- 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
- Rodney Lawrence Plum . . . literature professor at West Chiswick School for Boys
- Zuzana Materska . . . the Countess’ maid
- Mick . . . Moss’ friend
Dungarees Castle, Monday, 26 March, 1928
After breakfast, the Countess returns to her room, where she finds her maid standing stiffly in the center of the room, her hands balled up in anger.
“Zuzana, what’s wrong?”
Zuzana strides to the night table beside the bed and points to the surface.
“There! You see? Your emerald pin . . . so magnificent . . . gone!” The Countess’ eyes widen as she examines the table. She kneels down to check under the bed, but the maid grabs her arm and pulls her back up. “Aiiiee . . . do not trouble yourself. Do you not think I haff searched everywhere? That girl, that brazen peasant, she stole it before my eyes!”
“The little servant, the one who looks frightened all ze time. What has she to be frightened about, safe in countryside with these smug – “
“That will be enough, my girl.” Sophronia looks about the room with worried eyes.
“I knew it was wrong for you to come back here,” the maid hisses. “Why do you wish to suffer in the company of that uncouth man and his hussy of a wife? She is not chic! She is cavorting with that monocled man. Oh no, do not laugh! I have seen them with my own eyes. Disgraceful!”
Sophronia represses another giggle and grabs the maid’s hand fondly. “Dear, Zuzana, I appreciate you worrying about my reputation. But who I associate with is my affair. Now, regarding the jewellery – say nothing of this to anyone.”
“But – “
“Nothing, do you hear me? I will investigate this myself. Help me dress, and we’ll hear nothing more about it.”
* * * * *
A half hour later, Sophronia returns to the main floor and is about to head to the drawing room when a sound from behind the stair arrests her. Around the corner is a door which leads to a small parlor. It had been her favorite room in the house when Sophronia was a child, a prime hiding place from her brothers. Slowly, so as not to make a sound, Sophronia makes her way to parlor door and presses her ear against it. Faintly, through the thick door, she can hear the laughter of a man and woman. A dalliance, perhaps? Maybe Zuzana was right, she thinks, half-shocked, half amused. Maybe Lady Hetty is carrying on with Diebehnkorn not one hundred feet from her own husband.
“Ah, there you are, Countess!” She whirls around to see the lady of the house herself stepping off the bottom stair and craning her head in the Countess’ direction. “What are you doing?”
With the calm she once mustered as she presented at court, Sophronia advances on her hostess. “You have caught me out. I have been reminiscing about the old days. This was my mother’s own parlor where she used to entertain special guests.”
Hetty snorts. “Whatever for? It’s so small. I can’t figure out what to do with it.”
Sophronia slips her arm into Hetty’s. “I know you’ll come up with the perfect idea. Tell me,” she adds mischievously, “where is that fascinating man from Hollywood?”
Hetty’s says, with obvious displeasure, “He’s holed up with that mousy secretary of his, dictating letters.”
“Well, that’s show business, isn’t it? It never stops.” The Countess pats her hand sympathetically, and they walk toward the drawing room to join the others.
* * * * *
The curtains are drawn, but a cheerful fire flickers in the small parlor, casting playful shadows on the couple locked in each other’s arms. They part with a sigh and slowly move apart, the man adjusting his rumpled waistcoat, the woman moving to the gilt mirror above the mantle where she reapplies her lipstick. Slowly, the man moves behind the woman, his arms about to encircle her. She draws back sharply
“Stop, you’re insatiable! I’m trying to make myself look halfway presentable before we join the others.”
“You are beyond presentable,” the man leers at her reflection. “Besides, I like to see you mussed. I like to think I was the one who mussed you. Give us a kiss.” The woman sighs, turns around, and lets herself be mussed a little more. Then she gently but firmly pushes Lord Petty away and returns to her lipstick.
“Worth will be sounding the gong for lunch at any minute,” she says. “Hadn’t you better clear out? I’ll follow at a suitable distance.”
Petty lets out a frustrated sigh. “I hate keeping this a secret. If I could shout it to the rooftops how much I love you – “
She smiles sardonically. “Oh yes? And are you willing to make me a respectable woman? To leave your wife for me? To – “
Lord Petty splutters, “Now, now, I didn’t say – “ She turns around and places a finger to his lips.
“No, Benny, you didn’t. And I didn’t ask. I’m content to share you – “ She leans closer and blows into his ear, causing him to tremble, “ – for now.” She gives his cheek a chaste kiss, turns him around and pushes him forward. “Now scoot!”
Lord Petty chuckles and makes his way to the door. His hand on the knob, he turns and says, “If I have my way, you’ll be working on that damned library forever.” He blows her a kiss. She returns it, and he slips out of the room.
When he’s gone, Lucy flings her hand down as if tossing his kiss in the dustbin.
“Forever?” She murmurs. “Hardly that, my love.”
* * * * *
As Worth and Gladys serve the house party their luncheon, Moss, the gardener, ambles back to his farmhouse to fix himself a simple meal. When he opens the door, he stands looking about him in shock. It is as if a great wind has entered his shack and blown the insides apart. Furniture has been moved out of position, every cupboard door stands open, clothes and kitchen items are tossed about in disarray.
Across the courtyard, an avian commotion seems to be taking place in the barn. Moss hurries to investigate, and he sees the barn door open and a single goat runs out. He runs forward to lay hold of the animal and herd it back to its pen, when a strong figure rushes out of the barn and butts him in the flank, forcing him to let the goat escape. The figure wraps its arms around the helpless gardener, growling fiercely.
“What’ve ye done with it, laddie?” Moss wrestles against the brute force binding him, but strong as he is, he cannot make his assailant let go.
“I don’t know what you’re blathering about,” he says through clenched teeth. “Let – me – go!!”
To his surprise, the hands release him, and the force throws him off balance. Righting himself, Moss whirls around and faces Mick, his houseguest of the previous evening. The man’s clothes are rumpled from sleep, his unshaven face a mask of post-drink fury. Then, to Moss’ horror, Mick throws back his head and lets loose with a full-throated cry of such woe that it sends shivers to his heart.
“Calm yourself down, man, and tell me what you’re lookin’ for.” Mick relaxes, as if all the rage has seeped out of him like air from a balloon. Meekly, nods to where the goat has stopped in the center of the courtyard to nibble on some grass. Together they return the animal to its pen. He makes his way to the dogs, the chickens, the rabbits, clucking soothingly, and rubbing furred ears to calm their agitation. Then he turns to face his companion.
“I’m listening, Mick.”
“It’s – it’s me sack. It contains all my worldly possessions. Everything of value to me . . . “
“You didn’t bring nuthin’ with you last night, man. No sack . . nuthin’.”
Mick begins to get angry again. “I did! I did, I tell you! I know it was with me. And now . . . it’s gone.” Pete holds his hands up in a plea for calm.
“We’ll look for it together, Mick. Two heads are better th – “ He has reached for the man’s shoulder, but Mick draws back with a start. He backs away, his face alight with malevolent energy.
“No! No, I tell you. I won’t let you steal it. It’s mine. Mine, you hear me?” And with that, Mick bounds out the barn door. Moss follows him out to the courtyard, just in time to see Mick run with startling athleticism toward the fields. The gardener stands in the doorway, staring after the shrinking figure, and scratches his head in bafflement.
* * * * *
“A moment of your time, Ben.”
“Of course, J.K.! Let’s have a brandy in my study.” As he guides the film director out of the dining room, Lord Petty glances at his wife, who flutters her eyes approvingly, but at whom he cannot say. Presently, the two men are ensconced in fine leather chairs, each holding a snifter. They clink glasses and Diebehnkorn begins.
“I’m not sure how much you know about the film biz, Petty!” His Lordship opens a box of Havanas and offers. The director declines.
“I’m aware of the movies my wife made, many of them for you, sir.” Petty passes a cigar under his nose, sniffing appreciatively, then applies a cutter to the tip.
“Then you’ve seen some of my best work, made all the more radiant by Hetty’s presence in them.” Diebehnkorn pulls a solid gold lighter out of his pocket and lights his companion’s cigar.
“You might say I’m quite a fan of the motion pictures,” says Lord Petty, regarding the director through a haze of smoke. “I count several Hollywood luminaries among my friends, particularly Buck Haggerty, the Western star.”
The director raises his eyebrows. “Buck Haggerty? How on earth did you make his acquaintance?”
“It’s a fascinating story, which I’ll tell you when we have time. It was on account of Buck that I came to Los Angeles and met my Hetty.”
“Well, well! You seem made for this business, if you don’t mind my saying so. What with all your contacts, you could be quite the producer.”
Petty smiled and patted his belly. “You think so? Tell me about this new movie of yours.”
“It’s very exciting, Petty, very exciting! I’ve long been known for visual spectacle. And now, I can add the magic of sound. I got a script that is literate as hell, with none other than George S. Kaufman’s pen behind it. What’s more, it’s a thriller and the audiences adore ‘em. What’s more than that, it’s a musical. All talking, all singing, all dancing!”
“What’s the story?”
“It’s a terrific story! Really blows the lid off Prohibition. It’s set in one of those clandestine speakeasies, so the Mob is heavily involved. I’ve got Edward G. Robinson signed on for the male lead. He plays a gangster with a heart of gold, so when he gets it in the end during the big final shootout, the tears’ll be flowing in every theatre in America.”
Petty considers the glowing tip of his cigar. “And the female lead?”
“It’s a terrific part: Lola Montoya, a Latin spitfire who sings in the club. She melts Robinson’s cold, cold heart but proves his undoing when our hot little canary turns stool pigeon. See, she falls in love with the young district attorney who works undercover as a bartender, looking for the evidence to bring Robinson to trial. So it’s a courtroom drama, too.”
Petty nods. “And . . . um . . . who is playing the canary?”
“This is gonna thrill you: Miss Dolores Del Rio, one of the most exotic new stars of the decade is committed to the part. I’m telling you, Ben, this film’s got everything: top notch stars, music, romance, murder. I want you in on the ground floor. For your investment, I’m even willing to give you a percentage.”
Petty waves his hand in the air. “That goes without saying.” He draws on his Havana in silence for a moment. Finally, he sighs, leans over and flicks the ashes in a large tray on a table beside the chair. “I tell you what, J.K. – I’m going to give you the money you need for this film.”
“I’ll never have a better partner.” Diebehnkorn leans over and holds out his hand to shake. Lord Petty ignores the proffered hand and continues to puff on his cigar.
“I do have one proviso, however, if I’m going to invest in – in . . what’s this Prohibition romance musical courtroom drama of yours called?”
“I’ll put up 100K in your 100 Proof, provided – “Lord Petty leans forward in his chair and fixes the director with his beady gaze, “ – provided you cast my wife in the lead.”
“But – “ Diebehnkorn splutters. His mind races with images of the luscious Dolores Del Rio, so perfect for the role, so perfect, he imagines, in his arms. The picture shifts and he sees Hetty Landless, blonde, vacuous, hopelessly wrong for the part of a Latin spitfire. Hetty Landless, now labeled “Box Office Poison” through nobody’s fault but her own.
He assesses the tubby tycoon before him. No point in arguing with the man, better to win him over with sense.
“But – I thought that Hetty had given all of the tinsel and glamor up . . . for love.”
Petty sighs. “Ah yes . . . love. And it is for love that I want my wife to have another chance at her big Hollywood dream.” He leans over and stubs the cigar out in the ashtray.
Diebehnkorn proceeds delicately. “Weeelll, you see . . . I have to give this some consideration. There’s the promise that’s been made to Miss Del Rio, and the requirements of the part – “
His host rises abruptly, and though he is well over a foot shorter than the other, the force of his presence causes the director to stumble to his feet as well.
Petty says, “Why don’t you think it over? We’ll go riding tomorrow if the weather’s good. You can give me your answer then.” He grabs Diebehnkorn’s limp paw and gives it a vigorous shake. Then, with a snort of laughter, he leaves the room. Diebehnkorn stares after the man in stunned silence — and then crushes the brandy snifter in his hand.
* * * * *
With the arrival of Professor Plum, unexpected though it may have been, a key element has been found that can prove the making of any successful house party: a fourth for bridg
In the library, Plum and the Countess are playing together. Lucy is partnered with Miss Frink. Outside, the heavens have once again opened up to a torrential downpour, while Lady Petty sits curled up in a sofa by the window, content with the exploits of ace detective Gideon Kane.
“Her Ladyship appears engrossed in her novel,” the Professor murmurs. “Two no trump.”
Miss Frink rearranges a card and mutters, “Not unless there are pictures. Pass.”
“Now, now, Miss Frink.” The Countess says with amused disapproval. “If you can’t say something nice . . . three no trump.”
The hand turns out well for North and South. As Sophronia writes down the scores, Lucy makes conversation. “Nobody waiting for you at home, Professor?”
“Alas, no, I am a man without connections of any kind.”
Lucy’s brow furrows sympathetically. “Where are your people?”
“My family is all gone. Well, what there was of it. My parents were killed in a fire, and I was sent to live with a maiden aunt.”
The Countess frowns sympathetically. “You poor man.”
“Oh, no, dear lady, my aunt was a most extraordinary woman, an intellectual of the highest order and what you might all an advocate for women’s rights. It was she who set me on the path of academia. She used to hold these wonderful salons where many brilliant, cultured people would gather together and pass the time, sharing their ideas and their passions.”
“How thrilling,” says Lucy, dealing the cards.
“It was, indeed,” he says.. “She was friends with Arthur Conan Doyle!” The ladies look suitably impressed. Even Miss Frink’s eyes gaze over her spectacles at the man. He leans forward confidentially. “You know, he despised Sherlock Holmes.”
Miss Frink grabs her cards and leans back in her chair. “Ridiculous,” she says.
“Oh, no, my dear, it’s quite true.”
“Oh, I believe you, Professor,” She squints at her hand. “I think it’s ridiculous for an author to profess hatred for the character who keeps his bread buttered.”
“And where is your family from, Countess?” the Professor asks.
“Right here,” says that lady with a smile. “I was born in this house. Second bedroom from the left.”
The Professor gapes. “Oh, my, then – well . . . “ He pauses in confusion. Lucy explains.
“The Countess’ family owned all this property for many centuries.”
“And now, for reasons too dreary to list . . . “ Sophronia shrugs, “ . . . it has passed into new hands and starts a whole new history.”
Plum appears crestfallen. “If I have brought up any sad feelings, please forgive –“
“Oh, no, Professor, you’ve said nothing to offend me. That is the way of English property. I’m the second of three children. My older brother was, naturally, the heir to all you see. My beloved Robin.” A cloud passes across her face. “He died. And the property leapt past the sister and became the legacy of my younger brother Nicholas. But Nicholas is – “ The Countess stops in mid-sentence. For a moment, her lovely face appears haggard. Then she pulls herself together with a smile. “Pass.”
Lucy considers her cards. “I rather envy you, Professor, being an only child. I was the youngest of six brats and had to fight for attention. Two diamonds.”
The play continues companionably, and East and West win the hand.
“We haven’t heard from the mysterious Miss Frink,” Lucy says, with just a hint of malice as the Professor cuts the cards and deals.
“My family?” says that young lady dryly. “My family is just like any other family. My father worked for the foreign office. My mother wrote poems and stories, none of them very good. They took in boarders to bring in extra money. Such interesting people – one was a Russian exile. But basically they ignored us, and we were raised by the servants, who mistreated us terribly . . . ”
As Miss Frink rambles on, Lucy’s gapes at her story. The Professor’s eyes meets those of the Countess. Unless Plum is very much mistaken, her childhood bears an extraordinary resemblance to that of E. Nesbit’s Railway Children. His gaze shifts appraisingly at the bespectacled secretary, his interest piqued. She will bear watching, that one.
* * * * *
In the dim hallway of the servant’s quarters, a figure treads softly, peering into one bare room after another until the final door shows signs of occupation. The figure slips silently into this room and closes the door behind them.
Zuzana lets out a slow breath and gazes about her. The unmade bed, the small stack of movie magazines, the nightgown tossed on the floor – here is the room of a foolish girl like Gladys. Zuzana begins her search of the meagre furniture, first checking under the bed and the mattress. The chest of drawers yields a modest assortment of plain clothing; the secrets contained therein amounts to a small bottle of cheap perfume, a box of matches, incongruously from a swank London nightclub, and packets of Chiclets.
The wardrobe is even less forthcoming: two uniforms hang forlornly beside a shabby flannel robe and a plain frock for days off. A pair of shoes and a pair of slippers are placed side by side on the bottom. Zuzana searches the cavities of the footwear and rises in frustration.
She shuts the wardrobe, gazes around the room one last time and starts to make her way to the door. Suddenly she trips and is sent flying to the ground. She lies in shock for a brief moment, then sits up and rubs her ankle, peering around her to see what sent her off balance. She spots it right away: a small nail sticking up out of the floorboard, less than half an inch, but high enough to have snagged her shoe.
She grabs the little nail and, pulling on it, lifts a small section of the wooden floor, revealing a gaping hole of maybe four by six inches in size. Zuzana leans forward and stares into the darkness, then rises, returns to the chest of drawers and retrieves the matchbox. Her ankle smarting, she carefully sits in front of the small hole, lights a match, and peers forward. Then, Zuzana rocks back, uttering in her native language an oath of stunned surprise at what she has found there.
* * * * *
Not every one of Lord Petty’s guests is free on this Monday to enjoy a life of leisure. In his pharmacy on the village main street, Diogenes Pratt has had a busy day mixing orders for his customers. Most of them are ladies, and young or old, they come to admire Mr. Pratt’s muscles as much as they appreciate the powders and potions he makes. Diogenes is attentive to every one of them, the dowagers and the damsels, because after all, he believes, you reap what you sow.
After the last customer departs, Diogenes locks and places the “Closed, Please Come Again” sign on the door. He makes his way up and down the shelves with a clipboard, doing inventory, stopping to set a display aright. Then he goes to the laboratory in the back and puts everything back neatly in its place. His stomach growls. He wonders what culinary delights are in store at Dungarees this evening.
He grabs his raincoat and turns to leave, then stops. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his keys, sorting through them as he walks to the cupboard where he keeps certain chemicals. He opens the cupboard, searches through the second shelf and removes a small vial. He smiles, and in that moment he looks disconcertingly wolfish, and very like his uncle.
Diogenes places the vial in his pocket, and exits the shop, whistling a happy tune.
A missing sack? A pocketed vial? A secret beneath the floorboards? Things are heating up at Dungarees! As always, your comments and suggestions are appreciated below. See you next week!