It would also present the ideal opportunity to introduce to Tilling his birthday present from Lucia, namely a ravishing dress suit in brightest crimson velvet which had been faithfully copied by his tailors from magazine photographs of famous cinema star Marcel Periscope at his latest wildly successful premiere. He would team his beautiful new suit with its striking amethyst buttons with a ruffled dress shirt and smart bow tie in rich bergundy. "Just exquisite," he thought. Georgie knew that “this new suit was so up to the minute and a la mode it would certainly put the ghastly Muriel in his place”.
Georgie had taken barely five steps on his journey when the bright autumnal morning was riven by the most piercingly shrill whistle ever to pass from the lips of the roughest errand boy. Flinching from the din, Georgie heard the dreaded mocking bellow, " Oyyy Antonio! Do stop, you naughty Italian. I simply must have one of your lovely ice creams. Una piccolo gelato, Signor! A penny cornet, please and a thrilling shanty just like you used to sing to your Mama back in Napoli!"
Even with his back turned, Georgie knew he was being subjected to to one of the little jokes of his regular tormentor, Quaint Irene Coles. One glance from the very end of the street had been sufficient for the acutely observant artist to target her prey and decide that this morning the spouse of her beloved Lucia killingly resembled an Italian ice cream salesman and should be satirised accordingly.
Sadly Georgie was used to bearing the brunt of Irene's satire. He knew only too well that any resistance would only lead to a doubling and redoubling of her sarcastic onslaught. Experience had taught that the only way to deal with her was complete surrender, masked as good natured acceptance of her banter, coupled with early attempts at distraction - as when attempting to divert a difficult toddler with a shiny object. Even then this gambit was not invariably quickly successful and Irene usually contrived to wring the most protracted possible amusement from the tease of any particular day.
"Good morning, Irene," Georgie replied, "I assume you are referring to my new blazer and beret. Don't you like them?"
""They're alright," Irene replied, "If you don't mind being mistaken for an itinerant vendor of ice cream. For a second or two you quite took my breath away, you alluring creature with those Italianate good looks and the dashing Neapolitan striped costume - a veritable modern day Romeo. Where's your bike, Antonio mio ?"
"Very funny dear Irene, but at least I try to dress according to the season," he replied and continued, in a deft attempt to divert further mockery, "Any news?"
"Nothing at all, Antonio mio," she responded, refusing for the moment to be diverted, " As I have so often mentioned, were it not for your sex, I could so easily have fallen under your alluring Continental spell, you naughty, roguey-poguey gigolo. But in all truth this passion between us is never meant to be and we must just accept the hand dealt by a cruel and capricious Fate. I bet you're as relieved about that as me." Before Georgie had an opportunity to reply, Irene continued, looking pointedly at the large envelope in Georgie's basket,"Anyway, enough of unsatisfied desires, I don't suppose that invitation is for me?"
"I'm afraid not this time, Irene," replied Georgie, brightly taking the opportunity to effect his escape," I'm just off to deliver it to the Wyses.We're having a little dinner this weekend, but I'm sure you will be invited to "Mallards House soon. Au reservoir."
"Au reservoir yourself," replied Irene gloomily whilst lighting her pipe and watching his receding Neopolitan stripes swiftly turn the corner into the High Street.
As he strode on towards the shops, Georgie muttered, "Tarsome girl," beneath his breath, but felt that mixture of relief and elation experienced by the patient at the end of the dentist's drilling or the mouse when the cat lets go of its tail and it scampers off to freedom.
Accordingly, he scampered up to a small group of friends forgathered with their marketing baskets on the pavement outside Twistevants. The usual round of smiles, how-de-do's, hat doffing and the odd courtly bow ensued as Georgie greeted both Algernon and Susan Wyse and Major Benjy and Mrs Elizabeth Mapp-Flint.
Hardly had initial greetings led on to the customary request for "Any news", this assemblage of the apogee of Tilling society was fully acquainted with latest developments: Lucia's old and dear friends journalist Mr Stephen Merriall and renowned socialite Miss Sophie Alingsby would shortly be staying at Ardingly Park for the forthcoming ball and entertained with their titled hosts at "Mallards House" on what promised to be a glittering evening. Despite such short notice Georgie hoped to find thier dearest friends in Tilling were disengaged and able to attend.
Conveniently, Georgie was able to deliver the Wyse's invitation personally and was vouchsafed in the courtliest Chesterfield terms by Algernon "on behalf of himself and his esteemed lady wife that if - as he had the most daring presumption and enormous pleasure of humbly anticipating - the unopened envelope before him contained the most generous and gracious compliment of an invitation to dine at the establishment which represented the very highest watermark of hospitality, enlightenment and refinement in their beloved Tilling, then he had the highest expectation that there would not be the slightest delay in the issuance of a most grateful acceptance."
"So you will be going?" said Elizabeth Mapp-Flint somewhat brusquely. She resented any reminder that her "Mallards" had only risen to become a high-watermark of any kind after she had ceased to be its chatelaine. She particularly disliked what she saw as Algernon Wyse's regular inference that her tenure of "Mallards" amounted to the primitive squalor of the Dark Ages before miraculous Enlightenment, Age of Reason and Renaissance combined which emerged when her former home came into the hands of Lucia.
Recognising the tell-tale signs of Elizabeth's ire - the narrowing eyes, fixed smile exposing a formidable array of molars and a visibly pulsating vein in her left temple - Georgie sought to lighten the tone and appease her with a gay, "Such a shame Elizabeth. Even as we speak Cadman is driving out to "Grebe" to deliver your invitation. Lucia and I were particularly anxious to secure you and the Major for our bijou soiree."
"How kind, Mr Georgie," replied Elizabeth, not in the slightest appeased but gratified that Georgie was at least making an effort of some kind , "Major Benjy and I do not venture out quite so much these days, isolated as we now are outside the ramparts of our dear Tilling..since we were forced to leave our family home. Also, I don't know whether mon vieux mari here will be inclined to be dragged away from his comfortable fireside and allow us to come."
Silent until now, Major Benjy decided it was time to intervene. He knew his wife would be desperate to attend, not the least to be able to criticise each change made to her former home and every single aspect of the evening from the dinner served to the other guests, the entertainment and particularly the hosts. He, in his turn, knew that the standards of hospitality at "Mallards House" - "under new management", as he put it, were consistently high - particularly when compared to the "slim pickings" on offer at "Grebe." In addition, the evening guaranteed to him not only a jolly good dinner but virtually unlimited prospects to consume quantities of the finest wines and spirits, unhindered by his spouse whose normally uncanny supervisory attentions would be distracted for most of the time.
"Of course, my dear," he remarked, "I really mustn't be selfish. Much as I would prefer one of our delightful evenings by our own hearth with a plain dinner followed by a few quiet hours working on my diaries, I mustn't keep you all to myself. I mustn't be greedy and must learn to share you more with our friends in Tilling."
"How very kind of you," replied Georgie, somewhat taken aback by the unconvincing vision of the virtually monastic regime imposed by the Major upon his poor downtrodden spouse out at "Grebe","We must hope you will be free to join us."
"Indeed Mr Georgie," simpered Elizabeth, "I will check our social diary immediately upon my return and if we are dis-engaged and, of course, my dear strict Major Benjy permits it, we will be happy to accept your kind invitation."
"Jolly good," replied Georgie, I think I just have time to pop into Twistevants and get back in time for luncheon. We look forward to seeing you all very soon. Au reservoir!"
With this, Georgie raised his beret whilst Major Benjy and Algernon Wyse did likewise with their deerstalker and boater respectively. The bell of Twistevants tinkled loudly. Georgie entered and was gone.
The next forty eight hours saw flurries of preparations at "Mallards House" and rabid information-gathering elsewhere in Tilling.
Conveniently, Doreen, the sister of Diva Plaistow's Janet was in service at Ardingly Park. Her position as senior housemaid enabled her to report on the arrival from London of Mr Merriall and Miss Alingsby. They were chauffeured by handsome, grey-uniformed Ricardo who doubled as valet and accompanied by Brenda, Miss Alingsby's maid. They brought no less than twenty items of hand-luggage, impressive for a long weekend. It was noted with many exchanges of glances that twelve pieces belonged to Mr Merriall. Given her inside knowledge, Doreen was able to detail the type and quality of both luggage and all day, evening and nightwear selected for the visit and to outline in detail the itinerary planned for the visitors.
These reports received from "Tilling's Ardingly correspondent" were naturally passed on by her sister to her employer and promptly communicated to many selected patrons of "Ye Olde Tea House". Although only The Wyses and Mapp-Flints had been honoured by invitations to Lucia's dinner, a consensus had developed that it was important for the good name of Tilling that it should not be put to shame by the impending aristocratic and metropolitan visitors. Although neither Diva Plaistow, nor Irene Coles or the Bartletts would be attending in person, they would be there in spirit and were concerned that Tilling's end be well and truly held up.
In all honesty, not all reports reaching Tilling regarding the flying visit to the ancient borough of Lucia's London friends on Thursday were entirely favourable. Indiscretions reported included loud laughing and ribald remarks about exhibits at the continuing summer exhibition at the Literary Institute. Evie Bartlett who was selling tickets at the door was not impressed by a general hilarity and distinctly heard words such as "amateurish", "daub" and, worst of all , "provincial" before the visitors were seen to flee "giggling like schoolgirls".
Similarly, Major Benjy spied the pair smoking cigarettes and laughing whilst strolling around the Garden of Remembrance next to the belvedere,"Not the way we do things in Tilling, I'm afraid" he remarked over bridge at Mrs Plaistow's that afternoon.
The only members of the upper echelons in Tilling unaware of these unfortunate impressions were sadly Lucia and Georgie Pillson who were focused on the menu and wine, seating plan, flower arrangements and all the myriad preparations for what they hoped would be Tilling's social event of the year.
As the morning of the great day dawned, Lucia and her trusty maids Grosvenor and Foljambe were completing a tour of inspection of "Mallards House." All appeared eminently satisfactory. Parquet floors gleamed and every Persian rug was beaten to pristine perfection. Furniture was waxed and surfaces dusted. Every vase displayed freshly cut flowers and the air was heady with their scent, mixed with beeswax polish.
"Very good ladies," enthused Lucia, "All perfect, as I have come to expect from you. Now pray let us continue with the dining room."
The dining room did not disappoint. Ten places were laid with utmost care and precision. Lead crystal and silverware already sparkled prettily in the morning sunlight. After yet more ministrations, courtesy of the industrious Foljambe and Grosvenor, they would gleam even more brightly in the evening candlelight.
When the long-anticipated evening arrived, no crowds, unruly or otherwise, congregated outside "Mallards House." The only by-stander in evidence was Diva Plaistow's servant Janet, who had been instructed by her mistress to walk to the post box nearby to check the precise time of the first collection next morning and whilst she "happened to be passing" to note and report back in detail upon anything that "happened to be taking place" in or around the home of her dear friends, Mr and Mrs Pillson. With consideration unusual even in such an enlightened employer as Mrs Plaistow, Janet was instructed to "take as long as you like, dear; it's such a lovely evening."
To assuage the largely unspoken resentment at her exclusion from the event, Diva had invited the Padre and his wife, the mouse like Evie, and Quaint Irene Coles to bridge and what for Tilling was still the novel idea of a late high tea or early supper.
Although in the heirarchy if Tilling's bespoke dress code, scrub would have sufficed for this occasion, it was agreed amongst the attendees that an effort should be made to dress smartly at a level approaching titum to demonstrate their disinterest in, and perhaps even to signify a measured distaste at, the gaudy display of hitum from which they were for some reason excluded, taking place but a stone's throw away.
In typical fashion, Quaint Irene deliberately subverted the process by adopting what she regarded as a satirical edge. Attended by her six foot maid Lucy in the full regalia of a musketeer including tabard, wig, mustachios and epee, Irene arrived in the bejewelled and bewigged costume of Marie Antoinette, last worn at a bibulous appearance at the Chelsea Arts Club Ball the previous year. A disaffected tableau vivant, Irene was able to give vent to her disappointment at social exclusion by her beloved Lucia by regular, and increasingly tiresome, exclamations of "Let them eat cake."
Other than the dutiful Janet, only Tilling's most observant seagulls, Norman and Stanley monitored the scene, casting cynical eyes from their habitual vantage point on the gable end of the Garden Room. As mayorally pre-ordained, guests were greeted at the entrance by the reassuring vision of Sergeant Jenkins of the Tilling Constabulary. Smartly turned out in his best uniform and medals, the good sergeant wore pristine white gloves, normally reserved for directing traffic.
The first to arrive were naturally the "locals". Not wishing to appear dowdy or provincial in comparison to their aristocratic and metropolitan fellow guests, the Mapp-Flints had been pleased to accept the invitation of the Wyses to join them at Starling Cottage "for aperitifs and then to motor to dine in the Royce."
After a journey of no more than one hundred yards around the corner from Porpoise Street, the shining Rolls Royce drew up outside "Mallards House." Whilst it disgorged its passengers, Sergeant Jenkins was struck by a heady scent combining perfume, carbolic soap, mothballs, eau de cologne and whiskey. As the constable gave a cheery salute of welcome, the black varnished door opened and the host and hostess stood framed at the top of the steps ready to greet their guests.
For her own part, Susan was chiefly preoccupied with locating the Order of Member of the British Empire previously affixed to her bosom and which had become detached during its short journey from “Starling Cottage”.
Also, in consequence of a vigorous, if entirely accidental, elbow from her good friend Elizabeth on taking her seat, the famed Wyse tiara had unfortunately had lost its purchase, slipped forward and now rested on the bridge of her nose, not unlike a pair of spectacles.
His bright red posterior remained the epicentre of attention outside the vehicle, whilst within Benjy gamely attempted to carry out whatever husbandly assistance was required by his consort. Looking down on the scene, Georgie Pillson was irresistibly reminded of the nether regions of a genus of African baboon whose name escaped him. Try as he might, ruminating atop the steps of "Mallards House," the designation of the simian species continued to elude him.
After repositioning the Mapp diadem on her head, from where it had slipped around her throat, resembling one of Queen Mary's chokers, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint finally emerged from the back of the Rolls Royce.
In the preceding melee, Susan Wyse's Order had unfortunately attached itself to Elizabeth's posterior. Spotting this, Algernon Wyse discreetly removed it with a lightness of touch that would have done credit to ones of Fagin's pickpockets in "Oliver Twist." Mistiming this delicate manoeuvre would certainly have given an impression of extreme familiarity, if not attempted molestation, and Mr Wyse deserved considerable credit for his alertness, dexterity and sheer sang froid.
As the be-ribboned decoration was restored to its rightful place amidships Mrs Wyse rather than astern Mrs Mapp-Flint, all attention now focused on the gown worn by the latter.
A further exchange of glances, accompanied by a sequence of four fleeting but discernible raised eyebrows, demonstrated that the Mayor of Tilling and her spouse had instantly recognised a garment that had attained near mythical status in the ancient borough. Elizabeth Mapp-Flint had dared not only to procure the reincarnation of her legendary, formerly kingfisher blue, tea gown, but had decided to give it its debut at the prime social event of the year.
According to what had become Sussex folk-lore, both Mrs Plaistow and the then Miss Mapp had planned to attain considerable social cachet by appearing in a particularly fetching azure tea gown based upon a pattern first worn by American socialite Mrs Titus W Trout. After disastrous simultaneous appearances in the frock in the original colour, the gaffe was repeated in crimson lake and a bitter feud ensued between the protagonists until the retirement of the offending garment and an eventual rapprochement.
Many months had passed since either adversary had been seen in public in the gown and the economical and creative Mrs Mapp-Flint had seized the initiative to have it dyed brightest emerald green to co-ordinate perfectly with the tiny emeralds mounted on the Mapp Diadem, never before extracted from its safe deposit in the bank vault below the High Street.
Diva Plaistow's Janet gasped at this sight as she watched from her post next to the pillar box and positively ran back to "Wasters" to report to her mistress in the breathless staccato usually employed in that household. Her outpouring elicited a general response of "No!" from all present, save for a squeak from the mouse like Evie Bartlett and "Let them eat cake!" from Quaint Irene, who had by now already enjoyed her third cocktail of the evening.
Once the requisite brushings, pattings, repositionings and adjustments had been completed and composure regained, the Wyses and Mapp-Flints ascended the steps to warm greetings from their hosts. An effusive round of pleasantries and compliments ensued, asserting the beauty or distinction of all present.
By the time the chattering throng had reached the Garden Room and gratefully accepted crystal flutes of champagne, equilibrium had wholly been recovered after the short ordeal in the sauna-like Royce.
No sooner had the first canape been offered, then Grosvenor announced to her mistress that, "Your other guests have arrived, Ma'am."
Thanking her graciously, Lucia excused herself and Georgie and left the Garden Room to greet the remaining four invitees. As their hosts departed, both couples gravitated, flutes in hand, to the window of the Garden Room. There, with its view over the frontage of "Mallards House," they could watch and discuss the remaining arrivals due to complete their distinguished company for the evening.
As the Daimler Sovereign purred to a halt outside "Mallards House," the Mayor of Tilling and her consort stepped forward to greet the Lord Lieutenant of the county and his consort.
In sober dinner jacket and black tie, Lord Ardingly contrasted markedly with his ruby red host, but balanced conservatism of dress with amiability. Somewhat grander, Lady Ardingly conveyed a hauteur and condescension not unlike that of the Queen, whose taste in evening wear was mirrored in a gown of white satin and the famous, pearl and diamond encrusted, Ardingly Choker.
As the usual pleasantries of welcome were exchanged on the pavement, the impressive chauffeur-driven Armaud of Stephen Merriall pulled up.
Emerging from the motor behind an implausibly long rhinestone-studded cigarette holder, came Sophie Alingsby, sporting what for Tilling amounted to a positively daring fascinator made of the gaudy plumage of several birds of paradise. She also wore a many tiered, bead-fringed flapper dress destined to be deemed by the ladies of the town, daringly if not provocatively, and possibly indecently, short.
Whilst the appearance of Miss Alingsby prompted much comment from her fellow guests looking on through the window of the Garden Room, just as she had intended, that of Stephen Merriall brought any remarks or conversation to a shuddering halt.
As he emerged from the Armaud and turned to greet his hosts, the onlookers jaws dropped. They looked first at Mr Merriall, then his host and back again and then wordlessly at each other. A general intake of breath was audible and held for what seemed an eternity as a whimper combining pain, disbelief and irritation emerged from Georgie.
To his horror Georgie saw that the dreadful Stephen Merriall had chosen to wear precisely the same "exclusive" bespoke ruby red dress suit in rich velvet as he. It even had the same dazzling amethyst buttons. As he stood catatonic with rage, Georgie mentally composed a stinging letter to his tailor and wondered if he might sue or if tailors could be publicly drummed out of their guilds or such-like for such treachery and incompetence.
To complete Georgie's misery, even his ruffled lace dress shirt and deep burgundy bow tie were perfectly replicated. The only point of difference between the two was that the perfidious Muriel had chosen to complete his costume by the addition of a rather racy long dress scarf in white silk with a heavily embroidered fringe. Were it not for this Georgie and Stephen were identical twins for the evening, a fey Castor and Pollux.
The ruby red protagonists took in their awkward situation in one glance and considered what to do. They both decided instantly and independently that the only possible response for an English gentleman in such circumstance was to ignore it completely.
A curt "Good evening, Sophie and Stephen" was reciprocated gaily and, with prompt changes of subject to anything but evening wear, the final arrivals were shepherded to join the other guests.
When Lucia and Georgie returned, the atmosphere was electric with tension. As their hostess completed the round of formal introductions, no-one spoke. This was unusual in Tilling where the social obligation to make polite conversation to cover up any awkward interlude was universally grasped: like nature,Tilling abhorred a vacuum.
Surprisingly, the unspoken embargo upon the topic on everyone's mind was first broken by the invariably civil and proper Algernon Wyse. He unleashed the ruby red elephant into the Garden Room with the artless remark,"Oh, Mr Georgie and Mr Merriall, what smart dinner suits! So clever of you to co-ordinate your attire for this special occasion. You quite put a dullard such as me to shame. You must give me the name of your tailors..I mean tailor."
Unusually, neither the normally voluble Messrs Pillson or Merriall could find words to reply and merely smiled limply.
Amused at this uncomfortable turn of events, Major Flint, who by now was relishing his fourth or possibly fifth flute of champagne, whispered to his wife, loudly enough to be heard by the whole room and possibly the seagulls on the gable outside," They look like a comic turn on the music hall to me, Liz old girl. I'm just waitin' for the soft shoe shuffle. Never seen anything like it in my life. Any more champagne, Foljambe, my dear?"
Disapproving of the Major, his inebriation and particularly his familiarity, Foljambe did not hear this request and moved on to serve Lord Ardingly.
Apart from taking huge pleasure in her host's discomfort, and making a mental note to limit her husband's alcoholic intake before it again "got out of hand," Elizabeth's main focus of attention, within a minute of arrival in what she still regarded as "her" Garden Room, had been the signed portrait photograph of Her Majesty the Queen, displayed in its silver frame upon the piano.
Elizabeth's chief intention upon accepting the invitation to dine in her old home had been two-fold. First, she wished to receive due admiration for her stunning tea gown, now in emerald green. This had been so unjustly omitted in its previous incarnations in kingfisher blue and crimson lake owing to the malign interference of the misguided Diva Plaistow.
Secondly, she wished to use the opportunity to infer yet again to her immediate circle, and now to Lord and Lady Ardingly, that she, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint of the ancient Sussex Mapps was, and would always be, the rightful chatelaine of "Mallards", cruelly duped out of her family home by vulgar and duplicitous incomers.
Seeing the personal gift from the monarch on Lucia's piano, it was immediately apparent to Elizabeth that this royal beneficence would form the centrepiece of a long evening inevitably devoted entirely to the glorification of their Mayor, her many good works and lofty connections.
Doughty fighter that she was, Elizabeth determined to do all in power to thwart Lucia. Accordingly, she positioned her not insubstantial frame immediately in front of the offending portrait and did her utmost to divert attention and conversation as far away as possible from Lucia's regnal connections.
With her highly developed powers of perception regarding such matters, Lucia instantly understood Elizabeth's motives and, with gimlet eye and fixed jaw, set about drawing attention to her recent gift from Buckingham Palace. As was so often the case with Lucia's gambits, this proved remarkably staightforward.
Susan Wyse first set the ball rolling in the requisite dirction by admitting to an inquiry from Lady Ardingly (with what her close friend Elizabeth Mapp-Flint considered was "typical modesty (that is, none whatsoever)" ), that the order discreetly worn on her ample bosom was that of a Member of the Most Honourable Order of the British Empire.
Mrs Wyse was pleased to explain that the King himself had been kind enough to invest the award adding, as was her wont, that Her Majesty the Queen had been standing by and that "She remarked, 'So pleased'. So few words but such a wealth of meaning."
Amidst the general encomia which then proceeded regarding the virtuous spouse of the monarch, Georgie took the opportunity to show to Lord and Lady Ardingly the display case of his bibelots, "which had been so admired by the Queen on her recent private visit to 'Mallards House.'" Given the manifold stresses of the evening thus far, Georgie did not feel up to the task of explaining which of his treasures, such as the miniature by Karl Huth, the gold Louis XVI snuff box and enamelled cigarette case by Faberge, he had put to one side and excluded from the royal gaze and more, particularly,why.
Lady Ardingly, who was more than familiar with the likely practical consequences of strongly expressed regal admiration of personal treasures, noted that "Her Majesty must have been much taken with such a fine display." She merely nodded and smiled whilst wondering how much had, in fact, been "taken."
This interlude led Lady Ardingly to comment upon her own very regular contact with their Majesties with her official duties as a Lady in Waiting and in connection with the Lieutenancy of the county. The Prince of Wales often stayed at Ardingly Hall to hunt or steeplechase or when golfing locally. She also remarked upon the honour done to Tilling with her recent private visit to the town. This prompted Lord Ardingly to comment obliquely that "in consequence Tilling might find itself further honoured."
This gave Lucia the perfect opportunity. She adroitly circumvented the emerald green obstacle in front of the piano constituted by Mrs Mapp-Flint by asking "Georgie, pray pass me the photograph of Her Majesty located on the piano, so that I might show Lady Ardingly."
Lady Ardingly and everyone present was thus given an opportunity to examine the photograph and warm personal expression of thanks addressed to their hostess in the Queen's own hand. In this way, the natural order of things had re-asserted itself: Lucia's will had prevailed and Elizabeth Mapp-Flint had been entirely thwarted.
Having enjoyed so public a demonstration of the strong bond of affection between the Queen of England and the Mayor of Tilling, Lucia instructed Grosvenor to inform the company that dinner was served.
At dinner most of the usual topics of conversation in Tilling society were covered. Over the consomme, Algernon Wyse gave a brief discourse upon the history of his distinguished forbears, the Wyses of Whitchurch. This led on naturally to an update upon the well-being of his brother-in-law Count Cecco di Faraglione and his Countess Amelia and a discussion regarding the weather on the isle of Capri.
During the fish course, it emerged that Lord and Lady Ardingly had travelled extensively in Italy and indeed had been presented at court there. Sadly, they had not made the acquaintance of the Cont and Contessa, but looked forward to that eventuality, "should they ever be in Capri or Rome."
Whilst toying with her savoury, Susan Wyse was pleased to outline further her work for Tilling Hospital that had brought about her recent honour from the King. This prompted Elizabeth Mapp-Flint to outline her own hard pioneering charitable and patriotic work with the Tilling Working Club over many more years than Mrs Wyse, but which "though rewarding in itself, unlike dear Susan, has gone entirely unrewarded."
As Foljambe served Lobster a la Riseholme, Stephen Merriall and Sophie Alingsby spoke of the summer season in Town and all their recent trips to fashionable house parties all around the country. This had provided "simply lashings of copy" for Hermione's newspaper column, Then, somewhat unwisely, they went on to expound excitedly upon the "absolutely super-duper fun we had had during our flying visit to your delicious little - but ever so thrilling -Tilling."
This frivolous reference in itself was enough to prompt an exchange of disapproving glances from the locals present. The unfavourable impression was compounded by their jokey description of their visit to the "killing little exhibition of primitive art at the church hall down the road."
Inwardly irritated, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint then intervened in her most dignifed tone,"If you are referring to the Summer Art Exhibition at the Tilling Literary Institute, Mr Merriall and Miss Alingsby, I believe you will find that all the local residents present at this table are currently exhibiting their work there. I was not aware that any of them could properly be designated 'primitive,' but naturally will bow to any superior sophisticated metropolitan insight you might have."
Foolishly failing to pick up on the developing froideur, Sophie Alingsby went on to express amusement at the "Quaint little church and town walls and the drab little garden planted with positively suburban geraniums and bedding plants next to the little memorial thing,"
This flippancy proved too much for Major Benjy. Since Foljambe had been rationing his wine following a meaningful exchange of glances with his wife, the Major's good humour had diminished markedly. He did not now feel inclined to accept the "pert remarks" of what he considered was "some jumped-up flibbertigibbet down from London," and replied,"That 'drab little garden', Miss Alingsby, happens to be our Garden of Remembrance in memory of those brave men sadly lost in the Great War. In Tilling we speak of such things with respect. Not everything is a laughing matter, Miss."
Unwisely Sophie, who had imbibed nearly as much as the Major that evening, chose to giggle at his remark which prompted his muttered response of "Damn poor show."
Just as events had reached this difficult point, Grosvenor entered and passed a note to Lucia. Opening it, she turned to Stephen Merriall and said,"Stephen, there is a trunk call for you. It's your Editor and says he needs to speak to you urgently."
On hearing this, Stephen Merriall sprang dramatically to his feet and, as he left his seat to go to the telephone room off the hall, flamboyantly flung his dress scarf around his neck.
Unfortunately, in doing so, the heavily fringed end of his scarf flew around and struck a resounding glancing blow on the top of Georgie's head, dislodging his auburn toupet. In consequence, the hair piece flew at considerable velocity down the table in a pleasing sort of parabola. It landed with a muffled plop in the now empty salver that had contained that evening's lobster.
Knowing immediately what had happened, Georgie leaped up with a cross between a scream and a wail (which in more flippant mood he might have termed a "weam" or a "scrail.") Placing his napkin on his bowed head, Georgie fled from the table with a sustained moan.
Displaying her usual presence of mind, Foljambe covered the serving dish with a further napkin and whisked it away before anyone had an opportunity to focus upon its contents.
Closing his bedroom door, Georgie virtually fell onto the stool in front of his dressing table. For some reason on this occasion for the very first time, it occurred to him to wonder how many other gentlemen in Tilling even had their own dressing table, let alone one with three mirrors, two of which were adjustable. Before him was laid out an array of combs, brushes, scissors and sundry potions essential to his daily ministrations and those of his peripatetic hairdresser, Mr Holroyd whose subtle skills in colouring and the care of his toupet made him so much more than a mere "barber."
Returning from this momentary reverie, Georgie looked at himself in the mirrors. Dejectedly, he removed the napkin from his balding pate with its unruly tangle of what remained of his own hair. "How very tarsome, Georgie, my lad, " he mused to himself, "You're neither 'jeune' or 'premier' tonight, just tired and rather sad. Let that be a lesson to you. Pride cometh before a jolly big fall sometimes, so serve you right. You had to try to outdo that ghastly Merriall fellow and look what happened - he turns up in exactly the same outfit. To make matters worse, he goes and sweeps your best toupet off into the lobster in front of half of Tilling. If it wasn't so sad it would be hilarious. Thank heavens Olga wasn't here; she would have choked."
As Georgie reviewed how these disasters had come about, he removed his second best auburn toupet from its bloc in front of him and put it in place, skilfully combining it with his own hair which it matched perfectly, thanks to the latest expert treatment from Mr Holroyd. With her usual perfect timing, Foljambe knocked and entered, just as Georgie had finished his urgent repairs.
Discreetly putting down a small silver chafing dish containing his best toupet beneath a crisp white napkin, Foljambe asked if there was anything she could do. Assuming his bravest face, Georgie replied, "Thank you Foljambe. Please apologise to Mrs Pillson for my absence. I have now taken a gallipot of Kruschen Salts for a minor attack of heartburn. Pray tell her that I will rejoin her in the dining room very shortly in time for the service of dessert."
After brushing himself down and checking for a final time that his substitute hair piece was securely in place, that is exactly what Georgie did. In the traditional way in Tilling, the entire company behaved as though nothing untoward had taken place and no further mention was made of toupets, scarves or cherry red dress suits.
Both Stephen Merriall and Sophie Alingsby appeared somewhat chastened by the adverse reaction of their fellow guests to their various ill-considered remarks and their profile was lowered considerably for the rest of the evening. The diminution of their role enabled that of the locals to expand commensurately and the talk ranged from bridge teas to bicycling pinics and the various delights of Tilling in the summer months.
After dinner and a brief interval for the gentlemen to enjoy their port and cigars, the company reassembled in the Garden Room. There the hosts gave a lively duet on the piano of their favourite arrangement of a choice extract from Beethoven's Fifth. Subsequently, though the hour was growing late, Lucia was persuaded to perform what her friends had come to recognise as her signature piece, the slow movement of the "Moonlight Sonata". Just as Lucia had hoped, as she langorously performed each triplet, her audience had ample opportunity to meditate upon the significance of the signed portrait of Queen Mary in its silver frame, placed alone upon the piano, silhouetted with Lucia's profile against the window of the Garden Room.
As ever, when the piece concluded, the audience expelled the expected sigh of appreciation, coupled with remarks of "Brava" from Algernon Wyse, "Charming" from Lady Alingsby and "I'm still entirely devoted to Chopin" from Major Benjy. Elizabeth Mapp-Flint complained of a migraine and thought it time to return home.
After Lucia and Georgie had bade goodnight to their guests, the Daimler Sovereign and Armaud returned to Ardingly Hall, the Wyse's Royce ferried the Mapp-Flints back to "Grebe" and, for once, the Wyses walked the short distance to "Starling Cottage." What had been an eventful evening drew to its inevitable close; as ever, it represented complete success for Lucia and lesser degrees for everyone else, some markedly so.
Next morning after breakfast, Lucia summoned Foljambe, Grosvenor and cook to the table. "Ladies," she began,"Mr Pillson and I would like to thank you for your hard work in connection with last night's dinner. 'Mallards House' looked at its very best and dinner was superb and beautifully served. We are most grateful for your efforts, particularly at such short notice."
"Hear, hear," added Georgie, "Splendid work by you all. Thank you."
Much gratified, the ladies smiled at each other and their employers and filed out, whereupon Lucia added, "And thank you Georgie. I know yesterday did not go very well from your point of view. After all that silly business with the suits and then at table with Stephen's scarf, it was so good of you to return to the party at all".
"Thank you Lucia," Georgie replied, "I can't pretend it didn't cross my mind to tell Foljambe I had a headache and take to my bed, but that really wouldn't have done. We had guests to entertain and I had a wife to support. That's my job now and the least I could do. I have also learned a hard but useful lesson," he continued, "Not to take my personal antipathies and desire for the spotlight to such an extreme. I think it's what tragedians call 'hubris' and certainly packs quite a punch; it really put me in my place. Never again!"
"How very grown up of you, Georgie," said Lucia, " I too have learned some lessons. We shall not extend invitations again to Stephen and Sophie. They behaved quite shamelessly in front of our real friends from Tilling," adding "Also, thank you for being so unselfish, Georgino. I really am lucky to have you to rely on. I am beginning to kno how Queen Victoria felt about Prince Albert. One is very lucky to have a genuine consort."
"Steady on now Lucia" laughed Georgie, adding with intentional irony,"We mustn't get ideas above our station. In Tilling it would never do - and - even if we wanted to - Elizabeth would never stand for it."
"I suppose you're right," agreed Lucia, "And speaking of Tilling, I suppose we had better go and face the music regarding last night's events."
"Indeed," sighed Georgie, "My guess is that the main topics of conversation will be the clash of scarlet dress suits and my flying toupet. What can I have been thinking of?"
"Undoubtedly," Lucia concurred,"And no mention of my personal gift from the Queen, the honour of the company of Lord and Lady Ardingly or an exquisite dinner. However, we do have un po di musica to face. Let us go and find out."
Turning the corner into the High Street at the usual hour for marketing with wicker baskets in hand, Lucia and Georgie were disappointed. There was no sign of the Wyses or Mapp-Flints. Neither were the Bartletts or even Quaint Irene anywhere to be seen.
After looking unsuccessfully into Twistevants and the stationers, the Pillsons at last found a familiar face coming out of the fishmongers in the form of Diva Plaistow.
"Have you heard?" said Diva, without even giving Lucia and Georgie the opportunity to importune for "Any news" in accordance with Tilling convention.
Before they could reply, Diva continued in her own patent rapid-fire staccato, "Most shocking. Elizabeth and Susan are beside themselves. Went to bed after your dinner. Lobster, I hear: very nice. Got up today and every decent jewel in the area gone without a trace: the Mapp Diadem, the Wyse Tiara and the Ardingly Choker. The police are baffled it seems.What a to-do!"
Shocked at this news, Lucia and Georgie soon disengaged themselves from Diva and headed off ,with baskets still in hand, to Tilling Police Station. They were swiftly admitted into the office of Inspector Morrison. Rejecting the proferred cups of tea, Lucia asked if the terrible news related by Mrs Plaistow was true and, if so, the current position in the investigation.
"I'm afraid so, Your Worship" replied the Inspector, as yet unclear whether he was responding to Mrs Pillson in her capacity as Chief Magistrate, Mayor of Tilling or hostess of the victims of the crime. "It appears that overnight a cat burglar of extreme skill and indeed mobility managed to target the homes of Mrs Wyse, Mrs Mapp-Flint and Lady Ardingly undetected and steal many valuable items of jewellery, including the Wyse Tiara, Mapp Diadem and Ardingly Choker. Indeed an audacious crime."
"Are you sure that only one thief was involved, Inspector?" asked Georgie, adding, "The houses are so far apart. "Starling Cottage" is here in the centre of Tilling, "Grebe" is out on the marshes and Ardingly Hall is at least twenty miles in the opposite direction."
"Yes, Mr Pillson," he replied, "That is a fair observation, but the modus operandi is precisely the same in each case - as to access, location and removal of the valuables and egress. Forensic evidence, such as footprints and tyre tracks, match completely. We are convinced that one and only one person of extreme guile and athleticism is responsible. The perpetrator must also have had access to a fast vehicle to carry out each burglary in such a short period."
"And have all these indicators led you towards any specific conclusion, Inspector?" asked Lucia.
"Yes Ma'am" the Inspector replied, "These indicators, plus a substantial amount of intelligence from other police forces, has pointed towards one key suspect. Even now, my constables are on their way back to Tilling having arrested a man on suspicion of each of the thefts."
Remembering her duty of impartiality as a leading member of the magistracy, Lucia remarked, "Let us hope that the evidence has led you to apprehend the guilty party. Are you able to tell us more about the information from other forces Inspector?"
"Yes, Ma'am," he replied, "I think you are acquainted with Mr Stephen Merriall. I believe he is a journalist of sorts, appearing under the nom de plume 'Hermione' in a London newspaper?"
"Yes, Inspector," replied Lucia, "But you surely cannot mean Stephen was the burglar?"
"No, Ma'am," confirmed Herbert, "Not Mr Merriall, but his chauffeur and valet, Ricardo. Information from other forces has shown that thefts of extremely valuable jewellery have taken place in the vicinity of each of the last six weekend house parties attended by Mr Merriall, whilst being served by his chauffeur and valet."
As understanding dawned on the faces of Lucia and Georgie, the Inspector continued, " Reconstruction of each crime has demonstrated that Ricardo had ample opportunity, means and motive to commit each and every theft, employing his employer's highly powered Armaud to move speedily from one crime scene to the next and then to return undiscovered."
"Oh, we see," replied Lucia and Georgie, in shocked unison.
"To top it all," the Inspector added, "Immediately prior to your arrival here, my sergeant telephoned me to confirm that each of the valuable jewels has been found safe and sound, secreted in a special compartment in the spare tyre on Mr Merriall's Armaud."
As the Inspector spoke, there was a knock on the door of the office. His sergeant entered and confirmed that he had the stolen jewels in safe keeping and the suspect in custody at the front desk outside the office.
As he looked over the shoulder of the sergeant to the supect currently emptying his pockets onto the desk as requested by the duty officer, Georgie's mouth fell open in shock. He gasped, "My Lord, it's Dickie. My old chauffeur. It's Dickie from Riseholme."
"I beg your pardon, Mr Pillson" said the Inspector "Who did you say this is?"
"The fellow you call 'Ricardo' used to be my chauffeur when I lived in Riseholme in the Midlands. When Lucia and I moved to Tilling before our marriage, I sold my house to Adele Brixton's brother Colonel Cresswell and also let him have Dickie."
"Yes, Inspector, I can confirm that" added Lucia, "I already had a chauffeur, Cadman who married Georgie's maid Foljambe and so we didn't need another one. It seemed better for Dickie to stay and work for the Colonel,"
"Thank you for this information," replied the Inspector, "I think I had better go and interview Ricardo or Dickie or whoever he is and get the whole story. Perhaps we might meet again later this afternoon to clarify matters? Might I leave you with the pleasant task of advising your guests that their jewellery has been recovered intact?"
Thanking the Inspector, Lucia and Georgie left the Police Station to attend to their errand of reassuring the tearful victims of the daring jewel thief that all was now well. Their task was rendered easier by again meeting Diva Plaistow in the High Street. Diva immediately grasped the position and set off poste haste to spread the good news.
After a quiet and thoughtful luncheon, Georgie and Lucia returned to Tilling police station and were again ushered into Inspector Morrison's office.
The Inspector confirmed, "The suspect, latterly called 'Ricardo.' admitted that he was in fact Mr Pillson's former chauffeur, then known as 'Dickie'. Ricardo also admitted carrying out a series of cat burglaries of jewels when accompanying his employer Stephen Merriall to various country houses."
Seeing the look then exchanged between Georgie and Lucia, the Inspector added, "Mr Merriall knew nothing of his chauffeur's crimes."
"So the matter will go to trial and is likely to lead to a very lengthy sentence, Inspector?" Lucia asked.
"Yes, Ma'am," the Inspector replied, "I'm afraid so".
"Inspector," asked Georgie, "I know this might appear irregular, but do you think I might be allowed to have a brief word with Mr Ricardo, Dickie or whatever he is called now? He worked for me for quite a time you know."
"I don't see why not Mr Pillson,"the Inspector replied, "This is rather an unusual case. You may speak to him in an interview room. Two of my officers will be in attendance outside should they be needed."
"Thank you, Inspector," replied Georgie and Lucia together. Lucia touched Georgie gently on the arm and suggested quietly that perhaps it would be best if she left him to speak privately and waited outside. Georgie assented with a silent nod and smile where the eyes show only sadness, most often seen at funeral teas.
Within a few minutes, Georgie sat opposite his former chauffeur in a plain interview room in Tilling police station a few hundred miles and, what seemed to both, a hundred years from happier days in Riseholme.
"I do hope you don't find this intrusive," began Georgie, "Mr Ricardo, or should I call you Dickie? It's most tarsome not knowing."
"Carry on, Sir. Call me Dickie, if you like," he replied,"That's still my real name."
"It's just that I need to know why you did this," Georgie explained,"You never stole or did anything like this when you worked for me. It just seems so strange."
"Times change, Sir," Dickie replied glumly, staring all the while at the table in front of him, "It's just that when I was your chauffeur, cook and Foljambe were in the house and we all worked together - like one big family. It was the closest thing I've ever known to a family. Then you goes and moves down here and Riseholme is a thing of the past. You sold your house and the big, fast Armaud - I loved that car - to Colonel Cresswell lock, stock and barrel and me with it."
"It seemed the best thing for everyone," Georgie suggested.
"Well, if you don't mind me saying," said Dickie, now looking Georgie straight in the eye," It wasn't the best thing for me. When you had gone to Sussex, the Colonel even loaned me to Mr and Mrs Quantock for one weekend - like I was a book or a suitcase or a blinkin' cart horse - not a person. I drove them down from Riseholme to stay with you for your wife's Mayoral Banquet. No-one from Riseholme even noticed that I had come to Tilling: not even a single word of welcome from anyone. So much for the impression I must have made during all those years of working for you."
Georgie looked at him, somewhat sheepishly, in silence. As Dickie's words tumbled out, he stayed silent and remembered how, at the end of his first summer in Tilling, he was only worried that his peerless parlourmaid Foljambe would leave him and accompany her fiance, Lucia's chauffeur Cadman, to Tilling. Thinking only of his own comfort, he had then considered dismissing Dickie and offering higher wages to seduce Cadman from Lucia's service. Foljambe would then have accompanied her husband-to-be and Dickie would have been left out in the cold.
Georgie was relieved that Dickie never knew of his dark and selfish plan all those years ago. He felt guilty about both what happened and what very nearly happened. He knew he was in no position to make any constructive comment and still said nothing.
Without appreciating the complex layers of guilt afflicting his former employer, Dickie continued, " I never really got over that. When I went back to Riseholme, I never settled with the Colonel and started mixing with some dodgy friends, who taught me all sorts of things. One thing led to another and I found I could turn my hand to this latest line of business and here you are."
"Yes, here we are," replied Georgie, sadly, "It's a long way from our happy rides out in the country, with Foljambe in the front of the Armaud with you."
"Indeed, Sir," Dickie replied and continued, "Do you remember, when I took a wrong turn you used to tap on the window and call "Naughty boy" through the tube?"
Standing up to leave, Georgie looked at Dickie and sighed, "Yes I do. It turns out I was right. You really are a naughty boy. And I'm a short-sighted one."