The late-October afternoon turned to dusk, and dusk to evening. Light dimmed to darkness outside the windows of the Britannia Club lounge, and flared up again with the fog-fuzzed glow of the street lamps. Sunset came noticeably earlier now, with October beginning to fade into the expectation of November. The season of fog was upon London: yellow-grey curls of moisture seeped up from the grates to climb the iron lamp posts and wilt the starch of one’s collar. Inside, shadows gathered at the corners, and lamplight further isolated the groupings of armchairs into islands of discretion.
Eric was still in his Usual Armchair, warm with the cheerful flames of the nearby fireplace. He was quite recovered by now from Aldershott’s earlier snub, and he’d taken a break to dine on an excellent curried pheasant in the dining room downstairs. The Britannia was proof against the clammy chill of October, and all was well with the world once again.
All except, perhaps, for the manuscript he was supposed to be reading. Eric frowned down at it and shifted uncomfortably. The trouble was that, halfway in, he already knew the identity of the murderer, and all the tension was gone. He desperately hoped that some twist would prove him wrong, but it was looking very much as though the clues from which he’d derived his conclusion were quite inescapable.
There was a creak from the armchair across from him. Mortimer Wolfe—sleek, dapper, and elegant, hair slicked down and gleaming like mahogany—had dropped into it with his usual careless grace. He was just a year or two past thirty; he’d been that age his entire adult life, and careful polish would keep him there until the end of time. As one of the five men on the Britannia Club’s governing board of officers, he was insufferable.
“Feet on the floor, Peterkin. Are we six years old?”
Eric had his stockinged feet curled up under him as he sat. “Sod off, Wolfe. I’m comfortable this way.”
Glancing at the manuscript in Eric’s hands, Wolfe said, “My goodness, is it really very bad? Your moustache is drooping dreadfully.”
Wolfe’s own moustache was a pair of perfectly symmetrical triangles; they might have been printed on his upper lip with a stencil. Eric hurried to tweak his moustache back into shape and said, “Not quite. This fellow writes like an angel. The problem is, he doesn’t seem to have quite managed a watertight plot . . . I’m not sure he really knows what he’s on about.”
“And you know better, I suppose? Is it because of the inscrutable wisdom of the Chinese ancients, passed down to you from your most honourable ancestors?”
For some people, a Chinese mother was simply a mother like any other. Wolfe was not one of those people. If Aldershott preferred to ignore him, Wolfe made it a sport to twit Eric on his heritage whenever he could. “No,” said Eric, “only a matter of common sense. And for what it’s worth, I do know a thing or two about the exotic settings this fellow’s chosen to write about.”
“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.”
The one thing Eric missed about the War was that one had slightly more pressing things to worry about than blood heritage. The respect he’d received from his comrades had not been immediate, but after enough shells and sorties and gas attacks, no one cared anymore who your grandparents were—as long as you did your job well and kept your men alive. He was simply Lieutenant Peterkin.
“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. “I merely thought you wanted a distraction, and I was feeling a trifle bored. What would you say to a game of cribbage, then? We can make it interesting with a shilling a point.”
“You must be mad.” Cards with Wolfe was a sure way of losing one’s shirt. Eric had never known him to lose. Then again, if the alternative was to keep reading this manuscript . . . “Sixpence a point, no more. I think I can afford to lose a crown or two.”
Wolfe smirked. “If you think that, Peterkin, then I’ve already won.”
A cribbage board appeared on the table between them as if by magic. Wolfe, with a magician’s dexterous fingers, shuffled the cards and dealt them out. As they settled into the game, Wolfe said, “You know, Peterkin, 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.”
Eric had been wondering when Wolfe would get around to the all-important subject of Wolfe. The man went through his valets as a compulsive smoker went through matchsticks: burning them out in quick succession and discarding them with nary 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.
Captain Mortimer Wolfe wasn’t quite the useless dandy he presented, however. Wolfe had led countless strikes against the enemy—not all of them sanctioned—and been captured at least three times. Countless retellings of his exploits blurred the line between fact and legend, but all agreed that he’d always escaped again in under a day. Wolfe himself pretended not to care, but he certainly made no effort to curtail the telling of tales.
As one irrepressible wag had said, he was “more fox than Wolfe, all slippery-sly in his perfect little black socks.” And Eric respected his resourcefulness, even if he didn’t care for his superior attitude.
“Such a tiresome business,” Wolfe said with a sigh, 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 hid a smirk behind his cards. Wolfe was one of the few Army officers who habitually spoke of his batmen in the plural; he’d gone through them the same way he went through his valets now. The position of batman was normally an enviable one: a comparably soft job with all the benefits of being close to one’s superior. Wolfe’s men actively feigned incompetence to avoid it.
“Speaking of batmen, servants, and the like . . .” Wolfe nodded in the direction of the bar, and Eric turned to see a tall, rather lumpish-looking individual whom he did not recognise, deep in conversation with Edward Aldershott.
The stranger’s straw-coloured hair flopped loosely across his forehead, and his tie was crooked—a distinct contrast to the primly buttoned-up Aldershott and the sleekly polished Wolfe. His face was bland, and he was looking around with vaguely bovine interest. Eric wondered who he was. He turned back to Wolfe. “An old batman of yours, is he?”
“Not quite. I met him at the hospital where I was warded, near the end of the War, though I remember very little of it. He was an orderly there. Name’s . . . Benson, I believe. Yes. Albert Benson. And he’s a conscientious objector.” Wolfe paused to grin at Eric’s startled reaction. The Britannia Club took in men who’d fought for the Empire; what was someone who’d refused to fight doing in their midst? “Curious, isn’t it? We had a meeting all about it earlier. Saxon spoke up quite well for him, which was a surprise, and not just because Saxon’s a disagreeable blighter who’s chummy with no one. As far as I know, Saxon’s the only one of us to have nothing to do with Sotheby Manor.”
“Sotheby Manor?” Eric glanced at Wolfe as he pegged his score on the board, before scanning the bar again for Saxon. There he was, in a shadowy corner, munching on an apple and staring off into space. Every so often, he’d come back to the present and glare around as if daring anyone to come close.
Oliver Saxon was something of an oddity, a brooding, unshaven figure who haunted the club at all hours with his shirt tails hanging halfway to his knees, picking apples off the centrepiece displays in the dining room and leaving their cores in the oddest places. Eric recalled having once found a rotting specimen wedged behind the frame of the Arthurian Knights painting down on the staircase landing. Saxon never really seemed to notice, and in any case he made no apologies for any of it, nor for anything else, either; he was the son of the Earl of Bufferin, one of the oldest houses in England, and he could afford to be as absent-minded as he liked. He had the right to call himself Lord Saxon, but there he went against convention by eschewing the courtesy title.
He worked for a living, too, as an exports manager for Saxon’s Hard Cider—a family concern—which was unheard of for one who was Lord Saxon . . . but perhaps not so much for one who preferred to be only Mr. Saxon.
Focused as he was on Saxon’s situation, Eric nearly missed Wolfe’s reply: “Sotheby Manor was the war hospital where I was warded, Peterkin. Lovely place on the Sussex Downs, lorded over by a baronet with pretensions of being a medical doctor of some sort. Do try to keep up.”
Eric ignored the barb and focused instead on Benson. “But if he never fought, then how is he here at all? Is it only on Saxon’s say-so?”
“Well, we’ll let anyone in nowadays, won’t we? Ever since we opened up to the Chinese Labour Corps, as you know better than anyone.”
The legendary Peterkin eyebrows crashed together into a frown. The Chinese Labour Corps was a non-combat unit, and the pride of Lieutenant Eric Peterkin, late of the Royal Fusiliers, was stung. “I wasn’t with the Chinese Labour Corps,” he said. “I was with—”
“I never said you were.” But the malicious glint in Wolfe’s eye betrayed him: Eric had taken the bait after all. Wolfe continued as if nothing had happened. “I don’t know how Saxon came to know Benson. I barely remember the great oaf at all. But then, you tend not to remember a face when you’ve only met it through a haze of morphine. And . . . a hundred and twenty-one,” he said, moving his peg on the cribbage board. “You owe me seven bob and sixpence.”
Eric gathered the cards to one side of the board and dug out the price of entertainment.
Over at the bar, Aldershott had taken off his spectacles and was pinching the bridge of his nose. Behind him, Saxon dropped the remains of his apple into an empty beer mug and extracted another apple from the recesses of his jacket. Benson’s gawking, meanwhile, finally settled on Eric himself, and he was now openly staring. Eric stared right back.
Aldershott, replacing his spectacles, followed the line of Benson’s gaze and caught Eric’s eye. His lips twitched—was it relief?—and then he tugged on Benson’s sleeve to draw his attention back to the here and now.
“Peterkin!” Aldershott said, approaching them with a smile as genuine as paste. “And Wolfe. May I introduce Mr. Albert Benson, our newest member? Benson, Wolfe here is one of our governing board of officers, and the Peterkin clan has been at the Britannia since practically before the Magna Carta. Why don’t I leave you in their capable hands for now, and they can show you any ropes I’ve missed?” The spectacles flashed meaningfully at Wolfe, who pretended to examine his nails. “I can count on you, can’t I, boys?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Wolfe replied without looking up from his nails. But Benson just grabbed Wolfe’s hand and shook it, earning a very annoyed look that was quite lost on him as he turned to do the same with Eric. Aldershott was gone by the time the usual greetings were exchanged, and Benson pulled up another armchair to the fire. His blond hair fell loosely across his forehead as he sat down; Eric was put in mind of an ungainly sheepdog padding about among sleek greyhounds.
There was a certain degree of scruff, too: Benson’s cuffs and collar showed signs of wear, and his trousers appeared to have been taken in at some point; but his jacket was both new and expensive. Eric glanced down at his left hand and noticed a faint greenish tinge on the skin around Benson’s wedding band. Here’s a fellow who’s had to practice economy for a while, Eric thought. He must have come into money quite recently.
“I don’t know if you remember me, Mr. Wolfe,” Benson was saying, “but I certainly remember you. Lot of familiar faces around here, I must say.”
“Indeed,” said Wolfe, engrossed in his cuticles.
“And I’m quite sure I’ve not met you before, Mr. Peterkin,” Benson continued, turning to Eric. “Though I’m quite pleased to meet you now.” There was a brief, awkward pause. “So . . . where are you from?”
“Barsetshire.” Eric had no taste for delving into the story of his ancestry and antecedents at the moment. These queries happened with distressing frequency, and Eric was sure he’d met his quota for the month. “Wolfe mentioned that he met you at the Sotheby Manor war hospital,” he hurried on, ignoring Wolfe’s icy glare.
Benson just grinned. “Oh yes. Half-dead from Flanders, and he wanted a proper shave and a haircut. Our friend here’s got a proper set of nerves, I’ll say—two days in, and you’d wonder if he’d even seen a picture of the trenches.”
“It’s not my call what God chooses to bestow upon me from His bounty,” Wolfe drawled. “Though I dare say I could have stayed home had I wanted to; heaven knows, many men did.”
Benson didn’t seem to register this as a barb, only saying, “Well, Flanders was a rotten place to be. I was there for a year, and you couldn’t pay me to go back. I wonder that anyone volunteered.”
There for a year? But hadn’t Wolfe said that Benson was a conscientious objector who’d served his duty as a hospital orderly? Benson elaborated: “I was a stretcher-bearer, one of the first to get out there. But a shell knocked me out—my memory’s not too clear—and put me in a cast. They decided I’d be better off serving back home in England after that. Lucky for me, eh? But having been out there, I reckon I knew better than most at the hospital what all those men were going through.”
“And now, here you are,” said Wolfe. “Isn’t it amazing what a year in hell can do for one! I must confess I am quite surprised to see you here among us bloodthirsty war hounds. I’d have thought you’d give us all the widest berth possible.”
Benson was beginning to relax. He signalled to an attendant for a drink, then said, “I had a certain change in circumstances. Mr. Saxon suggested that, now I could afford it, I consider joining his club, because it’s the sort of thing a fellow in my position ought to do. So here I am.” Eric noticed him unconsciously fidgeting with the gold band on his left hand. Had he recently married into money, then?
“These clubs always looked so imposing from the outside,” Benson continued. “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 they teach you nothing at the hospital aside from how to make a bed while someone is still in it?”
“It’s hardly a requirement,” Eric said. He’d remained silent for too long, and Wolfe clearly had no intention of making things any easier for Benson. “You could loosen it a bit, if you like. Saxon even takes his off entirely.”
“And what a shining example he is,” Wolfe said. “I can’t think why more of us don’t follow in his hallowed footsteps.”
Eric forced himself to ignore Wolfe’s sarcasm. “Most of us come here to unwind after a day’s work. Play a game of billiards, perhaps, or cards. But I’d avoid cards with Wolfe.” Eric indicated the cribbage board on the table. “He’ll let you win a few hands for sport, and then he’ll fleece you utterly.”
“Oh, I know.” Benson grinned suddenly. “There wasn’t much else to do in the convalescing ward aside from read and play cards, and word gets around. It’s all right, though, so long as you shuffle the cards under the table.”
Eric darted a glance at Wolfe, who looked merely annoyed—but it was Wolfe’s way to never appear shaken by anything less than the Second Coming. The charge of cheating at anything was a serious matter among gentlemen, but Benson continued, too cheerfully for this to be meant as anything more than a wry observation: “He’s got an amazingly quick eye. They say he can track an ace through seven shuffles of a deck, just by watching.” Turning to Wolfe, he said, “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.”
“People will insist on spreading the most outlandish tales,” Wolfe said. A smirk pulled at the corner of his mouth. “We were playing cribbage.”
It was, of course, a signal that Wolfe was ready to “reluctantly” divulge the details of his escapades, which in turn meant that there was no point in trying to read anything. Eric tucked his manuscript behind a cushion and went up to the bar to order a few drinks for their little group.
Saxon was still at the end of the bar, munching on an apple. Eric began to feel a little bad for him: it was never very pleasant to be left out of things, and if Saxon were Benson’s sponsor into the club, it seemed hard that he should be left out of this. As the bartender prepared the drinks, Eric turned to Saxon and said, “Your friend Benson seems like a jolly chap. Will you join us, Saxon? There’s plenty of room by the fire for another chair.”
But Saxon, momentarily startled into the present, just glared. Eric saw, half-hidden under the edge of the bar, a book lying open in Saxon’s lap. It was entirely in Greek and spotted all over with doodles, underlinings, and notes. “I didn’t come here to talk,” Saxon snapped, and turned back to the book. Eyes down, he absently deposited the remains of his apple into a nearby mug of beer—one still in use, unfortunately—and extracted another apple from the recesses of his rumpled jacket.
Shrugging, Eric returned to the fire, where Wolfe had begun once again to complain about the lack of qualified valets in post-War England.