- Lord Benjamin Petty . . . master of Dungarees Castle
- Lady Henrietta “Hetty” Petty . . . his wife, a former movie star
- Worth . . . the butler*
- Peter Moss . . . the gardener
- Gladys . . . the housemaid**
- Countess Sophronia Lancaster . . . eldest daughter of the castle’s former owner
- Diogenes Pratt . . . local pharmacist and Petty’s nephew
- Lucinda Leaharian . . . buxom owner of the local bookstore
- J.K. Diebehnkorn . . . American film director
- Greta Frink . . . Diebehnkorn’s secretary
- Zuzana Materska . . . the Countess’ maid
Dungarees Castle, Monday, 26 March, 1928
Dawn has not quite broken as a great storm batters the stone walls of the castle, and still no one stirs. But in a ramshackle wooden building that stands on the edge of the estate’s vast farmlands, a lean, shaggy figure stumbles awake. He sits on the edge of his narrow bed, pressing callused hands against his eyes. His head aches from last night’s drink, but there’s much work to be done and never enough time to do it.
He lights candles, whose flickering light barely penetrate the gloomy shadows. A small snore emerges from one dark corner. At first, he thinks one of the dogs got out and then remembers that his friend Mick*** had arrived the previous evening, with a jug and already much the worse for wear. Let him sleep it off, the man thinks.
He makes a fire and sets a pot to boil. He quickly dresses, lights a cigarette, and heads to the front door. Bracing for the storm, he hurries outside and crosses the muddy courtyard to a small barn to tend the animals.
There are chickens to feed, and goats. From a wall of hutches at the back, thickly furred white rabbits stare at him with red eyes. He pulls out his favorite, upon whom he has bestowed his own name, and feeds him pellets out of his own hand.
“Watch it, Peter! No snapping,” he bestows a grimace that passes for a smile and rubs the animal’s ears. Next, he turns to the kennel and the rough, country dogs that he has raised from pups. He grapples with them on his hands and knees, clearly more comfortable with the animals than with the human race, then sets out their food which they joyfully gobble down.
“Slow down, Sebastian!**** You’ll choke again! Now, now, Maurice, stop eatin’ your brother’s grub. Good boy, Charlie, good boy.”
(Wait a minute . . . which blog are we in?)
Storm or not, there’s work to do on the grounds, and Peter Moss, gardener at Dungarees Castle, rises reluctantly, bids his menagerie goodbye and hoists his stiff, lanky body outside toward the house. The lights are now on in the kitchen – bright electric light, as befitting the house’s modern new owner, gas ain’t good enough for ‘im, no sir. Pete stares up at the darkened windows, until the rain is streaming down his droopy moustache, and then trudges toward the tool shed.
* * * * *
By nine a.m., the sky has lightened only slightly, but the castle is bustling. If one were a fly on the wall, one could flutter from room to room, taking in our company of players in various states of activity.
In the dining room, the butler Worth presides over a hot buffet, with trays containing the traditional English breakfast with which few traditionalists bother anymore. Only two men are partaking at the moment: our host and his nephew.
Lord Benjamin Petty is a large, pompous individual, dressed in a florid dressing jacket that sets off the pinkness of his cheeks. What hair he has left on his pate is snowy white. One’s initial impression is of joviality – and then one notices the small, cruel lines around his mouth. He has his head behind the newspaper, muttering an incomprehensible commentary to the news of the day.
Diogenes Pratt is even bigger than his uncle, but a lifetime of village air and exercise has blessed him with a muscular physique. He shovels forkfuls of food down his gullet and laughs uproariously at the antics of Rupert Bear. Occasionally, he raises his plate and demands more kidneys, which Worth serves up efficiently, only a moue of distaste distorting his imperturbable features.
“Here’s a bit of a kerfuffle,” says Lord Petty, waving the paper. “Seems some valuable plans for a new submarine were stolen last night from the Royal Navy!” His Lordship gives a blast of laughter. “Old Halliday will be in a spin about it!”
“But who would steal plans for a rotten old submarine?” asks his nephew.
“Spies, m’boy!” The old man sniffs. “Or blackguards looking to make a fortune by selling to the spies. Our enemies are always watchful.”
“But who is the enemy now?” Diogenes asks in genuine bewilderment. “The war has been over for a decade. Peace and prosperity reign.”
“Everybody has enemies,” Lord Petty mutters, and buries his head in the paper again.
* * * * *
On the other side of the dining room wall stands the library, easily the most beautiful and impressive room in the house. The richly stained wood shelves line two stories of literary treasures, while the huge old furniture beckons the visitor to repose indefinitely. At this moment, many of the shelves are bare, and huge stacks of books fill every available space as an attractive woman named Lucinda Leaharian bustles to and fro, hard at her labors cataloguing the vast book collection. She leans forward to lift a gorgeous collection of Thackeray first editions in her arms and cradles them to her bosom like a child as she brings them to the great desk by the window to make notes.
If her shapely form moves a bit too voluptuously for such a task, it is noticed by no one because the only other occupant of the room is a guest to the house, one Greta Frink, who is curled up in an armchair reading W. Percival Westell’s British Bird Life. Although the room is very large and Greta is very small, her presence contrives to give Lucinda no little annoyance, and her teeth click as she scribbles information about The Adventures of Philip in her large green notebook . She closes the book, and her hands graze with sinuous delicacy over the soft leather cover.
“So lovely,” she sighs.
“What?” Miss Frink’s head shoots up from her bird book with a grimace of annoyance. Her eyes are hidden behind round spectacles that glint in the pale morning light streaming from the windows. Lucy holds up the book.
“This volume of Thackeray. It’s really quite extraordinary.”
Greta sniffs, to be fair not dismissively but because every spring she is afflicted with the hay fever, which she finds to be especially aggressive in the British countryside. “I’ll bet it would fetch a pretty penny,” she murmurs, and then returns her attention to Fringilla montifringilla, the English brambling. Lucy stares at the book, her eyes taking on a greedy gleam, pink tongue touching the tip of pink lips. She owns a small bookstore in the village, and while the money she makes helping Lord Petty sort his collection comes in handy, one sale of a book like this would . . . she gives a trembling sigh of pleasure and returns to work.
* * * * *
The two ladies in the library are not the only inhabitants giving themselves over to literary pursuits this morning. Upstairs in her ladyship’s boudoir, Lady Hetty reclines on her bed in a gorgeous dusty pink silk jacquard negligee trimmed with ostrich feathers, eagerly turning the pages of The Corpse in the Coalbin, the latest best-selling mystery novel from that Queen of the Impossible Crime, Ruth La Pale. Hetty’s hand fishes absently through a half-eaten heart-shaped box of bon-bons, her heart fluttering as ace detective Gideon Kane, his shirt slashed to ribbons from facing down a gang of smugglers, forces open a door at the end of a dark alleyway, revealing the mangled body of Babette, the exotic French dancer.
“Oh, dear, and I thought for sure that she was the killer!” Hetty pops another candy in her mouth and eagerly turns the page. She is interrupted by the entrance of the upstairs parlourmaid, an adenoidal girl named Gladys, who scurries in with a small broom and dustbin and makes her way to the fireplace. Her mistress lets out a shriek, and the maid turns and clutches her scrawny neck in a fright.
“Don’t you ever knock? Can’t you see that I haven’t vacated the premises?” says Hetty in her haughtiest tones. “Go and clean somewhere else.”
Gladys nods wordlessly and scurries back out. She closes the door and leans against it, breathing heavily. Normally, she would feel nothing but annoyance that another spoiled, lazy homeowner was keeping Gladys from her duties. But this is no ordinary landowner’s wife on the other side of that door. This is Hetty Landless, the movie actress. Gladys has seen all her pictures. She remembers Henry Burnaby, the boy who worked at the garage before he got sacked for talking back to the owner, driving her fifteen miles so that they could see The Raggedy Princess. What a beauty she was up on that big screen. It had been worth letting Henry fumble at her garments. She had only had to slap his face twice.
And now, for some reason, the fabulous Hetty Landless is no longer making motion pictures but a lady, lounging in her bed, eating chocolates and screaming at the servants. Gladys sighs contentedly and looks to her left and right for a new task. She notices an open doorway down the hall. It is the guest room belonging to Countess Sophronia, who seems to have vacated the premises like a real lady would have done by ten in the morning. Still, Gladys gives a little rap on the open door so as not to repeat her earlier mistake.
Certain that she is alone, she makes her way toward the fireplace – and stops as her eye catches the glint of jewelry on the bedside table. She moves forward as if hypnotized and beholds an elegant emerald brooch and matching bracelet lying right out in the open, as if begging to be examined by eager hands.
A great flash of lightning brightens the room. Breathlessly, Gladys turns and lets out a small scream. In the doorway stands the imposing presence of Zuzana, the Countess’ personal maid. Her dark eyes seem to flash in a reflection of the storm outside.
“You come in why?” she commands.
The little maid trembles. “W-why? I – I have to clean the g-grate.”
Zuzana slowly raises her finger and points. “Da grate? Da grate is over dere!” Gladys bustles over to the fireplace, kneels and gives it a spurious dusting, then turns around, gives a clumsy half curtsey to the older woman and rushes out into the hall.
Zuzana closes the door behind Gladys and stands still for a long moment, her ear pressed to the door. Then she proceeds to straighten up her ladyship’s things. As she approaches the bed, she gives a sharp intake of breath. The brooch is no longer there.
* * * * *
Out in the hall, Gladys scurries past her lady’s room, ignoring the coquettish giggle behind the door. Had she dared to enter, she would have seen a most curious site: her ladyship engaged in a pleasant wrestle with an imposingly handsome man in riding clothes, with longish hair streaked becomingly with silver and sporting a monocle. It is J.K. Diebehnkorn, the American film director and an old . . . associate of Lady Petty’s.
“Korny! Korny, stop!” Hetty shoves the director off of her with more force than one would expect, considering she doesn’t really want him to leave.
“Then come downstairs with me, baby, and help me butter up the old man. I need his dough if I’m ever gonna make this picture.”
Hetty leans back in a field of soft pillows and pouts. “Is that the only reason you came to see us? To get your hands on Ben’s filthy lucre?”
J.K. leans forward and caresses her lasciviously. “Now, now, Hetteh-la, you know exactly where I want my hands to be.” He moves in for the kill and Hetty giggles like mad, seems to accept his advances, then pushes him back again.
“Not now,” she sighs – and then gasps as J.K.’s strong hand grasps her chin and turns her head forcefully. His eyes bore into her with cruel force, the same energy that has made him one of the most powerful – and feared – men in Hollywood.
“Don’t toy with me, baby,” he whispers. “Don’t ever toy with me.” Hetty whimpers piteously, and then purrs as J.K. takes her in his arms.
* * * * *
Downstairs, the men are still enjoying their morning paper with their coffee. The door opens and Countess Sophronia enters in a most becoming frock. She is so lovely, so elegant, commanding and yet never forceful, such a delightful presence that both men jump to their feet as she comes in, and Worth’s impassive face is lightened by a subtle smile.
“Good morning, Miss Sophronia.” He bows low. The Countess stops beside him and holds out her hand for his.
“Dear, Worth, it’s so good to see you again.”
When the Lancaster’s sold their home to Lord Petty and went to live on the Continent, they had no need of their faithful family retainer, whose own father had served the family before him. The new owner had greedily snapped the butler up and found new reasons to be grateful for his presence every day.
“Only coffee please,” says Sophonia, taking a seat at Lord Petty’s left. Worth, however, makes up a small plate of her favorites. His ladies must keep up their strength, and Worth’s loyalty will always be to the Lancasters.
“I say, Countess,” says Diogenes, eying her admiringly. “We were just discussing the excitement up in town. Seem to be spies running amok, stealing submarine plans and all that.”
Sophronia’s violet eyes gleam. “Yes, I received a cable from father. He has high contacts in the Navy.”
The door opens and Lady Petty enters arm in arm with J.K. Diebehnkorn.
“Sorry I’m late,” Hetty simpers. “This dreadful man kept me at my toilet.” The gazes of the two newcomers alight on Countess Sophronia. Hetty gives a slight sneer, while the director offers a decided leer.
At that moment, a booming noise sounds in the distance. Diogenes half rises in his chair.
“Odd, what? – I’m sure that wasn’t thunder.”
A connecting door to the library opens, and Lucy emerges, followed by Miss Frink.
“Did you hear that?” she asks breathlessly. “It sounded like an explosion.” Lord Petty gazes admiringly at her heaving bosom and then rouses himself.
“Well, then, we must investigate.” He and his nephew move toward the dining room door when it crashes open and Pete Moss stands there in his drenched work clothes, his heavy boots thick with mud. His eyes take in the assembled company, and his moustache twitches.
(“Are we in this scene, too?”) (“Shhh!”)
“Moss!” Petty whines. “What is the meaning of this?” The gardener slowly shifts his gaze to his master with something like cool contempt.
“Car crashed at the gate.”
“Good Lord!” says Petty. “Is anyone hurt? Do we know them?”
Moss shakes his head. “One man – a stranger. Only shook up a bit.”
“Well, bring him in immediately.” Moss slowly turns around and exits the room. “Damn that brute,” Petty mutters. “Hetty, summon that girl here immediately to wipe the mud off the floor.”
* * * * *
Ten minutes later, Petty, Hetty and their guests are assembled in the drawing room around a seated figure swathed in blankets, gingerly sipping a glass of brandy supplied – and frequently replenished – by the invaluable Worth.
The object of their attention is a lanky figure, uncomfortably folded into the deep armchair. His impeccable dress, however damp, is belied by a muddled thatch of hair sticking up from his forehead. A small scratch on his forehead and a general air of befuddlement are the only signs of his recent accident.
“Most kind, most kind,” he murmurs. “I – I am terribly sorry to intrude. The road curves, and the rain caused me to slide out of control. My car – ??”
“It seems to have sustained quite a bit of damage,” says the master of the house. “We have a good garage in the village, but they work slowly and you might be detained for some time.”
“Oh dear.” The man seems troubled by that news. “I had an appointment in town that I must – “ His voice trails off. At this point, one might notice a rather shabby valise that he holds tightly against his chest. With a start, he looks around him and smiles. “Allow me to introduce myself. Plum’s the name. Rodney Lawrence Plum. I teach literature at the West Chiswick School for Boys.”
“You’re quite a bit out of your way, Mr. – “ begins Diogenes.
“Professor – “ the man corrects him.
“Yes, as I said, I was on my way up to town and I seem to have gotten myself turned around.” Plum shakes his head apologetically. A sudden silence descends on the group, broken by the sympathetic voice of Countess Sophronia.
“Perhaps the Professor would like to use the telephone to call his family.”
“Alas, I am quite alone in the world. And as school is out of session for the term, I have no one to call. Is – is there an inn in town where I might put up for the duration?”
“Nonsense, my good fellow,” says Petty. “You’ll stay with us! We have more bedrooms than we know what to do with, and you’ll find the company amiable.” He smiles broadly at the company; some offer a more amiable response than others. “Worth, can you arrange to have a room made up for the Professor?”
“Very good, sir.” The butler leaves the room, and the company relaxes. People begin to leave in small groups, making their way to other parts of the house and other assignations. Professor Plum approaches his host with a grateful smile.
“My deepest thanks for your hospitality, sir. I wonder if I could impose upon you for one small favor.” Petty’s eyebrows rise, and he nods. The professor holds out the satchel in his hands. “Do you by any chance possess a safe?”
“Why yes, of course.”
A wave of relief washes over the scholar. “I wonder if you would mind my locking this up? It has immense personal value, and I would feel more relaxed if it was kept in a secure place.”
“Certainly, Professor. If it makes you more comfortable, we’ll go to my study after you get settled in and put the satchel in the safe together.”
“That would be most satisfactory.”
The door opens, and Worth appears.
“Your room is ready, sir.”
Professor Plum daintily bows and follows the butler out of the room. Lord Petty strokes his jaw, his eyes gleaming.
“I wonder . . . “
What will happen next? I have some ideas, and you may have others. Feel free to place your suggestions in the comments below. Three new characters have already appeared, thanks to suggestions from readers (see below), and you can get in on the action yourselves.
Stay safe and healthy in your homes. I’ll see you next week with Part II!!
- * with thanks to Laurie
- ** with thanks to Linda Brue
- *** with thanks to Mike Linane
- **** with thanks (and apologies) to John Norris