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I was in London when I first heard of Dinah Slade. She was broke and looking for a millionaire, while I was rich and looking for a mistress. From the start we were deeply compatible.
My presence in London was accidental, since I should have been at least halfway across the Atlantic with my observations on the Genoa Conference, but when it had become obvious in Genoa that on the subject of the American war debt Lloyd George had nothing to say which could conceivably have interested those pedestrian politicians in Washington, I had decided to redeem my visit to Europe by pausing for a vacation in England. I then proceeded to ruin this excellent idea by making a fatal error. Out of a misguided sense of duty to my New York partners I called at our office in Milk Street and to my horror discovered in rather less than ten minutes that I had walked into a disaster of the first magnitude. This denouement could scarcely have been more tedious, for it meant I had to abandon my plans to motor leisurely through rural England, but after suppressing my exasperation I settled down to business with the speed for which I am justly renowned. By the day's end I had extracted our resident partner's resignation; by the end of the week I had a house in Curzon Street, a new Rolls-Royce, an admirable English secretary to assist with my burgeoning correspondence, and a clear idea of how I should put the firm's affairs in order while I waited for a replacement to arrive from New York.
Meanwhile Treasury Secretary Mellon was cabling me for private information on the Genoa Conference, and by hiring yet another secretary to assist Miss Phelps and working until two in the morning for three successive nights I managed to summarize the issues of German reparations, the status of Soviet Russia, the domestic troubles of Lloyd George and the intractability of the French. Hard work deserves a reward. When my report had been consigned to the embassy for express delivery to Washington, my first instinct was to seek the most elegant woman in London and call for oysters and champagne.
It was then that I heard of Dinah Slade.
Just as it had been chance which had delayed me in London, so now it was chance that I ever heard her name. I had two efficient aides-de-camp who protected me from the continual onslaught of beggars and Bolsheviks, and I might never have known of Dinah's efforts to see me if I had not decided to ignore breakfast that morning in order to leave early for the office. Having completed my report I was anxious to attend to the firm's affairs, and as I went to the library, where my aides were inspecting the mail, I was already planning how I could sidestep a commitment to lend five million dollars to prop up a moribund steel plant in south Wales.
The library door was open. As I crossed the hall I heard Peterson exclaim, "It's that girl again!" and saw him pluck a letter from an unwrapped parcel. Peterson always opened my parcels. Having hired him when he had been discharged from the Army as the result of a leg wound suffered at Ypres in 1918, I had found his simple loyalty both frightening and reassuring, but he was without doubt the best bodyguard I had ever had. He was now in charge of all my household security arrangements, but he considered himself personally responsible for my safety and never left the tedious escort duties to a subordinate.
"What girl?" I inquired of him as I strolled into the library and picked up the latest issue of The Magazine of Wall Street to reach European shores.
"There's no need for you to concern yourself with this, sir," said my other chief aide, whipping the letter away from Peterson. "I'll take care of it."
As usual O'Reilly's bossiness made me long to contradict him.
"Take care of what?" I demanded, recklessly involving myself in the problem, and glanced a second time at the parcel. Amidst the wrapping paper was a rectangle of carved ivory, and as I lifted this exquisite cover I saw that someone who knew my tastes had sent me a small but unmistakably genuine book of hours.
Medieval manuscripts seldom fail to elicit an enthusiastic response from me. My mouth waters, my pulses race and my mind, seizing the chance to escape from the twentieth century, dives back into the remote past. As I picked up that book of hours I forgot the embittered powers at Genoa, the ravaged countries of Europe, the financial chaos, the half-starved despairing masses whose lives had been irrevocably dislocated by war. The bloody dawn of the twentieth century fell away from me, and I was gazing at the high noon of European civilization when Jean, Duc de Berri, had preferred the arts of intellectual accomplishment to the traditional arts of war.
My fingers caressed the leaves. The illumination was too florid for my taste, but the miniatures were exquisite; the details of dress and the skill in evoking perspective suggested that the artist had been working at the beginning of the Renaissance. I glanced at the Latin text. It referred to an apocryphal incident in the life of the mother of the Virgin, a most unusual detail. Saint Anne rarely has more than a minor role in a book of hours.
My curiosity overwhelmed me. Returning abruptly to the twentieth century, I demanded to know the name of my benefactor.
"Oh, the book's not a gift, sir," said Peterson. "She says it's a loan."
"And who," I said, mentally allocating a suitable sum for the purchase, "is she?"
"A girl called Dinah Slade, Mr. Van Zale," said O'Reilly. "Should you wish for further information, I have a file—" O'Reilly always had a file. He had a genius for accumulating information on anyone who could possibly interest me, and a tiresome habit of showing off his talent in order to prove how indispensable he was. Unable to resist the urge to deflate him, I interrupted: "Not now. I want to go to Milk Street. Peterson, order the car to the door, will you? You can tell me about Miss Slade on the way to the City, O'Reilly," I added to mollify him as Peterson left the room. After all, he was first-class at his job and it was hardly his fault he had been born without a sense of humor.
We went outside. It was a clear May day, cool but brilliant with sunshine, and I paused to watch a horse-drawn cart rattle down Curzon Street on its way to deliver ale to public houses. Farther down the street, by Shepherd Market, a tramp carrying a board emblazoned with the words "HELP THE UNEMPLOYED" was marching up and down like a man in a padded cell, and suddenly I could smell the odor of the twentieth century even before the fumes of the Rolls-Royce reached my nose.
I sank back with distaste upon the leather upholstery. "Miss Slade," I reminded O'Reilly as I took some papers from the attaché case.
O'Reilly snapped into action. Looking at his carefully combed dark hair and thin, tense, intelligent face I sensed the fanatical desire to serve which had led him to a Jesuit seminary before he had entered my employment, and once more I admired his total commitment to his work. It was really most unreasonable of me not to feel as much affection for him as I usually felt for my protégés—unreasonable, but not unsurprising. O'Reilly knew too much about me. For a moment I remembered his voice saying, "I have some bad news for you about Mr. Da Costa ..." and then I swung my mind back toward Miss Dinah Slade's book of hours.
"Miss Slade," O'Reilly was saying busily, "is a twenty-one-year-old English girl of good social standing—"
"What the devil does that mean?"
"I don't understand the English class system too well, sir, but I'm told she's what they call 'landed gentry.' Upper-class but no title." O'Reilly cleared his throat. "She was educated at a girls' boarding school in Gloucestershire and at Cambridge University—"
"Was she indeed!"
"—before having to quit last year after her father's death. The father died in debt and there's a wrangle going on over the estate. She's after money, sir, of course," said O'Reilly bored. "There's a political angle, since she's a known socialist sympathizer, but she's not affiliated with any group, Bolshevist or otherwise, so neither Peterson nor I see her as a threat to your safety. I've been sending her letters to Miss Phelps for the 'Charities Refused' file."
"How many letters has she written?"
"This morning's would be the fourth."
"I want to see them. When we reach the office call Miss Phelps and have her send them over," I said, flicking through the papers in my hands and eying the declining figures of the British steel industry for the black months of 1921. Then with a discipline born of long practice I forgot Miss Slade and once again began to consider how Great Britain could most profitably reorganize her capital investment.
The office of Da Costa, Van Zale and Company in Milk Street off Cheapside is a stone's throw from the Bank of England and the financial district of Lombard and Threadneedle Streets. We are a new firm in London, less than thirty years old, and unlike New York, where a brash newcomer can blaze his trail into the heart of Wall Street, a newcomer in London must know his place and accept a modest location in the merchant banking community. Yet I liked our office at Six Milk Street. The house itself was part seventeenth-century and must have been erected soon after the Great Fire, but the Victorians with their passion for remodeling had left a Dickensian atmosphere behind them. The interior was heavy with nineteenth-century respectability. Here I felt not like a king in his countinghouse but like a well-brought-up spider in the most civilized of elderly webs. We employed twenty people, who included the usual bookkeepers, statisticians, clerks, typists and office boys, and until the 1921 slump we had made a respectable profit each year.
At half past ten, just after I had sampled some undrinkable coffee and embarked on my correspondence, Dinah Slade's letters arrived. I was roaming around the room as I dictated to my secretaries; I usually dictate to more than one secretary at a time for the simple reason that I have never yet found a secretary who can keep pace with my dictation.
O'Reilly interrupted me. "Miss Slade's letters, Mr. Van Zale." To my secretaries' profound relief I stopped.
Dinah Slade had written in a firm spare hand:
DEAR MR. VAN ZALE,
I am in a highly unusual situation and consider it absolutely imperative that I obtain the advice of a discriminating and sophisticated man such as yourself, so please could you help me by sparing me a few minutes of your time?
Turning to her second letter, I found that the mystery was unveiled further.
DEAR MR. VAN ZALE,
I am writing to you as I know you appreciate the past and have a connoisseur's eye for medieval beauty. I have the most beautiful house in England, small but exquisite like a miniature by Fouquet, and I would like you to see it. You owe it to yourself not to miss such an important esthetic experience.
I looked up. Both secretaries were motionless, pencils poised over their notebooks, a dazed expression in their eyes. It was seldom they had such a respite. Ignoring them, I sat down at my desk and read the third letter.
DEAR MR. VAN ZALE,
Because of an English law which discriminates against females, I am about to lose my home. You should see it before it's lost. If you can't come to Norfolk at least let me see you for a minute in London so that I can paint the house for you in words.
To me the most interesting aspect of this correspondence was not that Miss Slade never asked for money—though this was noteworthy enough in any appeal to me for help. I was intrigued because the letters were obviously part of a carefully planned campaign. Even though they had been mailed on different dates I suspected all the letters had been written on the same day and constructed, like a detective story, to leak information at a calculated pace. Acknowledging my curiosity with reluctance, I embarked on the final letter.
DEAR MR. VAN ZALE,
What a pity you're so zealously protected from the world! But I don't think your secretaries would dare throw away the Mallingham Hours, a book which has been in the hands of my family for over four hundred years. After reading in the Times that you recently acquired a medieval manuscript at Christie's I thought you might enjoy the opportunity to examine this perfect example of fifteenth-century art. I must make it clear that it is not for sale, but you may keep it for one week, at the end of which I should be delighted to collect the manuscript in person.
Yours sincerely ...
The address prefacing all four letters was "Mallingham Hall, Mallingham, Norfolk."
I smiled, and when my letters to Steven Sullivan, my young partner in New York, and Carter Glass were finished I sent for O'Reilly.
"I want to see Miss Slade's file when I return to Curzon Street," I said. "And, O'Reilly ..."
"Find out if she's a virgin, would you? I know we're supposed to be seeing the dawn of a new morality, but frankly I'm beginning to doubt if anyone knows that beyond the limits of the West End of London."
"Yes, sir." No man could have sounded more neutral. We looked at each other. I did not quite believe he led the celibate life for which his experience in the seminary had prepared him, but I knew he wanted me to think he did. Toward sexual matters he cultivated an air of supreme indifference which I liked because it meant my private life could never embarrass him, but which also annoyed me because I felt that such a pose was priggish. Until O'Reilly had risen to prominence in my household I had never realized how extraordinarily irritating Sir Galahad must have been to the other knights of the Round Table.
"Will there be anything else, sir?" said this tiresome paragon, and I had to repress the urge to dispatch him in search of the Holy Grail.
It was a long day, but eventually I returned to Curzon Street, glanced at Miss Slade's file which told me no more than I already knew, dictated a few social notes to Miss Phelps, skimmed the evening papers, bathed, shaved, changed and arrived at the theater just as the curtain was rising. The play was execrable, but the leading lady fulfilled all the promise she had shown me at our previous meeting, and after a late supper we retired to her apartment.
I was annoyed when my mind kept straying toward the Mallingham Hours, but not surprised. I had become bored with my leading lady's theatrical gossip and disappointed by her lack of originality, and although I delayed my departure in order to be polite it was a relief to retreat home with Peterson faithfully at my heels. When Peterson was on duty as my bodyguard I seldom spoke to him—the best way to tolerate a surrender of privacy is to ignore the offending presence—but that night as I stepped into the evening air I felt the sinister pressure building behind my eyes and I said quickly, "You can sit in the back with me, Peterson," as my hand groped in my pocket for my medication. As soon as I had taken a pill I felt better and knew that the symptom had been imaginary, a product of my fear of illness and not of the illness itself. Meanwhile the car was drawing away from the curb, and to distract myself I said rapidly to Peterson's solid comforting bulk beside me, "What do you think that girl Dinah Slade wants?"
"Money and the usual, sir," said Peterson placidly. "Same as all the other broads."
"But no broad's ever sent me a book of hours before—My God, listen to me! Peterson, why is it that when I'm with you I always pick up your detestable slang?"
We laughed. I was relaxing, the pressure behind my eyes fading fast and my fear temporarily conquered. "We'll play tennis tomorrow," I said. "We'll leave the house at seven, motor to Queen's Club and play for an hour or so before I go to the City...." And as I spoke I remembered those far-off days of my secluded childhood when my parents had taken me from doctor to doctor until finally my father had cried out in an agony of guilt, "There's nothing wrong with that boy that a game of tennis can't cure!" Lawn tennis had been a new game in those days, but it had quickly become popular at Newport. I could remember playing with my father as clearly as if it were yesterday, my father and Jason Da Costa—
A curtain came down over my memory. Turning to Peterson, I talked to him about tennis, and I talked until we arrived home five minutes later.
Excerpted from The Rich Are Different by Susan Howatch. Copyright © 1977 Susan Howatch. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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