Dorset House is the home of the Claygate family, and a place where diplomats love to congregate. When young Maurice Claygate and Sophie Lenart, a notorious woman spy, are found shot dead, Inspector Arnold Box, investigating the murders, hears from Colonel Kershaw, Head of Secret Intelligence, that there are international ramifications to the case. Together the two men pursue a ruthless thief and a stolen document across France, bring the affair to a devastating and unexpected climax in the great palace of Louis XIV, the Sun King, at Versailles. Set in late Victorian times, this is the seventh book in the Inspector Box series.
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The Dorset House Affair
By Norman Russell
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2009 Norman Russell
All rights reserved.
The Man Who Drank Too Much
In the smoke-filled upstairs gaming-room of the Cockade Club in Pall Mall, a group of fashionable young men lounged at a round baize-covered table, waiting for one of their number to throw down his hand of cards. They were too flushed with drink to remain silent, and tried to relieve the tension by directing various barbed comments at the man concerned.
'I say, Moggie, when are you going to show your hand? We can't wait all night. It's nearly two o'clock now.'
'In that case, it's Sunday morning,' volunteered another player, a man who seemed to be lying back in his chair in order to save himself the effort of sitting upright.
'Moggie knows that Miss Julia Maltravers won't let him play the tables once they're married,' said someone else, 'so he's making the most of tonight.'
Maurice Claygate treated his companions to an amiable smile, and threw his cards down on the table. To the accompaniment of groans and ironic cheers he swept the pile of sovereigns and notes of hand from the centre of the table, at the same time tossing back the remains of a glass of claret. He groped for his lighted cigar, but failed to prevent it falling to the floor. Decidedly, he had had too much to drink, but befuddled or not, his ability to win at cards remained as finely honed as ever.
'What will you do with all that money, Moggie?' asked the man who was reclining in his chair. 'I don't suppose you'd send down now for a dozen of claret?'
'You suppose rightly, Williams,' said Maurice, laughing. 'I shall go home now, and lock this filthy lucre in my pa's safe. Good night, all – damn it, why can't I get up from this damned chair? Bobby, give me a cigar, I've lost mine. Perhaps I'll treat you all to a bottle of brandy as a nightcap. Savage! Come here.'
'Yes, sir?' A middle-aged man in evening dress approached the table.
'Savage,' said Maurice, 'bring up a bottle of brandy and some clean glasses. You can put it on the slate.'
'Certainly, sir,' said the man called Savage. 'Or, if you like, you can give me the four pounds you owe us from your winnings: it will save you having to bother yourself paying the month's bill on the twenty-eighth.'
'What? Ain't he a Shylock, you fellows? Yes, all right. Take it, will you? Have you got a match? This cigar that Bobby gave me doesn't seem to be lit. By Bobby, of course, I should have said Mr Saunders. God, must you wave that match in front of me like a torch? Oh, thank you. Now a fellow can smoke his cigar in peace.'
'The trouble with you, Moggie,' said Bobby Saunders, 'is that you're half seas over. You don't know what you're doing. Incidentally, I don't know why your pa's throwing that grand party for you on your birthday. You seem to be at a different revelry every night. What's the difference?'
'Well, yes, I do get about, I must admit. ... People seem to like me, you see, and keep inviting me to their parties. And ever since I started making little trips abroad, I've had quite a few young ladies taking an interest in me. It's not my fault, you know. I can't help being liked. Ah! Here's Savage with the brandy. Pour out will you, Savage? You're better at that kind of thing than I am.'
'The future Mrs Claygate won't let you romp around with chorus girls and the like, you know,' someone else observed. 'You'll have to stop all that when you're married, unless you want a scandal.' There was something rather minatory behind the banter that made Maurice flush to the roots of his hair with embarrassment.
'Damn you, Brasher,' he cried, 'what gives you the right to preach to me? Do you think I can't behave like a gentleman?'
'I think you're behaving like a drunk,' said Brasher. 'Try to sober up, will you? There are a lot of things that you'll have to stop once your married. You'll have to stop coming here, for one thing. This place was raided last March, and it wouldn't do for you to be taken up by the law. Your pa wouldn't like it.'
'Shut your mouth, won't you?'
'No, I won't. I don't like your tone, Claygate. Your pa is one of Britain's national heroes. He deserves not to be disgraced by his son's behaviour. What about that foreign girl last year? The Frenchwoman with the ludicrous brother? What about —?'
Maurice Claygate staggered to his feet, upsetting his brandy as he did so.
'That's enough!' he cried. 'Don't you dare mention that business. I've a mind to punch your head, you thick lout.'
As he lurched over the table with some vague intention of doing an injury to Brasher, the man who was sitting beside him pushed him roughly back into his chair, where he slumped forward over the pile of money that he had won. Maudlin tears sprang to his eyes.
'I've sworn to Julia that I'll mend my ways,' he sobbed, 'and I will. You swine, Brasher. ... Elizabeth de Bellefort and I parted by mutual consent. Yes, that's what we did. It was all very ... What's the word I want?'
'No, damn you! Civilized. That was the word. All very civilized. Everybody likes me except you, Brasher. I'm giving all this up, I tell you.'
The man who had pushed him back in his chair, a pleasant, fair-haired giant, stood up and addressed the company.
'Drink up, you fellows,' he said, 'and go to your homes. I'll apologize on Moggie's behalf, if you like. No offence taken, I hope, Brasher?'
'None at all. That was too much claret and brandy speaking. Never mix the grain and the grape. Come on, you fellows, let's go. You'll see he's all right, won't you, Morton?'
'Yes, I'll put him in a cab and send him back, fare paid, to Dorset House – no, on second thoughts I'll go with him. I think he's gone to sleep. I'll get Savage to help me bring him downstairs. Incidentally, weren't you a bit hard on him, Brasher? You know: old friends, and all that.'
'You're a decent fellow, Teddy,' said Brasher, 'so I'll take you into my confidence about this business. That French girl – something very dreadful happened to her as a result of getting herself mixed up with Moggie. My father knows a French gentleman from Rouen – a business acquaintance – who told him all the details. Moggie sometimes stays in Rouen, you know. Our friend Claygate keeps on telling us how nice he is, but I'm not too sure about that. Keep that under your hat, you know. Good night to you.'
Some minutes later, Maurice Claygate and his friend Teddy Morton were sitting in a hansom cab, moving slowly out of Pall Mall and into St James's Street. It was cold, and rather bleak, even though they were travelling through one of the most favoured districts of the West End.
Morton stole a glance at his companion. Poor Moggie! He was a handsome fellow enough, with appealing eyes and a permanent air of genial apology for his many faults. No wonder girls fell for him. But his chin was weak, and he found it well-nigh impossible to resist the crudest of temptations.
'I really will, you know,' said Maurice, waking up from a fitful doze. 'Reform myself, I mean. Julia is a marvellous kind of girl, just right for the likes of me. I met her, you know, when Father dragged me up to Uncle Hereward's grouse moor in Yorkshire for the shooting. Ghastly, cold place, and deadly dull, you know. But Julia was there, and – well, that was it. Where are we? It's dashed dark outside.'
'We're just at the Berkeley Square end of Bruton Street. We'll be at Dorset Gardens in no time.'
Maurice Claygate looked at his companion as though he had just become aware of his presence in the cab.
'You're bringing me home, aren't you? How dashed civil of you, Teddy. Did I make a show of myself back there?'
'You were very uncivil to Cedric Brasher, but he's forgiven you.'
Maurice relapsed into gloomy silence. A few minutes later, the cab turned into Dorset Gardens, and Morton looked across the expanse of grass enclosed in railings to the great mansion known as Dorset House, the residence of Field Marshal Sir John Claygate, Moggie's father. The long stucco frontage was brilliantly lit by rows of gas lights, each in its glass globe, rising behind gilded railings.
'Elizabeth de Bellefort,' said Maurice Claygate, 'was what I'd call a clinging kind of girl: she was all over a fellow, you know. She was certainly a stunner, but I don't think I could have stood all that devotion for long.'
'She's here in England, now, isn't she?'
'Yes. She and her fantastical brother. They arrived from France yesterday. They're staying in the house with us, which is one reason why I've stayed so late at the Cockade. Difficult to talk to a girl as though the past had never existed. Very embarrassing for all parties, you know. What day is it today?'
'It's Sunday, now, the second of September.'
'Is it really? The wedding's on the fifteenth, so I've plenty of time to reform. And my birthday do is next Thursday. So I've less than a week to endure before the brother and sister return to Normandy. Yes, Elizabeth's one of those clinging type of girls, all devotion, you know. A bit much for a fellow in the end. Pity, but there it is. Now Julia —'
'Here we are, Moggie,' said Teddy Morton. 'The cabbie's stopped right outside the front door. There's an ancient man in capes approaching from a kind of sentry box. I think he's going to help you out.'
'Good evening, Beadle,' said Moggie, stumbling out of the cab on to the curving carriage drive. 'Morning, I should say. Very civil of you to stay up for me. What time is it? Three o'clock? Good Lord. Thanks for seeing me home, Teddy, you're a sound fellow. Come on, Beadle, help me inside. See if you can find a glass of whisky. Hair of the dog that bit him, you know.'
Teddy Morton watched his friend as he was helped up the steps of Dorset House by the night-watchman. Poor Moggie! Would he really change his ways? No, of course he wouldn't. People never really changed.
'Cabbie,' he said, 'could you see your way to taking me as far as Portman Square? I'll make it worth your while.'
'My pleasure, sir,' the cabbie replied, and turned the horse's head in the general direction of Oxford Street.
* * *
Alain de Bellefort turned out of a busy Soho street, walked down a narrow alley, and emerged into a little secluded court. He mounted the front steps of a respectable three-storey brick house, one of several forming a terrace on the north side, and rang the bell. The door was opened almost immediately by a sour-faced woman in a grey smock, who was holding a dustpan and brush.
'Yes?' said the woman, giving him a baleful look, as though he was trying to sell her unwanted goods.
'Monsieur de Bellefort to see Miss Sophie Lénart.' What animals these people were!
'You'd better come in,' said the woman. 'Miss Lénart's expecting you.'
The house was dark and airless, and the small rooms over-furnished. The hallway was papered in a heavy crimson flock, and was almost filled by a massive coat stand. The woman opened a door to the right of the hall, which led into a sitting-room, its walls clothed with the same heavy crimson paper. Obscure, ugly paintings in heavy gilt frames all but covered the walls.
A young woman, who had been sitting at an open roll-top desk engaged in writing, rose as De Bellefort was ushered into the room. She smiled a greeting, but there was no real welcome in the smile. Miss Lénart was well and fashionably dressed, and her blonde hair was carefully brushed and arranged. Her features were pleasing and regular, but there was a cynical twist to her mouth that made her look older and harder than her years.
'So, Monsieur de Bellefort,' she said, 'you have decided to answer my summons. I think you were wise to do so. Sit down, and let me talk to you about a matter of business.'
De Bellefort did as he was bidden. Sophie Lénart was another collector of secrets that could be sold for gain. They sometimes shared information, and occasionally co-operated on a project, but there was no love lost between them. Alain dealt in small matters of indiscretion; Sophie worked on a vast canvas, and her name was a matter of fear to many high-placed officials in the chancelleries of Europe.
'I should be interested, mademoiselle, to hear what you have to tell me. I arrived in England only on Friday, and your note came to me on Saturday morning. It is Monday today. Whatever you want to discuss with me must be a matter of some urgency.'
How he despised her! She was a communard, an espouser of violent revolution, and she had once shown him a photograph of her accursed uncle standing with the other despoilers in the Place Vendôme beside the shattered column.
'I'm right, am I not,' said Sophie, 'in thinking that, while you were still in France, you received a little item of interest from a man called François Leclerc, a servant in the household of the French Minister of Marine?'
'I did. Why should I not tell you? It was an indiscreet letter, which I have already arranged to deliver to the relevant authorities here in London, in return for a little financial consideration.'
'I thought it would be something like that. Now, that same François Leclerc has conveyed to me another document, illegally abstracted form the files of the French secret intelligence, which, if it were to fall into the hands of Germany, would set all Europe ablaze.'
'Why do you tell me this?'
'Because I am willing to sell it to you for a price. I will not tell you what I paid for it, but from you I will require five thousand pounds. Look! I have written here on this piece of paper what the stolen document contains. It would be safer for you to read it than for me to tell you the contents in so many words, because walls – and servant-women – have ears.'
De Bellefort took the piece of paper from Sophie Lénart and read it. He sat motionless for a while, and then made a single comment: 'Sacré!'
'You say true, Monsieur de Bellefort,' observed Sophie. She took the paper from him, struck a match, and burned it to ashes in a saucer. She laughed. 'I ask you for five thousand pounds for that document, as I feel honour bound to give you first refusal. We evidently share a common informant, and if he proves to be a fertile source of material, there's no reason why we shouldn't share the proceeds. When he realizes that he is in the power of two controllers he will be doubly discreet.'
'It is an interesting offer, mademoiselle.'
'It is, But, of course, your little farm in Normandy won't let you run to that great sum, will it? So I am probably wasting my time. What will Napier give you for your little letter? A hundred pounds?'
'You are impertinent, Miss Lénart,' said De Bellefort, flushing with rage. 'And you are wrong. I not only can, but will, give you five thousand pounds for that document. When will you be able to produce it?'
'I will have it here, in this house, this coming Thursday, the sixth. I shall expect you here in the afternoon. When you come, bring the money in Bank of England notes, or bearer bonds.'
'Thursday. ...' De Bellefort's eyes gleamed. 'Good. That will be very convenient. How will I know that the document is genuine?'
'Listen, monseigneur,' said Sophie, and there was a hard edge to her voice, 'I am no dealer in trivia. Your little letters cause foolish matrons to have palpitations; my documents cause thrones to tremble. What you will receive will be the authentic fatal document that the French Government thinks is hidden deep in its vault of international secrets. I will keep it available for you for the whole of that day. After that, I will take it elsewhere.'
'Why this sudden onset of kindness towards a rival, Sophie? If you offer that document to me for five thousand pounds, I assume that you could get twice that elsewhere. What is your real reason for offering it to me?'
'I offer it to you because I am a patriotic Frenchwoman, who wants no truck with documents of that sort. Greed for gain has its limits. You understand what I mean. You, of course, are one of those men who look at history and politics through glasses of your own manufacturing. Well, will I see you on Thursday or not?'
'You will see me, here, on Thursday afternoon,' said De Bellefort. 'Never fear: I will have the money. God knows, there's not much love lost between us two, but I thank you for this favour.'
Sophie Lénart smiled, and made a motion of dismissal.
'You're growing sentimental, Alain,' she said. 'In our line of business, that will never do. Once you have given me the money, I may find it possible to summon up a few similarly insincere words of thanks in return. Until Thursday.'
* * *
Maurice Claygate was awoken by a loud but discreet cough. He opened his eyes, and saw a footman in the scarlet livery of the Claygate family standing beside his bed. He groaned, and dragged himself up on to his pillows.
'Oh, it's you, Henry,' he said. 'What time is it? Am I late for anything?'
'It's eleven o'clock, sir, and you're too late for church. Sir John and Lady Claygate have already departed for Ely Place.'
'Oh, Lord! I expect I'll receive a lecture about that when they get back. I suppose I'd better get dressed.'
The footman, a young man of twenty-five or so, stood back a little from the bed. Maurice hauled himself off the massive four-poster, and looked around him. How blindingly bright everything looked! He would have to curb his drinking – he would, once he was married to Julia.
'Sir,' said Henry, 'I have brought you some coffee and a tumbler of seltzer. I have placed them in your dressing-room.'
'Bless you, Henry,' said Maurice. 'You're a friend in a thousand. Is Pa's valet about? I don't think I can be bothered with all those straps and buttons – no, wait, I'll throw some water over myself and then put on that silk dressing-gown I brought back from Paris. I'll have pulled myself together by lunchtime.'
Maurice walked into his dressing-room, and picked up the tumbler of seltzer. He drained its contents all at once, and made a wry face. Ghastly, how these cures tasted of bad eggs.
'Hello, Henry,' he said, 'I see you've brought coffee for two. Are you going to join me?'
Despite his training, the footman laughed. That remark had been typical of Mr Maurice, bless him!
'No, sir,' said Henry, 'I've brought coffee for two because Mr Edward Morton has called to see how you are. He's in the library, reading one of the sporting magazines.'
'And he's come to see me, has he? Well, give me twenty minutes, will you, and then bring him up here. Is all well at home, now, Henry?'
'It is, sir,' said Henry, 'thanks to your great kindness. Will that be all?'
'Yes, that's all. Send Mr Morton up in twenty minutes' time.'
* * *
'It's a dashed awkward business, Teddy,' said Maurice Claygate, regarding his friend, who was sitting opposite him, sipping coffee. 'They arrived here yesterday, and so far I've contrived not to meet either of them. That's one of the advantages of a vast mausoleum of a place like this – Dorset House, I mean. Upon my word, I don't know what to do.'
Excerpted from The Dorset House Affair by Norman Russell. Copyright © 2009 Norman Russell. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue – Murder in Prospect,
1 The Man Who Drank Too Much,
2 The Collector of Indiscretions,
3 Birthday Fireworks,
4 Murder in Mind,
5 Maurice and Sophie,
6 Two Angry Women,
7 The Conspirators of Metz,
8 Miss Whittaker Takes a View,
9 More Revelations,
10 Elizabeth de Bellefort's Story,
11 Funeral at Kensal Green,
12 The Re-enactment,
13 Harry the Greek's Last Story,
14 The Double Traitor,
15 Monseigneur at Versailles,
16 New Beginnings,
By the Same Author,