THE THIRD MOVEMENT of Vaughn-Williams’ Flos Campi reverberated through the door and buzzed Baker’s shirt buttons – not that Baker recognized the piece, or the composer. Sounded to him like a sack of cats being drowned. He buffed the toe of his right shoe on his left trouser leg and knocked again.
It was a glossy door, in this glossy block of flats: recently finished, in the new so-called style moderne. Very smart, Baker noted. That was in his favour. He tried to calculate how long to wait between knocks, how many times to keep trying. He had no idea whether he’d been standing five minutes or half an hour – waiting plays tricks on you, and the price of his watch had bought his train fare. Right foot, left foot. Check his tie and pocket square, dry his palms on his coat hem, deep breath, raise his hand to knock again.
What the hell, he thought. He doubled up his fist and pounded.
A moment later, Baker heard a voice approaching the door, a rich and cultured voice now raised in peevish counterpoint to the music.
“Really, Mr. Pethiwick, I thought the management made it quite clear that between the hours of ten and three—”
The door flew open and Flos Campi struck Baker full in the face. He politely raised his bowler.
The fair-haired young man in the doorway, pink and dripping on the doormat, clutched a towel around his waist and gaped. Though good-looking when he smiled and dignified in repose, his slack-jawed astonishment and invisibly pale eyebrows left him now with an uncanny resemblance to a plate of steamed flounder.
“Good morning, my lord,” Baker shouted over the din.
“Well, you’d better come in, then,” was the only reply.
The young man retreated to the bedroom and flung his towel into the bath. Baker took the opportunity to gingerly transfer his valise from the far side of the doorframe, to an unobtrusive spot behind the coat stand.
The latest model de luxe radio-gramophone cabinet took up most of the far wall between arched doorways. The lid of the centre compartment was propped open to reveal a turntable. Above it hung a painting in a chromium frame, a dizzying whirl of exploding lines and colours, as if the paint had been splattered there by the spinning record.
Another new “-ism”, Baker supposed. What would this one be called? Splat-ism?
The music mourned and twisted its way to the end of the movement.
“All right, Baker, you can switch it off now.” The young man emerged from the bedroom, buttoning up his trousers around his shirt-tail. “I’ll save the Moderato.”
Baker tacked toward the gramophone against the headwind of noise, and fumbled with the switch. He saw the next compartment in the cabinet was a small but well-stocked bar. In the sudden silence, his own sigh betrayed him.
The morning light poured through the sitting-room window, echoing the waterfall-motif of the white woodwork, and pooled in the centre of the room. The inlaid floor of golden oak gleamed within its dark walnut border. The seating area was framed by low, geometric furniture upholstered in coarse orange silk. The fair-haired man dropped into an armchair and flung one leg over the side.
“Now, Baker,” his host continued, “what’s it all about?”
“Well, my lord —” Baker began, as he picked up an unfurled newspaper and smoothed it back into shape.
“No, no, Baker, enough of that. I’m plain Mister Mottley now, and I shan’t answer to anything else.”
“But your lordship —”
“But Lord Edmund —”
“Shan’t, I shan’t and you can’t make me.”
Baker faltered at the notion that this scion of a noble house should be addressed no differently than a greengrocer. “Sir, does your father know you’ve renounced the title?”
“It’s not mine to renounce, Baker. The title belongs to Papa and my brother. The less said of me, the better all around. Now I return to the theme of my composition… why are you here?”
Baker’s face resumed the habitual impassivity of a well-trained footman, which indeed he had been up until the previous evening. He performed a rapid mental copy-edit of his carefully-prepared speech, while retrieving a pair of Mottley’s socks from under the footstool. He took a deep breath.
“Sir, a gentleman of your position, being accustomed to a certain standard of life, would do well to have about you a competent and knowledgeable manservant.”
Baker bundled the socks, along with a crumpled dress-shirt and Mottley’s soggy bath towel, into the laundry-chute. “Is it seemly for one of your station to live unattended in a London apartment, like some sort of Bavarian?”
“Exactly, sir.” He collected the crumby detritus of Mottley’s breakfast and whisked it into the kitchen. He congratulated himself on having navigated the step-up and found the correct door, without jingling the tray.
Mottley listened as Baker dealt with the breakfast plates in the kitchen, and considered what he’d seen. Aloysius Baker, second footman. A dark, sleeked-back head, with a sharply-cornered hairline and muscular jaw that rendered his face a perfect rectangle. Though his suit was impeccably kept, the shadows around his chin and eyes betrayed their owner’s long night journey. Mottley cocked his head and whistled the treble line of Flos Campi.
Baker returned to the sitting room and continued his recitation. “And so, being as how I am currently at liberty to seek a more desirable situation for myself, I have come to offer you my services as a personal gentleman.”
“‘Ho, ho,’ as Piglet said to the Heffalump. How did you come to be ‘at liberty,’ Baker? My father is not in the habit of sacking his servants every second Tuesday.”
“I couldn’t say, sir.”
“You mean, you were turned out of the house and you don’t know why? Not so plausible, Baker.”
“I mean, I couldn’t say, sir.”
Mottley leapt up and peered closely into Baker’s face, or as closely as one can peer into a face four inches higher than one’s own.
“Theft? Breakage? Drink? Women?” Mottley’s rapid questions caused Baker to blink, but not flinch.
“I assure you, sir, my honesty has never been in question.”
“Some trouble with a girl, then,” Mottley said. “Hardly surprising – you’re quite a specimen. Anyhow, for breakage they’d give you notice, and you haven’t been badly drunk in the last forty-eight hours or so.” He flopped back into his chair.
“Well, Baker, it’s kind of you to think of me, but I assure you I am quite comfortable here. The service in this block is impeccable; a valet would be superfluous. As you can see, my situation is far from Bohemian, or even Bavarian.”
“If I may speak freely, sir —” A tentative knock at the front door interrupted him. Baker, who knew a good opportunity when he heard it, had his hand on the doorknob before Mottley was half-out of the armchair.
Mottley heard Baker’s painstaking enunciation, given an extra fillip of elegance for the visitor’s sake.
“And what name may I give, sir?”
Baker glided back into the sitting room. “Mr. Thomas Mabry, sir.”
“Thank you, Baker.” Mottley’s glare broke and slid past Baker like waves against a rocky bluff. Mottley conceded. “Tea, please, Baker.” He waited for Baker to vanish into the kitchen, and extended his hand to the visitor. “Mottley, Edmund.”
Thomas Mabry took Mottley’s hand with a fervour, and dampness that made Mottley wince. “How do you do, Mr. Mottley, it’s an honour to meet you. Steven Debenham said you were just the person to help me.”
“Well, let’s hope I shall prove him right. Do sit down and tell me all about it.”
Mottley slumped into his armchair, while Mabry perched on the extreme edge of the settee. He looked as if he might dive across the tea-table at any sudden noise.
Thomas Mabry was slightly-built and wiry. His dark hair grew into a pronounced widow’s peak, prematurely thinning. Below heavy brows, the bright blue of his eyes was set off by black lashes and pallid skin. The contrast between his hair and his complexion made his chin appear shadowed, despite a shave close enough to dot his cheek with an angry pink rash. He was drawn up to such a pitch of nervous tension that Mottley could almost see him vibrate.
“Mr. Mottley, this is an extremely delicate matter which requires the utmost discretion.”
“I see,” said Mottley.
“Any breath of scandal would be devastating to the family, and the shock could endanger my father’s life.”
Mottley clucked his tongue.
Mabry wrung his hands. “How can I be sure you will guard our privacy?”
Mottley laid his head on the back of the chair and stared at the ceiling. “Mr. Mabry, before Debenham referred you, had you ever heard of me before? Seen my picture in the paper? Times society column, News of the Week, anything of that sort?”
“No, I can’t say that I have.”
“You looked me up in Who's Who?”
Mabry stammered. “It – ah – it said very little.”
“Did Debenham tell you what dealings he had with me?” Mottley asked.
“Nor shall I.” Mottley looked Mabry straight in the eye. “I can keep a secret, Mr. Mabry. Won’t you tell me how I can help you?”
Mabry sighed, and his shoulders dropped at least two inches. “Mr. Mottley, I have been most dreadfully worried and I cannot think of what to do, other than to call in a ….”
“A Specialist?” offered Mottley.
“Indeed.” Mabry took a deep breath and passed a hand across his mouth. “My father is Sir Hugo Mabry, of whom you may be aware.”
“Sir Hugo Mabry, Baronet…” Mottley made a grasping motion in the air as he searched his recollection. “Diplomat…Africa…retired?”
“Yes, he returned to the family home in Essex about twelve years ago. He had been High Commissioner to Duwaliland.”
“Worked very hard in support of Independence, I believe.”
“The Duwali had no greater friend in establishing their Republic. And they were grateful for his friendship, which brings me to my point. When my father retired from his Commission and saw the current President installed, he was presented with a gift from the Duwali people.”
“A whacking great diamond, wasn’t it? I remember this, it was quite a sensation.”
“The Fire of the Moon, Mr. Mottley. It is the largest uncut diamond privately held anywhere in the world. And someone is planning to steal it.”
“What makes you think that?”
Mabry drew from his breast pocket a roll of stained, dog-eared paper, and dropped it on the table as if it burnt his hand. Mottley turned over the leaves, reading the contents aloud.
“THE STONE MUST RETURN TO THE GRAVES OF THE ANCESTORS.”
“YOU WILL GIVE BACK WHAT YOU TOOK, ONE WAY OR THE OTHER.”
“THE MOON’S FIRE WILL BURN THE THIEF WITH CURSES.”
“RETURN THE DIAMOND OR FACE THE CONSEQUENCES.”Baker returned and posed ostentatiously by the table, while Mottley gathered the letters. Baker deposited the tea-tray and sailed out with a fluidity that Mottley could only describe as smug.
“How did you receive these?” he asked Mabry.
“They were found in the letter box. No envelope, no postal stamp.”
“Have you any idea who might be responsible?”
Mabry raised a trembling hand to his mouth, then clenched his fist.
Mottley tossed the pages lightly onto the table and poured two cups of tea.
“Mr. Mabry, I must congratulate you on the oddest tarradiddle of badly-faked poison-pen letters I have ever encountered.”
Mabry shied like a hunter refusing a fence. “What do you mean?”
“Well, look at them. Listen to them. Who are they supposed to be from, some disgruntled Duwali, or an American gangster?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“Words cut and pasted from a newspaper, but purposely made to look sloppy. See here, the word “RETURN” has been cut in two and pasted together, but it was printed whole. For some reason, the letters are crumpled and stained… but all in a batch. You can see the creases where they were twisted together. And it looks as if someone poured coffee over the pile of them – the stains match all the way through.”
“I hadn’t noticed that.”
“Mr. Mabry, I hope you can put your mind at ease. This is at best, a very silly prank. At worst, you may be dealing with a shockingly incompetent amateur criminal. Tell your father to buy a new-fangled burglar alarm and a decent safe – that should be more than adequate.”
Mabry jumped up and paced around the settee.
“Mr. Mottley, my father knows nothing of this situation. I do not wish him to know. His health in recent years is delicate, and I would spare him the terrible anxiety that I have been living under. I assure you this is no prank, Mr. Mottley. There is malice at work here.”
“Do sit down, Mr. Mabry. I can’t stand to see people walk in circles – makes me giddy. Have some tea.”
When Mabry was seated, gripping his cup and saucer with white-knuckled fingers, Mottley leaned forward in his chair. His voice was quite changed: low and grave.
“Look here, Mabry. You came to me as a Specialist, and you must consider me as a doctor or a solicitor. I cannot help you unless you have told me everything.”
“But I… I have told you everything.”
“There is obviously more to this story, Mr. Mabry. I cannot deliver results for a client who is holding back vital information.”
Mabry’s white scalp glistened through his patchy hairline. “I don’t know what you mean.”Mottley returned his teacup to the table. He folded his arms and regarded Mabry with wide, expectant eyes.
Mabry tried to meet Mottley’s gaze, then leaned heavily on his elbows and stared at his wringing hands. When he looked up, there were tears in his eyes.
“Mr. Mottley, I have told you all I can. You must help me – there is no one else I can turn to. Someone is plotting to steal the Fire of the Moon, and you must expose it and stop it. The diamond is not just a stone; it is a legacy. It is a symbol of honour and friendship, loyalty and gratitude that will be utterly destroyed if you do not intervene. Please, Mr. Mottley. Please, just go down to Mabry Hall and… do what you can.”
Mottley studied Mabry’s face for another minute, then stood and extended his hand.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Mabry. The problem you presented has a very simple solution, but I cannot solve the problem you won’t tell me about.”
Mabry stood, as if in a trance, and shook Mottley’s hand.
Baker wafted to Mabry’s elbow, bearing his hat in two hands like an overgrown putto.
“This way, sir.”
Baker returned to the sitting room. Mottley lay across the arm-chair, staring at the ceiling. A stray clink of china roused him.
“Here! Baker, I see what you’re doing. Leave all that. I have told you, I do not need a valet. I do not want a valet. Let that be the end of it.”
“I see, sir. I wonder, sir, did you notice the gentleman’s shoes?”
“Snobbery will get you nowhere with me, Baker. Since reprimanding you for eavesdropping is clearly pointless, I shall merely remind you that the son of a retired civil servant – even a baronet – may well wear cheap shoes.”
“Indeed, sir. I wonder, sir, if you recall your father’s neighbour, Lord Wilbersham?”
“Not particularly, Baker, why?”
“I only mention it, sir, because Lord Wilbersham’s between-maid happened to tell me that her sister was once in service at Mabry Hall. A very upstanding family, sir, consisting of the esteemed man, and his three lovely daughters.”
“Yes, sir. Sir Hugo Mabry has no son.”
Mottley leapt from his chair and snatched the tea-tray from Baker.
“Thank you, Baker. That is quite helpful, as it will spare me the daunting effort of lifting Who's Who from the shelf, and paging all the way to the ‘M’s He stalked to the kitchen and clanked down the tray.
“Baker, I am very sorry you are at a loose end, and I thank you for tidying up this morning. For the last time, there is no situation for you here.” Mottley took his note-case from his pocket and counted out several bills into Baker’s palm.“Find yourself a room, and I’m sure there is a job in this city for a fellow of your initiative. Just don’t be here when I get back.
Mottley took his hat from the coat stand as he left, and paused in the doorway.
“And get yourself a new valise – no decent boarding house will have you with that eyesore.”
He slammed the door behind him.
* * * * *
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