I WAS BECOMING quite used to the Girl Guides Club. It takes a little getting used to, I must confess. It is a place that has an atmosphere all of its own, and seems to have its own conventions. But the girls are all very friendly and good-natured once you get to know them.
It was during the party that Amelia held there after my sister’s wedding reception and that extraordinary business with Mr. Bill Cretin, the singer, that I really began to settle in and feel at home. Within a week or so, I was beginning to wonder why I had thought the place so much out of the ordinary.
It was then that I encountered somebody who revived all the feelings of excitement and anxiety that I had felt upon my second visit (on my first, you may remember, I was rather too preoccupied).
As soon as she entered the Dining Room, it was as though the atmosphere changed. She had dark eyes and fox-red hair. She was perhaps ten years older than Amelia. I could describe her for pages, but the thing that was most striking about her is impossible to describe. Whenever I have been in a room with Amelia, it is as if she forms the centre of that room. Whatever is happening, there is a sense, at least among all who are sensitive to such things, that she is the strongest, most colourful and vital personality present. But as this new lady entered, it was as if the room had two centres—as if the very air was hovering, waiting to see which was the stronger.
The question did not long remain unanswered. The new arrival made straight for Amelia. Amelia rose to greet her. She was taller than Amelia. Amelia stepped forward and kissed her hand. I was taken aback. I had never seen one woman do that to another before.
But I was more taken aback by the visible change in Amelia. She was no longer the centre. She did not even care to be the centre. She took on the character of some delightfully elfin creature paying playful homage to a great magician.
The sorceress put her hand under Amelia’s chin and lifted her face to meet her eyes. She took her jaw between finger and thumb, squeezing just firmly enough to cause mild discomfort, and turned her head slightly first to one side and then to the other, as if examining her.
“Amelia,” she said at last, “you are looking well, child.”
“Natasha Arkadyevna Ovlonsky,” said Amelia, “allow me to introduce the Honourable Hypatia Chevender. Pash, this is the lady who taught me everything I know.”
“As I recall it,” said the Sorceress, “you knew a great deal when I first met you. But I believe it is not untrue to say that I have had a formative influence on your development.
“But Miss Chevender, I am delighted to meet you. The recovery of your jewels from that bounder Franconi has already passed into legend. I believe I have seen you once before, but we were not then introduced.”
I had indeed caught sight of Natasha Ovlonsky at a magnificent house party held some weeks previously at the English country estate of the Marquis of Chiaralino, a fabulously wealthy Italian nobleman, whose admirers hail him as the last great poet of western civilisation.
“Oh, yes,” I replied, turning to Amelia. “ Why did you not introduce us then? ”
“I was working, my dear,” replied the Sorceress. “I should not have been in a position to savour the unrepeatable pleasure of meeting you for the first time. I could not have given you the undivided attention you so fully require. Amelia would not have made the mistake of introducing you to me at that time.”
“Well, I am more than honoured to meet you now, Princess Natasha.”
“I prefer that you should not use that title, child. It belongs to the past.”
“But surely you would not let fleeting political events——” She raised her eyebrows ever so slightly, causing my heart to skip a beat and my flesh to tingle.
“There is a time and a place for me to use my title. It is neither here nor now.”
Clearly I had been too bold. I looked to Amelia to say something ; to lighten the atmosphere. Her lips were set in an enigmatic half-smile. Evidently she did not intend to intervene. I struggled on alone.
“You say that you were ‘working’—I do not think I understand.”
The Sorceress smiled graciously. I could breathe again.
“Ah, I see, then, that Amelia has not told you about my craft or profession. I run an organisation called Life Theatricals. A suitably modern-sounding name, I hope; although most of Amelia’s chums here refer to it as ‘rent-a-hoax’.
“The idea is very simple. It is based upon the fact that in the modern world, many people subsist on dreams. After all, so far as the grand and heroic things of life are concerned, there is little else left for most of the poor dears to live upon.
“Let me give you an example. One of my clients is a rather dashing young gentleman. His dream is that he is a brilliant motor-cyclist. He has a most elaborate two-wheeled machine, even though he is well able to afford a decent motor carriage. He is able to ride it, certainly, quite sufficiently to transport himself from one place to another ; but that, apparently, is about the limit of his abilities. What more would any intelligent person want ? you may ask. Well, I am no connoisseur, but it would seem that there is a great deal more for those who are. And this young gentleman leads all of his acquaintance to believe that he is capable of performing the full gamut.
“Well, it would appear that during some late-night revel, when solid sense was somewhat displaced by liquid, my client promised his friends a display of his sub-equestrian prowess on the very next afternoon. An embarrassing predicament, you will agree. Wisely he sought out the services of Life Theatricals.”
“What did you do ? ” I asked.
“Simplicity itself, child. I have an extensive list of suppliers of all kinds, so there was little difficulty in procuring at short notice the three necessary things : firstly, a motorcycle identical to that of my client. Secondly a leather suit and helmet equally identical. Thirdly, a professional stunt-rider normally employed in motion pictures.
“At the time and place appointed for the demonstration, our professional rider was stationed behind a small hillock. It was only necessary for my client at the beginning of the display to pass behind it and remain there for the duration. The same substitution was, of course, made at the end of the display, after which my client removed his helmet, to the rapturous applause of his admiring friends.
“One of our less elaborate—and less expensive—exercises, but nonetheless affording great satisfaction to all concerned.”
“Splendid!” cried Amelia. “ You’ve never told me that one before.”
“It only happened last week,” replied the Sorceress.
“But I still do not understand how you came to be ‘working’ at the Marquis of Chiaralino’s house party,” I said.
“I arranged it,” she replied. “I was not present at the motorcycle display. It was a simple enough job, and in any case, I cannot abide noisy engines. But on a large job like the house party, I consider it my duty to keep a personal watch on the proceedings at every stage.”
“How do you mean, you arranged it? What about that old butler who had been with the family for so many years? Was he not in charge of the arrangements?”
“He was my second in command, so to speak. I hired him the week before along with the entire staff. Fortunately, a considerable number of out-of-work actors have experience in catering.
“You see, the Marquis does not possess an English estate. I doubt if he even has an Italian one. I daresay he has some remote claim to his title, though I do not make it my business to enquire into such things.”
“But it was certainly a genuine country house.”
“Yes, the family who owns it was only too glad to accept my offer to vacate it for the weekend. These are bad times, as you know, and I was glad to be able to help them with such a substantial tax-free sum.”
“But it must be quite a prominent house. Did not any of the guests know it ? ”
“The Marquis’s friends are all poets and university intellectuals. They do not know anything. Though I confess I was a little afraid that you would know it, Miss Chevender.”
“I do not know anything. If Amelia tells me that it is the Marquis’s estate, then for me it is the Marquis’s estate.”
“You learn quickly, child. So there we have it.”
“At any rate, the Marquis must be very wealthy. The whole affair must have cost a small fortune.”
“Two small fortunes. One for the expenses, the other for Life Theatricals. As for the Marquis, he is an improvident man. Sometimes he is wealthy. Sometimes he is very much the reverse. Apart from his salary as a visiting lecturer at some obscure university, he is engaged in the business of importing jewellery. I should estimate that he makes about three fortunes a year, and spends about four.
“Unfortunately for me, I must have caught him at the wrong moment. He paid me for the affair with a cheque. A cheque which was not honoured.”
“Gracious! You must have lost thousands. Did you not take precautions?”
“One does not anticipate anything so vulgar as a bouncing cheque. Nor have I any legal redress without compromising the discreet nature of my business.”
While we were talking, Camellia Cadogan had entered the Dining Room and accepted Amelia’s silent invitation to join us at our table.
“You’re talking about the Marquis of Chiaralino,” she said. “I’ve got a corking story about him. I’ve just come in from New York, and I happened to be on the same plane as he was. He sat next to me and started his incessant chatter.
“ ‘That Natasha Ovlonsky,’ he said, ‘she is little more than a gangster. As I am boarding this aircraft, one of her people come up to me and say: Natasha Arkadyevna get even with you. We know what you got in that briefcase. We are calling the London Airport Customs. They arrest you when you get off. Just one chance. Give me the case now.’”
The Sorceress raised her eyebrows a little, and a look of amused suspicion crossed her face.
“ ‘ Well,’ said the Marquis, ‘I am not so easily intimidated. In my business, you need a cool head, and brains inside it too. I will think of a way to get my merchandise past those fellows. You watch me.’
“Well, he must have done some hard thinking, because he forgot to talk for at least a quarter of the journey.
“And then he saw just what he wanted. A priest carrying a briefcase identical to his own. Well, he knew what to do then, of course, so he settled back and treated me to his views on everything that came into his head until we arrived in London.
“I must say he is a smooth operator. I have never seen anyone pull off the old switcheroo as neatly as he changed cases with that priest.
“I lost sight of him after that, but about fifteen minutes later, when we were both through customs, I saw him again, looking most disgruntled.
“ ‘ Everything go according to plan ? ’ I asked.
“ ‘It did not,’ he replied. ‘I try to stop that priest and tell him about the mistake with the bag. But what you think ? He takes no notice of me. He just keeps walking straight for this big limousine in the car park. The door opens. In he gets and off goes the car. And when the door opens, who do you think I see sitting in the back of that car ?’
“ ‘I can’t guess,’ I said. ‘Who?’
“ ‘Amelia Bingham.’ ”
“Well, well,” laughed Amelia, “you have quite spoiled my little surprise for Natasha Arkadyevna; but it is a rare opportunity to see a practical joke from the other side.
“It was one of my New York odd-jobbers who gave the warning at the airport, and so was the priest. I knew when the Marquis saw that identical briefcase he wouldn’t be able to resist that old stunt.”
“And what was in the briefcase? ” asked the Sorceress.
“Oh, pretty stones,” replied Amelia. “More than enough to cover your fees. And a lovely emerald, which I shall have set for Pash. As for the rest; well, the Marquis can regard that as a fine for bad behaviour; while I shall look upon it as a debt-collector’s fee.”
“Wild child!” exclaimed the Sorceress. “I should never have been able to tame you.”
“Ah, but wouldn’t you, Natasha Arkadyevna?“ murmured Amelia. “Wouldn’t you?”
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