’s had huge benefits from the arrangement. It wasn’t all bad. Celia adores her and—’
‘I fancy being adored by Lady Celia is not an undiluted pleasure,’ said Pandora.
‘Of course not. But it’s better than not being adored by her, like poor Giles. And then Barty is extremely clever and her temperament allows her to take full advantage of that. And training as an editor at Lyttons is not exactly a bad way to start a career.’
‘Of course not. But – it’s what she said, Sebastian. I can so sympathise with that. About the gratitude. It must be so difficult.’
‘Quite difficult. I have had to endure it myself to a small degree. Not now of course, but in the beginning. When Celia first bought Meridian and fought for it so hard, and against Oliver too—’
‘Yes, yes. I don’t think I want to hear too much about those days,’ said Pandora. ‘Come along, my darling, let us go to bed. I’ve been missing you rather dreadfully . . .’
Later – much later – Pandora lay in his arms watching him sleep, and thinking how much she loved him.
The violence of her feelings for him had not only taken her by surprise at the time, they continued to shake and even shock her. A great dynamic force for pleasure of every kind, emotional, intellectual, physical. She was not entirely inexperienced; she had been deeply in love on every level with her fiancé, and during the twelve years since his death had had one or two lovers – ‘Well, two actually,’ she said, laughing to Sebastian when he pressed her for accuracy, but she had been largely frustrated, her energies mostly suppressed. Now the places to which she travelled in Sebastian’s bed, the experiences she shared with him there, were of a splendour and richness she had not imagined possible. Released by him, by his skill and tenderness and a considerable creative sexuality, her responses ran almost out of control at first; then she found she was able to offer him gifts of her own, a tireless sexual energy and curiosity, a clear, uninhibited delight. She could not have enough of him, would fall asleep finally sated and wake him, laughing gently at herself, a few hours later for more.
‘I’m an old man, my darling, I need my rest,’ he would say, but in truth was filled with joy and even relief that he could give her such pleasure. Love for her had always been before a finite thing, a part of life, one of its delights; but now what she felt was life and love become one thing, and the source of this delight, the man lying on the pillows beside her, was to become her husband within a few short weeks, to be hers and beside her for the rest of her life; she felt dizzy, almost shocked with love.
She knew much about him, about his past, he had told her ‘everything it is necessary for you to know’, kissing her tenderly after a long night of revelation, some of it surprising, a little even shocking; she sensed there might be still more. But she felt, curiously, content with what she had of him; and whatever had been left out of the telling, his most secret self, could wait to be revealed. He intrigued and disturbed her; it was part of his power to arouse her, not only emotionally but physically. Lying with him, as he led her on further and higher, exploring him slowly and sweetly, she felt she was making another journey, on another plane entirely; in time, she felt sure, she would have him all.
The holiday in the Cap d’Antibes villa was not a complete success; the twins were bored and irritable, refusing so much as to play tennis or get into the pool, Giles suffered so badly from the heat that he had to spend much of the time indoors, and Oliver contracted one of the stomach infections to which he was prone since the war. On the other hand Kit and Jay who had accompanied them, were blissfully happy, playing in the pool all day long, diving and leaping endlessly into it like rather noisy porpoises, Celia lay in a chair under the trees, oddly serene, reading manuscripts, and Barty surprised everyone, including herself, by becoming a sun worshipper, her face and body turning a perfect golden brown, her long tawny hair becoming streaked and lightened and her small nose developing pretty, tiny freckles. She was out by the pool early each morning, swimming energetically up and down with Celia, who was a most earnest disciple of the fashion for slimness and fitness. She had even tried to get one of the new ‘professors’ of fitness to come to the villa and teach them some physical jerks, but to her fury had left it too late.
The evenings were only modestly sociable; villas up and down the coast were filled with partying English and French, but Celia had decided (to her later regret) to take a small villa and very little in the way of staff. She therefore found herself unable to give the kind of large dinner parties that their neighbours were enjoying or to accept too many invitations; this made the twins even crosser.
Then, in the last week, Boy Warwick and a party turned up unexpectedly, having berthed for a few days in the Port de l’Olivette, and motored in to find them. Even Celia was pleased to see them and the twins were ecstatic, suddenly eager to show off their modest swimming skills, and showing a hitherto unrevealed passion for sailing.
But by the end of three weeks everyone, even Kit, had had enough.
On the last evening, Oliver announced that on the way home he was going to visit Constantine, the publisher in Paris with whom Lyttons had a reciprocal arrangement.
‘I have been talking to Guy Constantine on the telephone this morning, and he has several books to discuss with me, as I do with him; it seems foolish not to take advantage of being this side of the Channel. Celia, my dear, I imagine you will want to come with me; and Giles, it would do no harm for you to visit the Constantine offices and meet some of their people. Now—’
‘Paris!’ said Adele. ‘Oh, how lovely. Daddy, can we come too? We can do some shopping, we’re so behind with our winter wardrobes and—’
‘Of course you can come,’ said Oliver, smiling at her, ‘and I fancy you would rather enjoy Guy Constantine’s company. He’s a very charming man, although his English is rather limited.’
‘Oh, we wouldn’t want to get in the way of your business,’ said Venetia quickly, ‘would we, Adele?’ and ‘No,’ said Adele, ‘of course not. We’ll just amuse ourselves, you won’t have to worry about us.’
Oliver patted her hand. ‘Of course we won’t worry about you,’ he said, smiling at her.
How do they get away with it, thought Barty, realising with a degree of relief that she and the boys would be travelling home from Paris on their own. The complete lack of effort they put into their lives, the nonsense they talked – ‘behind with their winter wardrobes’ for heaven’s sake, the self-indulgence that marked every hour of every day; and yet even Celia let them get away with it. It was not what she would have wanted, that idle, pleasure-seeking life: not in the least. Just the same, she still couldn’t help feeling a little irked that no one seemed to expect anything more of them.
Of her own future nothing had yet been settled; Celia had talked about a job at Lyttons for her in rather surprisingly vague terms and, still more surprisingly, had accepted Barty’s request for a little time to think about it. She was altogether not quite herself at the moment, distracted, and slightly subdued; perhaps she was finally slowing down, losing some of her famous energy. After all, she wasn’t exactly young any more; she must be over forty now, although this evening, her tanned skin shown off by a narrow white silk dress, her dark hair gleaming in the candlelight, she looked particularly beautiful.
And many, many years younger than dear old Wol . . .
‘Girls, I need your help.’
Oliver had come down to breakfast at the Georges V on his own; the twins, already almost finished, anxious not to waste a moment of shopping time, looked at him with a degree of anxiety. ‘What with? And where’s Mummy?’
‘Your mother is not well. That’s the whole point. And—’
‘Mummy’s not well! But she’s always well.’
It was true; Celia’s good health was legendary, her only physical weakness being a tendency to miscarry, a problem no longer in any danger of troubling her.
‘Well, she is not well today. She had oysters last night as you know and—’
‘Oh God.’ Venetia shuddered. She had once had oyster poisoning herself and could not longer bear so much as to look at them on a dish. ‘I did warn her off. Poor, poor Mummy.’
‘I know. She feels perfectly dreadful; a doctor is with her now. Of course it’s not serious, but she will have to remain here for at least two more days. But I need a hostess for luncheon. I am taking Guy Constantine and his editorial director to Maxim’s and I don’t want to do it on my own.’
‘Why ever not?’ said Adele, genuinely puzzled. ‘It’s business, isn’t it? Why do you need a hostess? And anyway, where’s Giles?’
‘He’s at their warehouse near the Quai d’Orsay. In any case, this is a social arrangement,’ said Oliver impatiently. ‘I refused luncheon in the boardroom, said I would like to make a pleasant break in the day, that your mother and I would like to take them to luncheon, and they were delighted. We will have been talking business all morning, and I want this to be a relaxing occasion, with some light-hearted conversation. So I would like you to join us. Preferably both of you, but certainly one.’
‘Venetia,’ said Oliver and his voice had an entirely different note to it, ‘I don’t often ask you to do things for me. Your mother and I devote a great deal of time and money to making life pleasant for you. You have just had an extremely good holiday and the next few months are not going to be exactly difficult for you. Now, which of you is going to be kind enough, generous enough even, to accompany me to Maxim’s for luncheon?’
The twins looked at each other.
‘Both of us,’ they said.
They arrived at the Constantine building at twelve-thirty as instructed, having left their shopping at the Georges V and having looked cautiously in on their mother. She was asleep; the nurse in attendance put her fingers to her lips.
It was a glorious place, more like a house than an office, set in a courtyard just off the Avenue de l’Opera. The great double doors opened on to a vaulted hallway and a magnificent double staircase; a rather boredlooking male concierge directed them to the first floor, where they were asked to wait. Five minutes later their father, Guy Constantine and a third man appeared from one of the rooms.
Guy Constantine was about forty-five, short, slim and neatly handsome in the French style, his dark hair greying, his skin tanned, his suit and shirt impeccable. The other man was rather different. Adele looked at him, and felt, as she expressed it to Venetia later, ‘my insides sort of clutch at me’. He was dark also, but much taller than Constantine; his features were untidy, as if they had been somehow dropped haphazardly into place and left to be neatened up later. He looked, Adele thought, as if he might be Jewish; he was very dark, with extraordinarily penetrating, almost black, eyes, a large nose, a high forehead on to which a mass of thick black hair seemed to fall rather than grow, and a full mouth that would have looked girlish if the rest of his face had not been so strong. His smile, which was sudden and brilliant, revealed very white, albeit slightly crooked teeth; his hand, as he shook first Adele’s and then Venetia’s, was bony and very strong and warm.
‘Luc Lieberman,’ he said, bowing slightly. ‘I am the editorial director of Constantine. Enchanté, Mesdemoiselles.’
‘How do you do?’ said Adele. She felt slightly dizzy; without quite knowing why. Luc Lieberman was absolutely not the sort of man she usually admired; his clothes left a great deal to be desired, being slightly crumpled and ill-fitting, the jacket sleeves just too short, the trousers just slightly too long. She waited for the feeling to pass; it persisted.
‘It is very sad,’ said Luc Lieberman, ‘that your poor maman is ill. Paris must do penance for her. Is she feeling any better?’
‘She’s asleep,’ said Venetia, ‘we just popped in to see her.’
‘Excellent!’ said Guy Constantine. He gave it the French pronunciation. ‘Sleep is what she needs. Now I thought you might like to see our rather beautiful building. Before we leave. Your father and I have a last few matters to discuss. Luc will show you around.’
Adele, who was normally quite impervious to the beauty of buildings, however breathtaking, said she would adore to see around this one; Venetia nodded slightly less enthusiastically.
‘And this is the boardroom,’ said Luc Lieberman, throwing open the door with a flourish. ‘Is it not beautiful?’
‘Oh my God,’ said Adele. ‘Oh, it’s – well, it’s divine.’
‘Almost, I think yes, it is,’ said Luc. ‘I think God might well have created it. If He had had a moment or two between dividing the light from the darkness and creating the beasts of the earth. And then I think He would have been pleased with His work here in Paris.’
The twins both giggled, slightly nervously. They could see he must be joking; on the other hand, his expression was very serious and they weren’t really used to so intellectual a form of teasing. They felt foolish and inadequate; it was an unfamiliar sensation.
‘I thought you would like it. Has your father not told you about this room?’
‘Of – of course he has,’ said Adele, and indeed she could dimly remember him sitting at the dinner table describing it, the jewel in the crown of this exquisite building, its art nouveau splendours, the perfect ceiling, the breathtaking fireplace, the Tiffany lamps, the elaborate wallpaper, the extraordinary table and chairs, seemingly carved out of glass; no doubt she had allowed her mind to wander as usual while he had been talking, into the more attractive country of dresses and dressmakers and whether she and Venetia should accept an invitation to this house party or that. She really must learn to be more – thoughtful – if she was to interest people like Luc. Well, interest Luc. She couldn’t think of anyone she’d ever wanted to interest more in the whole of her life.
‘Well, now. Shall we proceed to the archives?’
‘I – I wonder if I might – well, sit this one out?’ said Venetia with a dazzling smile. ‘I hurt my ankle this morning, running up the stairs. Would you mind if I waited here, Mr Lieberman?’
‘Do please call me Luc. I would be désolé of course. But I understand. I am so sorry about your foot. Is it very painful for you?’
‘Oh, it’s – nothing. Really. I’ll be quite happy here. I’ll see you in a few minutes.’
She smiled at him; her eyes met Adele’s in absolute complicity.
‘D’accord. Come with me, then, Mam’selle Adele. That is, if you would be interested in the archives.’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘yes, I’m sure I would. And Luc, do please call me just Adele. There’s no need to be formal.’
‘Oh,’ he said, and his voice was courteously surprised, ‘oh, but I thought there was. Your father is, after all, my patron. I feel I have to show his eldest daughter some degree of respect.’
‘How do you know I’m his eldest daughter?’
‘Your mother told me.’
‘She did?’ said Adele. ‘When?’
‘Oh, the last time we met. She showed me some photographs of you.’
‘Really?’ Adele was astonished. Her mother was normally not the sort of woman to go round showing pictures of her children to anyone, let alone total strangers, and even less likely to impart rather intimate information as to which of her two twins had been born first. And yet – she could see why. There was something about Luc Lieberman that invited confidence, intimacy even; he drew you into his rather intense personality, and you found yourself – well, lost.
‘I can’t imagine why you should have been interested in learning such a thing,’ she said, looking away, fiddling with the clip of her handbag.
‘Mam’selle Adele,’ he said, and his face was very serious indeed, ‘I would be interested in learning anything about you. Anything at all. But now that I have met you, I am not surprised to learn that you are the older of the two of you. You seem the older.’
‘Oh, goodness,’ she said, and tried to laugh again, ‘does it really show, do I have grey hairs and wrinkles coming already?’
‘No grey hair or wrinkles, no,’ he said, ‘but you seem to be more grown up than your sister. Just a little.’
‘Really? Goodness,’ she said, feeling silly and not in the least grown up. ‘Do please let me see the archives. I’m sure they must be fascinating.’
Lunch at Maxim’s was pure pleasure. The twins had been there before of course, never tired of its splendours, the Lautrecs, the atmosphere, the lamps, the waiters with their long white aprons, the wonderfully chic Parisiennes pushing food delicately around their plates. Hair much longer here, they noticed, and skirts marginally so, and those dear little closefitting small-brimmed hats; all important things to be taken back home.
But for Adele, sitting next to Luc, concentrating (in a way that was quite new to her) on everything he said, however complex, struggling to follow when he and Guy and their father broke into French, these were secondary things. She felt, still, slightly dizzy, shaken somehow to her innermost self; not the familiar Adele at all, but someone nervous, tentative almost, examining what she said before she said it, and quite often deciding to remain silent, lest she should sound foolish, and yet at the same time vividly, almost painfully happy. Venetia, she noticed, was perfectly herself, chattering away to Guy, and indeed anyone else who would listen, about their morning’s shopping, their holiday in Antibes, how much she adored Paris; Adele felt slightly astonished by it, that Venetia could not be as affected by the occasion as she was, but was grateful for it nonetheless.
‘Now, we have a wonderful new book to publish,’ said Oliver, smiling at his daughters across the table at the end of the meal. ‘A discovery of Monsieur Lieberman’s. It’s about the war, and it’s called Lettres tristes. It’s a novel, written in the form of a correspondence between an English soldier and a girl he meets as he journeys home wounded from the trenches. He arrives home, knowing he is in love with her, knowing he will never see her again and expected to marry his English fiancée. Very moving, very moving indeed, and I think exactly the right time to publish. With the war receding from us in time.’
‘Indeed, Monsieur Lytton. And the author, Marcel Lemoine, is such a charming man. In fact, I was going to suggest, that when you publish the book in England, if you were planning a little reception for it, then he could perhaps come to London himself. I’m sure the English would like him. He did fight in the trenches himself, it is a book based on real knowledge.’
‘Indeed,’ said Luc Lieberman, ‘he is an exceptional man. The only problem as I see it is that he doesn’t speak very much English, but – maybe Lady Celia could help. Her French is good I believe.’
‘Well, my French is quite good actually,’ said Adele, ‘and I would love to meet Monsieur Lemoine, I think it’s a marvellous idea to have him over for the publication. And of course you should come too, Monsieur Lieberman, as the discoverer of this great talent.’
‘That would be a delight,’ he said.
‘Well, well,’ said Venetia, ‘and when did you develop a talent for speaking French, Adele? You’ll have to have some lessons pretty quickly.’
‘Oh, shut up,’ said Adele, ‘I mean tais-toi. There, you see, I do remember quite a lot. It was one of my best subjects.’
‘Which doesn’t mean much. And views on publishing all of a sudden too. Oh, it’s all right, I thought he was—’
‘Isn’t he? So – so sexy.’
‘Yes. Terrible clothes, though.’
‘Terrible. I thought that probably meant—’
‘Possibly. Can’t assume it, though. They’re not all—’
‘No Frenchwoman,’ said Adele firmly, ‘would let her husband go round looking like that.’
‘What about her fiancé?’
‘Don’t think so. Do you? Anyway, we must—’
‘I’ll ask Daddy. Not Mummy, she’d guess. She never—’
‘No, but she obviously liked him too.’
‘How do you know?’
‘She told him I was the oldest. Of us two.’
‘How absolutely extraordinary,’ said Venetia.
‘I know. I just feel, Venetia, that he’s well – that he’s—’
‘Important?’ said Venetia.
‘Yes. Very important.’
‘Barty, my dear—’
His voice came from his study as she walked through the hall.
‘Could I have a word with you?’
Barty’s heart sank; she knew what it was about.
‘This is – difficult for me,’ he said, sitting back in the big leather swivel chair at his desk. ‘Sit down, my dear, sit down. Now then—’
She sat, silent, determined not to help him in any way.
‘Celia tells me you have turned down our offer of a job at Lyttons.’
‘Yes. Yes, that’s right, I would have told you as well, but you were away—’
‘I know, I know. That’s not the problem. It’s just that—’
A long silence; Barty fixed her eyes on him politely.
‘Well, Celia is very upset.’
Barty felt angry suddenly. Celia had no right to be upset; emotion was irrelevant. This was a business matter, not a family one. She said as much to Oliver.
‘I’m afraid that isn’t quite true, Barty, is it?’
She looked at him steadily. ‘Of course it is.’
‘Now you know it’s not. Celia loves you, she has worked very hard to help you over the years and—’
‘Wol, please. That’s not fair.’
He sighed. ‘Isn’t it?’
‘No. You know it’s not. I didn’t ask to come here, I didn’t ask to leave my family. I know it was a wonderfully generous thing to do, and of course I have had incredible opportunities, that I would never have dreamed of. But—’ She stopped.
It was no use; she couldn’t say it. Couldn’t say how much of it had hurt, how much damage as well as good Celia had done; and besides, Wol knew that, she had told them both once, one dreadful night when she had still been a child, when other, far more dreadful truths had come out, none of them would ever forget any of it, not a word that had been spoken.
She took a deep breath. ‘The thing is, Wol, I want to do things on my own. I think I’d feel this even if I was a Lytton—’
‘You are a Lytton. In many ways.’
She allowed him that.
‘All right. If I was a Lytton by birth. I don’t want to have things handed to me on a plate, I don’t want to have it all made easy for me, I don’t want people saying, “Oh, she’s only got that job because – because they brought her up.”’
‘Barty, they won’t. You got a First Class degree in English Literature. From Oxford. No one can achieve that without extraordinary talent. And application, of course.’
‘You should know,’ she said, smiling at him, ‘you got one too.’
‘It’s easier for a man.’
‘I’m afraid it’s true. But anyway, we want you to come and work at Lyttons because we think you will help us. Not to do you a favour. I hope we are more professional than that. We think you will make a very good editor; we think you have great potential.’
‘How can you tell?’
‘Don’t you think, Barty, that we have learned to recognise such qualities over the years? I have been in charge of Lyttons, Celia has been in charge of editorial excellence there, for twenty-five years. And I don’t think we’ve done too badly.’
She was silent; then she said, ‘But there must be many other young people you could offer this job to.’
‘I daresay there are. A certain number, yes. But why should we go out and find them? Why not just have you?’
‘Because,’ she said, and her voice was thick with exasperation, ‘because I don’t want you to. Doesn’t that count for anything?’
He was silent; then he said, ‘So, you want to try and make your way in publishing, do you?’
‘Well – yes.’
‘I see. Apply to other firms for other jobs?’
‘Yes. So it’s – fair.’
‘And do you think that these other firms won’t know who you are? Barty, you have grown up with all these people. You have gone to children’s parties at the Macmillans and the Murrays, you’ve danced with the Blackwood boys, you’ve dined with the Collinses. Do you really believe that they won’t bend over backwards to accommodate you, give you a chance? To please me and Celia, as well as you. Will that be fair?’
She was silent.
He looked at her. ‘Tell me, Barty, if none of this was – an issue, which publishing houses would you most admire at the moment?’
‘Oh – I’m not sure. Jonathan Cape, I suppose.’
‘Because of the Sitwells?’
‘Yes. Murrays. It’s so – so scholarly. Macmillans, they’re so innovative somehow, so commercially successful.’
‘All very interesting. And what about Lyttons?’
‘Well, of course.’
‘I think we have a little of everything; a good base in poetry, equalled by none in biography, thanks to Celia’s immense talent, a fine series of reference books, the Meridian books of course, a strong commercial list, look at the Buchanans, still going strong, a worthy rival to the Forsytes – if you knew nothing of us, wouldn’t you want to apply to us as well?’
‘Yes, of course. But—’
‘And then we are still comparatively small. Small enough for you to make your mark. If you have the talent. If you don’t, if we are wrong, then you will not survive with us for very long. I promise you that. As for making it easy for you, speak to Giles. See what he has to say.’
‘I know, but—’
‘Barty.’ He leaned forward. ‘Please come to us. I want you to, I know we can benefit one another.’
‘There is something else,’ he said, not looking at her, picking up a pencil, beginning one of the elaborate doodles that often accompanied his thought processes, ‘for reasons which I don’t wish to go into, Celia is not entirely – happy at the moment. She is finding certain aspects of her life difficult. She’s very brave, she always has been, she would cut her own tongue out before admitting to it but – well, I would like to do what I can to help her. And it would make her feel very happy indeed to have you at Lyttons. She sees it as a rejection, your refusal, a personal rejection. I can understand your feelings; she cannot.’
Barty thought this was highly unlikely, Celia was, despite her arrogance, immensely perceptive, but she said instead, ‘I’m sorry she’s not happy. Is there anything I should know about?’
‘No, no, and you certainly shouldn’t mention it. This is a conversation of absolute confidentiality. I know I can trust you.’
‘Yes, of course.’
He looked at her. ‘I have seldom asked anything of you, Barty. I was perhaps less – happy about your arrival than Celia was, indeed I argued against it, I think I can tell you that now without fear of distressing you.’
She nodded, her eyes fixed on his.
‘But you have given me great joy. As I told you that – that – well, on a particular occasion, you mean as much to me as my own children. And I hope I have given you whatever support you felt you needed in return.’
‘Yes, yes, of course you have. And more—’
‘Except,’ his eyes twinkled at her, ‘except in the matter of your presentation at court. I found myself outflanked there. Had Lady Beckenham not intervened, I fear you would have been there making your curtsey along with the rest. However—’
She smiled. ‘I expect I would have survived.’
‘I expect you would. However, I am going to ask you something now. Something I want you to do for me. In – I will not say not in return, that would be unfair, it would smack of emotional blackmail – in acknowledgement, perhaps.’
She nodded again, knowing what was coming, thinking it was still emotional blackmail, but forced to recognise that he had every right to apply it.
‘Take the job, Barty. Come to Lyttons for a while – let us say two years. After that you will have made your mark, other houses will be after you anyway—’
She smiled again. ‘Hardly.’
‘Well, we shall see. But – will you do that? Please?’
There was a long silence; then she said quietly, as she had known she would have to, ‘Yes, Wol. Yes I will.’
‘Good. And don’t think your life will be easy. As I said, ask Giles. He hardly has a feather bed to lie on at Lyttons.’
‘No. No, I know.’
He stood up and kissed her. ‘Thank you, Barty. Thank you so very much.’
She kissed him back and left the room quickly; she felt horribly near to tears. Up in her room she did start to cry; at the prospect of two more years at least of being indebted, of enforced gratitude. However Wol dressed it up, told her he was asking a favour of her, that was what it meant. And it wasn’t fair. It simply wasn’t fair.
‘I’m going out this afternoon,’ said Venetia. She spoke casually; rummaging in one of her drawers. She was wearing a drop-waisted grey crêpe dress, with a long string of pearls; a grey cloche hat lay on the bed.
‘Where?’ said Adele, but of course she knew.
‘To Boy’s flat.’
‘Oh yes? More paintings?’
‘Something like that. Yes. Damn. You haven’t seen the new cream leather gloves, have you?’
‘No, I haven’t. Venetia, don’t do it. Not a good idea.’
‘What? Oh, where are the wretched things?’
‘Venetia, don’t. Please.’
‘But why? I know what I’m doing.’
‘Yes. And that’s why I’m going.’
‘Of course I will. I’m not a complete idiot.’ She looked at her sister; her face was flushed. She tried to laugh. ‘Now I won’t be long. Promise. And you can have the car. I’ll get a taxi.’
‘I don’t want the car. And you are a complete idiot.’ She sat down, picked up her Asprey cigarette case and lit a cigarette. Venetia noticed with something close to shock that her hand was shaking. She hesitated, tempted to stay, then took a deep breath and bent to kiss Adele on the top of her gleaming dark head.
‘Don’t worry. I’m fine.’
‘Good,’ said Adele coolly. She picked up a copy of Vogue, started leafing through it. She was hating this: absolutely hating it.
She hadn’t expected to mind about this love affair with Boy, had expected indeed to share it in all its excitement and discovery. They had, after all, had plenty of admirers before; had even literally shared a couple of them, taking it in turns to dine or dance with some unfortunate and unsuspecting young man, revealing the fact to him in fits of mirth only when they had successfully accomplished their mission.
Usually, though, they went out in a foursome and conducted a critical post-mortem at the end of each evening. It was unusual for them to disagree; if someone amused or excited, or indeed bored, one of them, he would amuse or excite or bore the other and if one of them found a man particularly sexually attractive, then so inevitably would the other. The only exception to this had been Adele’s strangely strong feelings for Luc Lieberman; but that had been different, he was not a potential boyfriend, he was much older than her, and he might be married or have a mistress for all she knew. He was outside their usual social sphere; he could not be compared in any way with Boy Warwick.
They had each felt themselves to be in love more than once, had confided in and sought advice from one another, shared appallingly intimate revelations, and generally found any pleasure greatly intensified in so doing. They were still both virgins and their love affairs were of a highly restrained nature, but they were on the other hand very well-informed about how that innocence might be lessened or even lost. Several of their friends had crossed the great divide into sexual experience (and reported back on it in terms that ranged from the vague to the explicit), but the twins had felt no desire as yet to follow them.
‘We will if we really want to,’ Venetia said, as they sat dissecting an evening in the company of two particularly importunate young men, ‘otherwise there’s—’
‘Absolutely none,’ said Adele. And so it had been left.
And then Venetia had really wanted to; with Boy. And, moreover, declared herself to be in love with him. And Adele found herself for the very first time in her life, experiencing a real and very harsh jealousy.
‘I have to. Really I do.’ Venetia had returned from a long afternoon with Boy, flushed, clearly upset.
‘Of course you don’t.’
‘I do, I do. Otherwise—’
‘I don’t think so.’ Venetia suddenly started to cry. ‘You don’t understand. He makes me feel so – so silly. So young and naive. He says – well, he says he’s so fond of me, he just can’t understand me. Not wanting to.’
‘I know all that, but it’s not quite true. Is it? Not these days. Everyone’s doing it—’
‘Everyone’s doing it with Boy, you mean,’ said Adele, ‘or so he would have you believe.’
‘You don’t like him, do you?’ said Venetia, her voice cold suddenly. ‘That’s what this is about.’
‘Venetia, I do like him. I think he’s fun and frightfully attractive, and he obviously likes you. But – well, I do think he’s a bit of a bounder. And spoilt. He’s so used to getting his own way, he can’t cope with you refusing him. I just think – well, that you shouldn’t. Not with him.’
Venetia was silent. Then she said, ‘Some of that may be true. But I do so adore him. And maybe—’
‘Venetia, I honestly don’t think that’s very likely.’
Venetia looked at her. ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about. He was saying only the other night to Bunty that he thought it was time he settled down.’
‘I know. But he doesn’t mean half what he says.’
‘Well,’ said Venetia, ‘well I’m going to. I really want to, and he really wants me to and I just can’t see why not.’
Adele sensed defeat. She sighed, looked at her sister very soberly, and then got up, went over to her and hugged her.
‘Does that mean it’s all right?’ Venetia said hopefully.
‘No. But it means – anyway, you will at least – won’t you—’
‘Of course. I’m not that stupid. Made the appointment already, actually.’
‘That’s good. I might come with you. Sooner or later I’ll need it too. I hope.’ She smiled with an immense effort and said, her voice quite different, ‘Now let’s telephone the newlyweds and ask if we can take them out to lunch tomorrow. I promised we would.’
Pandora and Sebastian had been married quietly in early September; from Pandora’s own small house in Oxford. Celia and Oliver had offered Cheyne Walk on the evening of the first dinner, but Pandora had refused.
‘It’s sweet of you,’ she said, ‘sweet and generous but Oxford is home and I want our marriage to begin there.’
‘Well, that’s very understandable,’ said Oliver, ‘isn’t it, Celia?’
Celia said that of course it was and enquired whether it might not be possible for Pandora to be married from her mother’s home.
‘Goodness, no. Even smaller than mine. Honestly a cottage. We don’t want lots of people, just our families, of course you are Sebastian’s, and my house will do perfectly.’
It did: on a perfect golden day, they became man and wife in the Oxford registry office – ‘I always forget Sebastian was married once before, he doesn’t look divorced,’ said Adele, speaking for most of the family – and then over a wonderful, long, languorous lunch in Pandora’s garden, the air scented with late roses, and the sunlight as golden as the champagne. There were only twenty people there, half of them Lyttons; it was a delightfully unconventional occasion. The bride looked quite extraordinarily lovely, in a simple white crêpe dress, her arms full of lilies, white roses in her hair, and the groom looked, as always, absurdly handsome. He was dressed in a dark grey suit – not a morning suit, which caused Lady Celia Lytton considerable distress – and a cream silk shirt, and he looked like an illustration from one of his own wonderful books.
Oliver made a charming speech, Kit read a poem he had written for the occasion entitled ‘The Wedding and Why’, which brought tears to several people’s eyes, including his mother’s and the bridegroom’s. Jay Lytton and Gordon Robinson played Mendelssohn’s Wedding March as a duet on Pandora’s piano while the cake was cut, Lily Lytton, in her last appearance before leaving with Jack for Hollywood, sang ‘Mad About the Boy’ quite exquisitely, followed by several other songs from her latest show by way of encore.
Pandora’s mother, who was dressed rather unexpectedly all in white and bore a more than passing resemblance, several of the guests could not help thinking, to Miss Havisham, insisted on making a speech as well, and reciting ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’ rather badly, but it didn’t seem to matter.
Celia, dressed dazzlingly in blue and looking exceptionally beautiful and young, was at her most brilliant and amusing; only Barty noticed that as Sebastian raised his glass a trifle unsteadily to toast ‘my perfect bride’ LM reached out for Celia’s hand and held it tightly, but, as she had had a great deal of champagne herself, thought very little of it anyway.
They left at sunset in Sebastian’s car for a honeymoon in Ireland.
‘That was utterly wonderful,’ said Venetia happily. ‘Giles, race you back to London. Last one home’s a cissy.’
‘I’m going with you two,’ said Kit, his eyes alight.
‘You are not,’ said Celia, ‘you are coming with your father and me.’
‘Oh, Mummy. It’s not fair, I want to be in the race.’
‘No one’s being in the race,’ said Giles, sounding (and hating himself for it) pompous, ‘because I’m not racing. I’ve had a bit too much champagne.’
‘I’ll race you girls,’ said Jack, whereupon Lily told him he wasn’t racing anywhere and that he should have learned about the dangers of driving while filled up with champagne several years earlier, and said she thought they should spend the night in Oxford at the Randolph.
‘You’re all spoilsports,’ said Adele, ‘well we’re going anyway. We have a party to go to.’
‘Whose party?’ asked Celia.
‘A friend of Boy’s,’ said Venetia casually. ‘And don’t look so disapproving, Mummy, he’s got three houses and a title. Bye, everyone. Lovely day.’
Celia looking after them as the little Austin sped off down the road, felt anxiety join the other complex and violent emotions of the day; not just because they might drive too fast, or had had too much to drink, but because both of them, and Venetia in particular, had developed a certain studied vagueness about their comings and goings in the past few months. She knew what that meant; it was a device she had used herself in her own youth. It confused and diverted adult attention; in her case it had left her free to pursue and seduce Oliver. She must watch the twins more closely, she thought. And at least it would be a distraction from certain other matters.
‘My darling, I’m so lucky to have you.’ Boy Warwick lay back on the pillows of his extremely large bed and smiled into Venetia’s eyes. She smiled back. She was beginning to enjoy the bed thing. The first time had been difficult, painful even, lacking in pleasure; but each one since had been better, and today, this afternoon, had been wonderful. She had climaxed properly, for the first time, had discovered its intense joy, the rippling, rising and falling, beginning deep within her, the great well of warm, dark intensity drawing her in; she had heard a strange sound as it happened, a wild, primitive cry, and only realised afterwards, as she lay panting, wet with sweat, in Boy’s arms that it had been she who had made it.
‘I’m lucky too,’ she said, leaning over and kissing him. ‘Wonderfully lucky, and so happy, you can’t think how much. Oh, Boy, I love you, I really, really do.’
He replied with a kiss, settled her so that she lay sideways with her head pillowed on his shoulder. He hadn’t yet told her he loved her; she wished he would, and she knew he must do; but she could wait. She could wait quite a long time.
After a while, he sighed, set her gently aside, sat up.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I have to be at my club at six. I must run a bath.’
‘Oh, Boy!’ She was hurt; she couldn’t help it.
‘My darling, we can share it. That was my idea. It’s a very big bath. I might even – we might even—’ He looked at her consideringly, reached out, traced her large, dark nipples with his finger, ‘Well, we must see what happens.’ He held out his hand. ‘Come along. We can collect some champagne on the way.’
‘Um – Boy, first I must – well—’
‘Must what, my darling? Oh – that! Yes, of course. My lovely, practical girl. Run along, into the bathroom with you. Turn the taps on while you’re about it.’
Venetia went into the bathroom. She felt a little worried. She wasn’t sure that the anti-spermicidal jelly they had given her at the Marie Stopes clinic would work in the bath. Maybe she shouldn’t do it, should pretend she didn’t feel like it, that she had suddenly got the curse or something. Boy was very frank about such things; she could easily tell him. But – the thought of lying in a huge, hot bath with him, feeling him entering her again – that was still the best bit – climaxing again, that had been such heaven, such extraordinary, unimaginable heaven – could she do that again? If she could, it would be absolutely glorious. Oh, it would be all right. Of course it would. And she could douche extra thoroughly when she got home. She—
There was a knock on the door.
‘Ready, my darling? Can I come into the sanctuary? I have a bottle of perfectly chilled Moet with me.’
Venetia opened the door and smiled at him radiantly.
‘I’m absolutely ready,’ she said.
God, he was a disaster. In every way. Not just lousy at his job – he’d made a complete idiot of himself in the editorial meeting that morning, suggesting they did a biography of Prince Albert – ‘another one, Giles?’ his mother had said with that hideous, half-amused politeness which could only mean one thing – and then there’d been his idiotic suggestion as well that they might consider reissuing the Heatherleigh Chronicles, Lytton’s first great success, the forerunner, it could have been argued, to the Buchanan saga.
‘I don’t think so, Giles,’ his father had said politely. ‘It’s really very dated now.’
‘Indeed it is,’ said Celia. ‘I think if you troubled to read it properly, even you would realise that.’
The words ‘even you’ hung heavily in the air.
But not only was he a failure at publishing, he was a failure socially as well; he’d asked three girls to go to a house party with him that weekend and they’d all refused. He couldn’t blame them; he knew he was boring, a lousy dancer, even a hopeless shot. And he hated riding, so there was no question of his going out hunting either. Girls did care about that sort of thing, even though they pretended they didn’t.
Here he was, almost twenty-four years old, still living at home with his parents, still not making a mark on Lyttons in any way, a social failure, and still – well, still a virgin. That was really pathetic. He’d never even come close to getting a girl into bed. Every time he even thought of it, he felt panicky. He’d never manage, never know what to do. How appalling to be one of those chaps who did it for the first time on their wedding night. Not that there was anything really wrong with that of course. It would be embarrassing, but it wasn’t exactly a crime. But these days, when everyone was doing it all over the place – look at Boy Warwick, dozens of girls. He’d better not be doing it with Venetia, thought Giles suddenly, feeling oddly alarmed. That was quite different. That was most definitely not on. No, of course he wasn’t. People didn’t do it with their friends’ sisters. They just didn’t.
‘Giles?’ It was Barty; she was standing in the doorway of his small office. ‘Want to come and have a quick bite to eat?’
‘Oh. Oh, well—’ He smiled at her. What would he do without Barty; she was so nice, still the nicest girl he’d ever met. And jolly pretty now, although a bit different looking, with her shoulder-length hair and her unmade-up face. She wore very nice clothes these days too, quite fashionable, although nothing fancy like the twins, almost casual a lot of them, very plain shapes, in clear strong colours – she was the only girl he knew who looked really good in red.
She was wearing red today, a sort of long red jumper over a pleated navy blue skirt. It was like a very smart school uniform. A short skirt, of course, she wasn’t old-fashioned, not one of those blue-stocking women, and she had the most terrific legs. So long and so – well, just terrific. She was his best friend, always had been, they told each other everything – well, nearly everything, he couldn’t have confided in her about his lack of sexual expertise – and they were allies in a close but unspoken way against the excesses of his mother.
If only – and he hated himself for even thinking this – if only she wasn’t so good at her job. He’d been so thrilled when she told him she was coming to work at Lyttons; at having her company during the day as well as the evening – but somehow, every time she came up with one of her wonderful ideas, every time his mother said, ‘Barty, that’s a very good thought’ he felt himself possessed by schadenfreude, wishing they were lousy ideas, terrible thoughts, and that she might appear at least occasionally as rawly incompetent as he.
But ‘Yes,’ he said now, pushing his work away, smiling at her, ‘yes I’d love to.’
‘I’ve got a secret to tell you,’ she said, taking a sip of the disgusting brown liquid that Lyons Corner House sold as tea. ‘Something really exciting. Can you keep it?’
‘Of course.’ Perhaps his mother had given her a book of her own to edit, perhaps she had even commissioned her to write a book herself. Or—
‘Giles, don’t sound so gloomy. It’s really nice. I’ve found a flat.’
‘Yes. All of my own, Giles, on the top floor of a house in Russell Square. Imagine, Bloomsbury. Isn’t that romantic?’
‘I – I suppose so.’
‘It’s much, much nearer here. I’ll be able to cycle to work. Think what fun that will be. It’s marvellous, it’s got a sitting room and a bedroom and its own tiny kitchen. I have to share a bathroom, but—’
‘Share a bathroom?’
‘Yes. Well, that’s all right. I don’t mind. With another girl. She has the flat at the back, she doesn’t look over the square like I do. It’s so exciting, isn’t it? I can just about afford it and—’
‘So when will you move into it?’ said Giles. He felt a leaden depression settle into his stomach.
‘Oh – in about a month. I have to get the lease signed and everything first. Imagine, Giles, independence. Giles, what’s the matter? I thought you’d be pleased for me. You don’t look very happy . . .’
Adele had known, from the very beginning. On the day of the party at the Savoy for Marcel Lemoine and his book of French letters, as Venetia had christened it with shrieks of mirth; both the girls were going to the party. Adele was trying on, and abandoning, dress after dress, when Venetia came in looking bleary-eyed.
‘Good morning. What do you think about this one? Oh, God isn’t it just too sickening?’ said Adele.
‘Venetia! You know! Such a bore, today of all days when I so wanted to feel my absolute best—’
‘Oh – yes,’ Venetia had said vaguely, not meeting her eye. And Adele had known. At once. They always got it together, always, ever since the very first time.
There was a very long silence; then Adele said slowly, ‘Venetia, haven’t you . . .?’
Venetia met her eyes across another silence. And then looked down, made a great thing of examining her face in the mirror, tutting over an imaginary spot.
‘Venetia?’ said Adele.
‘No. Not yet. So what? It’s happened before.’
‘Only once. When you’d been ill.’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake. What time is our hair appointment? I’d better get dressed. Stop looking at me like that, Adele. Please.’
‘Adele, can I go and have my bath please? We’ll be late at this rate.’
‘Adele, stop it. There’s nothing to worry about.’
But there was.
All day she worried about it. As the hairdresser crimped their hair into geometric waves; as they ate a lunch she didn’t want in between looking for the new dress Adele said she had to have; as she put on her make-up ready for the party, wondering if the new dark eyeshadow looked as good now as it had in the store; as she was sitting in the taxi, telling Adele not to be nervous, that she looked divine and of course Luc Lieberman would notice her, probably want to have dinner with her; as they walked into the party at the Savoy, and her father introduced them proudly to Marcel Lemoine; as she tried not to giggle when Adele tried out some of her newly revised French; as she moved through the party herself, smiling, struggling to look interested as people talked to her about the book, about her father’s publishing house, about her mother and how brilliant and beautiful she was; as she sat at the table in the restaurant that evening, next to Guy Constantine, watching Adele suffering because her mother was sitting next to Luc, watching Luc dancing first with her mother, then with Barty, then with her and finally with Adele; trying to sparkle, trying not to think about it, worrying, worrying: that she hadn’t got the curse, and that although it was two days late now, that didn’t mean anything at all, but because Adele had got it, it meant a great deal. In fact everything.
‘Yes. Who is it? Oh, Luc, how nice to hear from you. What a lovely party. I do hope Monsieur Lemoine enjoyed it.’
‘He did. But for me it could have been even a little better.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.’
Meet the Author
Penny Vincenzi, before becoming a novelist, worked at such magazines as Vogue, Tatler, and Cosmopolitan. She is the author of The Dilemma, Almost a Crime, No Angel, Something Dangerous, Into Temptation, Sheer Abandon, An Absolute Scandal, An Outrageous Affair, Windfall, and Forbidden Places, all available from Overlook.
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