It was Hallowe’en, and Eric had just settled into his usual place at the Vet. The day had begun with meeting his sister Penny as she drove into London in the family motor car, and then immediately seeing her off at Waterloo Station as she departed for a week’s visit--Hallowe’en to Guy Fawkes--with friends in Devon. He had then spent the day venting his frustrations in the gymnasium, first on a fencing dummy and then on a hapless fencing partner who’d been unprepared for his frustration-fuelled ferocity. He’d had a wash, and then he’d had his dinner. Fresh and fed, he was now returning to the manuscript he’d begun that morning, and finding it not much better than before. He was about halfway through the third chapter when Mortimer Wolfe--sleek, dapper and elegant, his hair slicked down and gleaming like mahogany--dropped into a seat facing him.
"Feet on the floor, Peterkin. Are we six years old?"
Normally, Eric would have responded with a good-natured "sod off, Morty," but tonight he uncurled his legs from under him and slid his stockinged feet back into their shoes. The gesture was not lost on Wolfe, who said: "My goodness, is it very bad, what you have there? Your moustache is drooping quite dreadfully."
Eric hastened to straighten the offending moustache, a long, sweeping thing that telegraphed his state of mind with unfortunate accuracy. Wolfe’s own moustache was a pair of perfectly symmetrical triangles; they might have been printed on his upper lip with a stencil. Eric said: "No, this fellow writes like an angel. The problem is, he has no idea what he’s on about."
"And you do? Let me guess: knowledge passed down to you from that Bengali grandmother of yours."
For some people, a Bengali grandmother was simply a grandmother. Wolfe was not one of those people, and Eric knew better than to take the bait. "I’ve spent some time around his exotic settings, I can say that much."
"If you’re such an expert," Wolfe replied, "I know a fellow in Churston who’s looking for someone to go hunt down Chinese antiques for his collection. That might be more your cup of tea than reviewing manuscripts."
There would be extensive travel involved, of course. The prospect was incredibly tempting. But Eric looked down at the manuscript in his hands and said: "I’ve promised to finish reviewing this one, at least. Perhaps after it’s done, I’ll go look up this antique collector friend of yours."
"Suit yourself," Wolfe said with a shrug. "A good man is so hard to find these days. A good gentleman’s gentleman, especially ... the world really needs more valets, Peterkin. You simply have no idea."
Ah, thought Eric, I wondered when he was going to get around to that. Eric had no illusions that Wolfe had joined him for any purpose but the discussion of Wolfe’s own perceived woes. The man went through his valets the way a compulsive smoker went through matchsticks: burning them out in quick succession and discarding them without a thought. Eric could never quite picture Wolfe in Flanders, knee-deep in the mud and filth that he himself had grown to loathe even in his short service; he supposed that Wolfe must have somehow commandeered the entire British supply of soap and hot water for the duration of the War. On the other hand, what Eric had heard of Wolfe’s wily exploits was quite enough to command his awe and respect: Wolfe was also known to have been captured while on the front lines on numerous occasions, without ever having been held for more than a day. Patrick Norris, that irrepressible wag, had once described Wolfe as "more fox than wolf, all slippery-sly in his perfect little black socks."
"Such a tiresome business," Wolfe sighed, when Eric failed to shut him up immediately. "You simply cannot get a good man these days--not that I shouldn’t have seen it coming, what with the War and all. I’ve had to settle now on a fellow with no references whatsoever. I suppose I’ll have to train him and not expect too much. It will be just the same as the raw, rotten batmen I had in Flanders. I suffer, Peterkin; decidedly, I suffer."
Eric suppressed a smirk. Wolfe was one of the few Army officers who habitually spoke of his batmen in the plural: he’d gone through them then the same way he went through his valets now. Most ranking men considered the position of their officer’s batman an enviable one: it was a comparably softer job, with the benefits that came with being close to one’s superior. Eric had it on good authority that Wolfe’s men actively feigned incompetence to avoid catching it.
"And speaking of batmen," Wolfe drawled, "here comes one now."
Eric looked up. Near the bar, Edward Garrett, one of the elected club officers, was talking to the barman; he had his hand on the shoulder of a tall, rather lumpish-looking fellow whom Eric did not recognise. The stranger was nodding and looking around with vaguely bovine interest; his straw-coloured hair flopped loosely across his forehead, and his tie was crooked.
"One of yours, Wolfe?"
"Towards the end of the War, Peterkin. Private Patrick Benson--I suppose if I wanted to rub elbows with only the commissioned, I shouldn’t have joined the Vet, eh? Benson was a little more competent than most, at any rate. He was an orderly at a war hospital somewhere in Sussex before he had a change of heart, gave up his conscientious objector status and joined us in the active fighting. And say what you like about hospital orderlies, they understand the meaning of spit and polish, and thankfully do not actually spit when they polish. My goodness, he’s let himself go, hasn’t he? He was never this untidy as a soldier."
"Gave up his conscientious objector status? I didn’t know you could do that."
"It was nearing the end of the War, and soldiers were in short supply. You’d be surprised at the amount of fudged paperwork that got men into the trenches then--and Benson had Bradshaw, the Empire’s champion fudge maker."
Jacob Bradshaw was still the club secretary, though the rest of the board of officers had changed since Eric first joined the Vet. Edward Garrett, for instance, was one of the new men on the board: an irritable, bespectacled man with collars starched as stiff and unbending as his principles, who seemed to practically live at the Vet. He was married just two years ago to the same Martha Cathcart whom Bradshaw and Eric’s father had discussed, when they met over Eric’s application for membership, and Eric supposed that Mrs. Garrett, as she now was, must really be every bit as brave as his father had said.
Eric watched as Garrett and Benson continued chatting at the bar. He thought that Garrett seemed to be in a better mood than usual tonight: a good enough mood that he didn’t seem to mind having to speak just a shade more slowly than was his habit, almost as though Benson were an idiot child. It was a little out of keeping with Wolfe’s grudging acknowledgement of Benson as "a little more competent than most"--Eric knew Wolfe’s standards, and he knew that Wolfe would never tolerate the sort of man who needed things explained twice. Benson had to be sharper than he was acting, or at least sharper than Garrett imagined him to be.
Benson and Garrett were soon joined by Bradshaw himself, who smoothly took charge of Benson from Garrett. Garrett, with some evident relief, withdrew to the other side of the bar where club president Oscar Mainwaring, black-browed and black-bearded, the melancholy humour to Garrett’s choleric, was dolefully ruminating over a drooping meerschaum pipe.
Garrett, Mainwaring and Bradshaw together ... Eric cast about and caught sight of a fourth club officer: Oliver Saxon, lounging by the doors with a half-eaten apple in one hand and his shirt-tails hanging, as usual, halfway to his knees.
"Are the officers having a meeting tonight?" Eric asked, turning back to Wolfe, "it looks like they’re all gathered, except for Norris."
Wolfe shrugged. "I’m not the one who keeps the officers’ schedules, Peterkin, but my guess is that this is one of those ’secret emergencies’. There’s some question about Benson’s application, and they’re meeting for a formal discussion and vote. That doesn’t happen too often."
"I suppose someone’s taken issue to him having been a conscientious objector?"
Wolfe snorted. "You did hear me when I mentioned his rank, right? Egalitarianism may be a wonderful thing in theory, but in practice ... well, in practice you know the only reason Saxon’s in here at all is his father’s the ruddy Earl of Bufferin, and thank goodness he prefers not to use his title because I couldn’t even begin to dream of addressing a slovenly, unshaven mess like him as Lord Anything. And as for Patrick Norris...." Wolfe rolled his eyes.
The lounge doors slammed open to admit Patrick Norris, the last of the club officers. He was a wiry little terrier of a man, with the scruffy charm of an unrepentant ne’er-do-weel, and about as much respect for standard protocol as Wolfe had for his valets. He greeted the others with a hearty thump on the nearest back--Saxon’s--and trotted off in the direction of a meeting room. All this while the attendant was still, no doubt, formulating an offer to open the door for him.
"At least Patrick Norris had the grace to make NCO first," murmured Wolfe as the other officers drifted along in Norris’s wake. "Not that that’s very much better. In my opinion, an officer of the club should at least be an actual commissioned officer. We tolerate Bradshaw because he gets the job done, and a Warrant Officer is at least a cut above an NCO even if he’s not actually commissioned; but there is absolutely no reason for Norris to be on the board."
Meanwhile, Bradshaw had stopped to guide Benson over to where Eric and Wolfe were sitting. "Peterkin! Wolfe! Wonderful to see you chaps. May I introduce Mr. Patrick Benson, our newest member? Benson, meet Morty Wolfe and Eric Peterkin. They’ll show you any ropes I missed. Won’t you, boys?"
Benson mumbled a barely audible greeting and settled heavily into a chair. His straw-coloured hair fell across his eyes, and Eric had the impression of an ungainly sheepdog padding about among sleek greyhounds.
"I’m trusting you two not to scare the fellow off, now," said Bradshaw as he turned to follow after the other officers. Mainwaring had put out his pipe and was waiting at the meeting room door for him.
"We’ll do our best," said Wolfe smoothly, but Bradshaw had already hurried off.
An awkward silence descended.
"Well," said Benson, addressing Wolfe, "this is a surprise, sir. I suppose I should stop calling you sir, sir?"
"Oh, don’t worry on my account," said Wolfe.
"And I’m pleased to meet you too, Mr. Peterkin," Benson continued, turning towards Eric.
Eric roused himself. Wolfe clearly had no intention of making things in any way easy for Benson. "So, it seems you two already know each other! From the War, I’m guessing?" He studiously ignored Wolfe’s icy glare and focused his attention on Benson instead.
"Yes," said Benson guilelessly. "Captain Wolfe was my commanding officer; I was his batman for a while, as a matter of fact, but I suppose you’d best hear about that from him rather than from me. Not my place, after all." Here Benson flashed an ingratiating smile at the still-frosty Wolfe. "But for my part I’d say the Captain was very kind."
That was not the sort of endorsement Eric expected to hear from one of Wolfe’s former batmen. "You must not have been under his command for very long," he couldn’t help saying. "I mean, Wolfe here has a bit of a reputation, one would say."
"I only expect what I’m due," Wolfe murmured, examining his nails.
Benson said: "Oh, I wasn’t in the trenches very long at all. I just got in at the tail end of the War ... I guess I was lucky, eh?"
"And now, here you are," said Wolfe. "Isn’t it amazing what a month or two in Hell can do for one! I must confess I am quite surprised to see you here among us bloodthirsty war hounds. You never seemed like the type."
"Mr. Garrett suggested it. I’d come into some money, you see, and I really didn’t know what to do with it. I took it to Mr. Garrett at the bank, and he suggested all kinds of investments and things to put it into, so that it would grow without me having to so much as look at it, and all I’d have to do is pick up the interest. It’s more than I understand, really. And then he said that I should consider joining a club, because it was the sort of thing a fellow in my position should do, and he said he’d put in a word for me here. So here I am." Benson shrugged. "These gents’ clubs always looked so imposing from the outside. I’ve no idea what to do or where to begin."
"Well, for starters," said Wolfe, eyeing the untidy knot of Benson’s tie, "I know you can tie a better knot than that. Did I teach you nothing?"
"It’s hardly a requirement," Eric said quickly. "You could loosen it or take it off entirely, if you prefer. You may have noticed that Mr. Norris loosens his as soon as he steps in the door, and Mr. Saxon rarely wears one."
"Oh yes, Patrick Norris and Oliver Saxon, what shining examples. I can’t think why more of us don’t follow in their hallowed footsteps."
Eric ignored Wolfe’s sarcasm. "Most of us come here to unwind after a day’s work, and we like to relax. Play a game of billiards, perhaps. Or cards, if you prefer. Although I’d avoid cards with Wolfe here. He’ll let you win a few hands for sport, and then he’ll fleece you utterly."
"Oh yes." Benson grinned suddenly. "Some of the boys warned me about that, I remember. It’s all right, though, if you shuffle the cards under the table."
"Excuse me?" This was new information. Eric darted a look at Wolfe, who was looking a little annoyed.
Benson cheerfully elaborated: "He’s got a quick eye, he does. They say he can track an ace through seven shuffles of a deck, just by watching. You got out of Gerry’s hands once by challenging their commanding officer to a few rounds of Pinochle, didn’t you? Won the uniform right off his back, and nearly got his medals too: that’s the story I heard."
Wolfe grimaced. "The rank and file will insist on spreading the most outlandish tales," he said. "There’s not a word of truth to that one."
A discreet cough at their elbows drew their attention to one of the club attendants, who handed a small key to Benson and, with a slight bow, disappeared back into the shadows.
"That’s a key to one of the club’s safe deposit boxes, if I’m not mistaken," said Wolfe. "Already making full use of the club facilities, I see."
"Mr. Garrett said I could. He said it was absolutely safe, safer than the Bank of England."
"Garrett exaggerates. I’d wager fifty pounds that whatever you’ve got squirreled away here, I could have it out of the vault and on this very table by this time tomorrow."
"You’re pulling me leg. I’ve seen the vault. You can’t get in without the combination, and then there are all the keys...."
"Oh no? Is it a bet, then?"
Benson darted a look at Eric, who shook his head. "I’ve learnt the hard way not to take up wagers with Wolfe unless you’re prepared to lose. Wolfe never makes a bet on his own exploits without first carefully considering how he might pull it off."
"Are you suggesting our new friend here doesn’t have fifty pounds to put on the table, Peterkin?"
"Not in the least. I’m suggesting that you’re taking advantage of the poor fellow."
Benson might very well have turned down the wager, if Garrett had not chosen that very moment to walk by. Eric hadn’t noticed the meeting room door opening, so engrossed was he in the conversation; but it appeared that the meeting had concluded and the officers were now gathering at the bar.
"Another one of your silly wagers, Wolfe?" Garrett chuckled. "I heard some of it, and I think you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, this time."
"You’ll take it, then? Our lily-livered friend here won’t."
"Certainly. Fifty pounds against your ability to sneak into the vaults and lift something from a safe deposit box whose number, by the way, Benson here is not going to tell you." Garrett gave Benson a wink. "Nor is he going to tell you what’s in the box. Is it agreed?"
"Make it a hundred pounds, and I’ll have the mystery prize on this table before noon."
Inspired by Garrett’s confidence, and perhaps stung a little by Wolfe’s aspersions on his courage--Eric himself had fallen for that tactic more than once before--Benson joined Garrett in taking up the wager.
"There’ll be no brutality, of course," Garrett said, shaking hands with Wolfe. "I know you, and I know you’d rather die than leave a mess behind, but it still bears saying. Peterkin here will act as referee, of course?"
"By all means," said Eric. "I’ll be here at noon tomorrow, and if Wolfe hasn’t made good on his claim by then, the two of you win. Benson, in the interest of fairness, I think I had better have a look at what you’ve got in there--just so I know what Wolfe’s supposed to find."
"A wise decision, Peterkin. I was about to suggest something along those lines myself." Garrett clapped Benson on the back and turned to join the other officers at the bar, while Benson stood to lead the way down to the vault.
As Eric left the lounge, he observed Wolfe leaning back in his chair and lighting a cigarette. The man was obviously very sure of himself, and Eric was glad he had not been talked into taking the wager. Garrett, meanwhile, appeared to be in an uncommonly good mood. That, in Eric’s opinion, was something of a rarity. He wondered which of them, Wolfe or Garrett, would still be in such a good mood when the clock struck noon on the next day.
Benson hesitated out in the main hall, and Eric took over the lead. They descended to the lobby, then walked down the corridor past the club president’s office and the porter’s office; at the end of the corridor was a non-descript wooden door, which was unlocked and opened on request by the porter--a man serendipitously named Ted Porter, but called "Old Faithful" behind his back by the members. Behind the door, a narrow staircase led down to a windowless antechamber, where both members were advised to stand back while Old Faithful busied himself with the combination lock on the vault door. The vault door swung inwards, triggering the illumination of a single bare bulb overhead.
The vault had walls of bare concrete. A plain, wooden table stood in the middle of the room; the bank of deposit boxes lined the far wall, an array of little steel doors set into a solid sheet of steel. Benson unlocked door number 13 and withdrew the snugly-fitted steel box behind it. He set the box on the table and opened it.
"These are rather private," Benson muttered, lifting a bundle of letters out of the box, "and I’d really appreciate it if you don’t actually read them."
"Let me at least take a look." Eric took the letters and glanced through them. They were addressed to someone named "Gussie", and were dated sometime in the last century. Eric counted seventeen pages in all: four letters covering a period from May 1890 to October 1893. True to his word, Eric avoided looking into the actual content and handed them back to Benson as soon as he had ascertained their nature and quantity.
Looking back into the box, Eric found a yellowed bill from a boys’ boarding school in France, a copy of a duty roster from a training camp in Sussex, and an old photograph.
"This is a rather curious collection," Eric said, picking up the duty roster. This was the Company Routine Orders for the 21st of July, 1918. Eric’s eye was instantly caught by the name at the bottom: Warrant Officer Jacob Bradshaw, the Company Sergeant Major, signing for his Officer Commanding. "Oho! Is that our Bradshaw? Where’d you get this?"
"That’s from the camp I was trained at," Benson said, the colour rising in his cheeks. "It’s ... not important."
But important enough to be locked away in a vault, thought Eric. It was well known that Bradshaw had spent the latter half of the War training new recruits, and it was also well known that his superior officer through the last year of it had been Captain Edward Garrett. If Benson had been trained under Bradshaw in the final months of the War, he must have been familiar with Garrett from that time as well. Eric said so, and added, "I was under the impression that you’d only just met Garrett within the past month or so."
"I was just one of many recruits passing by under him. He knew me by face, at the time, and that was all. We never actually spoke until we met again over my inheritance."
Eric thought that even a prickly fellow such as Garrett would make some effort to know something of the men under him, but that was neither here nor there. Instead, he turned his attention to the boarding school bill. He raised a brow. "You were educated in France?"
Benson nodded. "My father sent me there after my mother died. He seemed to think you couldn’t get a good ... a good education of this sort in England."
Eric looked back at the bill. Benson had been educated by a religious order, it seemed. The headmaster was a French monsignor by the name of Jean-Pierre Breuleux. It was an expensive education, not the sort one associated with the rank-and-file. But there was just enough patriotic fervour in Eric that the slight on English schools rankled. "What did he mean, ’a good education of this sort’? What sort?"
Benson shrugged. He looked uncomfortable. "I don’t know. I ... I’ve never met him, you see." He seemed unwilling to go on, and Eric didn’t press him.
Moving on, they next came to the old photograph. Benson made no protest as he picked it up, and Eric had the sense that Benson’s manner had altered subtly: Benson seemed more watchful, more curious. He was interested in Eric’s reaction to the photograph, where he seemed a little embarrassed at the other contents of his deposit box.
This photograph was of a pair of VAD--Voluntary Aid Detachment--nurses, standing in the portico of a stately manor house. Eric obligingly scrutinised their faces. "She looks a little familiar," he said, indicating the taller girl. "Who is she?"
Benson looked away. "No-one important," he said, his voice strangely soft. "A distant cousin, I suppose."
"Well, Benson, it seems to me that you’ve got quite a personal collection of things here. Are you sure you want to risk having Morty Wolfe--who, if I may be honest here, doesn’t particularly care whom he hurts--discover these things and possibly parade them around for all to see?"
"Maybe I didn’t think this through completely," Benson said ruefully. "What do you think I should do? Should I go back and tell them the bet’s off?"
"Not with Garrett also in the picture. And, let’s face it, Wolfe will ruin you if you do. Here, I’ll tell you what, I’ll take out the next box and you can keep the more private items in there until after noon tomorrow."
Benson agreed that it sounded like a good idea, and the two returned to the antechamber to speak to Old Faithful. Five minutes later, they were back in the vault, and Eric was opening up box 16--the next box, 14, had been taken, and the key to 15 appeared to be missing. Benson put the letters and the school bill in it, and they locked it up. All that remained in Benson’s box were the photograph and the old duty roster.
"I wouldn’t mind knowing what Captain Wolfe thinks of these two, come to think of it," Benson mused.
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing. A joke, that’s all." The vague, slightly stupid look he’d affected earlier was gone: there was a steely set to his jaw and, for a moment, Eric recognised Benson as a knight on a quest. Then the hair fell into his eyes, the bland look returned, and Benson was once again the oafish lump who needed things explained extra slowly.
Back up in the lounge, the officers were still milling about at the bar. Garrett was talking to Mainwaring; from the way the two of them looked up when Eric and Benson returned, Garrett must have been filling Mainwaring in on the details of their bet. As Garrett and Bradshaw detached themselves from the bar to approach Benson, Eric observed Mainwaring turning, in his lugubrious way, towards Norris; his pipe waggled animatedly as he no doubt repeated to Norris everything that Garrett had told him.
Benson, meanwhile, exchanged only a few words with Bradshaw and Garrett; after shaking hands with them, he made a beeline for Saxon. The two spoke quietly, and began to make their way to the doors.
That was a surprise. Garrett, Bradshaw, and now Saxon ... Patrick Benson clearly had closer connections to the club officers than anyone might have guessed. Judging by Garrett’s expression, the Benson-Saxon connection was as much a surprise to him as it was to Eric. Eric glanced over to the corner where he’d left Wolfe earlier, wondering if it was as much a surprise to Wolfe as well, but the man had gone.
Saxon and Benson were halted at the lounge doors by the entrance of Martha Garrett, Edward Garrett’s wife, who brushed by them without a second glance. "Edward," she was saying, "is your meeting quite over yet? There is only so much idle window-shopping a woman may do, and I was really hoping you would be home for at least some reasonable portion of the evening...."
Benson turned to stare as she sailed by, clearly astonished. It was not simply because Mrs. Garrett was not in fact allowed this far into the hallowed halls of the Vet, no matter who her husband might be: it was, as Eric could see, that she was a dead ringer for the taller of the two nurses in Benson’s old photograph.
His surprise was only momentary: Saxon took him by the elbow and practically dragged him out of the room; and as the doors closed behind them, Eric saw Benson shake his head, laughing off the incident.
The reaction was not lost on Mrs. Garrett, however, who’d turned around just in time to catch it. "What was that about? Is there something on my nose?"
"That was Patrick Benson," replied Garrett. "I told you about him, remember?"
"Oh! From the hospital, of course! Edward, we’ll have to have the fellow over for dinner some time; we have ever so much to talk about. I wonder how he knows Saxon...."
Garrett, looking very much as though dinner with Benson would be akin to a visit to an exceptionally ham-fisted dentist, steered his wife towards the doors and eventually managed to leave with her.
Back at the bar, Norris chuckled. "I love Martha Garrett. She has such a delightful effect on her husband."