Georgina Maltravers gazed across the mirrored dining room of the Savoy Grill.
‘Who’s that fine specimen of manhood lunching with your cousin? Don’t look now -’
But Margaret had already given the couple a little wave. A huge diamond flashed as The Hon. Diana Fitch-Finn fluttered her fingers in reply.
‘Edward Annington,’ Margaret replied. ‘He’s heir to a conglomerate, or something. Please don’t ask me what it is.’
‘It’s a business empire,’ Georgina informed her friend.
‘You’re so pedantic, Georgy,’ complained Margaret. ‘Anyway, he’s not exactly off the top shelf. But Diana’s parents seem happy enough with him. Did you notice the engagement ring?’
‘I was very nearly blinded by it,’ replied Georgina.
‘His father was the son of a butcher,’ said Margaret, in a low voice. ‘Risen from the ranks, y’know.’
Georgina contemplated the handsome young man in his beautifully tailored clothes. He leant forward to emphasise a point to his fiancée, who smiled down at her plate.
‘Everyone says you can’t tell nowadays,’ said Georgina, with a shrug. ‘It was rumoured that she’d snared a certain Viscount, though?’
‘Oh, our dear friend Strathkine has no money, and the Fitch-Finn’s house has been falling down since before the war, so I suppose it’s the best she can manage.’ Margaret arched an eyebrow. ‘Anyway, there’s going to be a ball at the Dorchester to announce the engagement, I’ll get you an invitation if you like.’
Not long afterward, the following appeared in the Society Pages of one of the Sunday newspapers:
18th April 1954. The London Spy hears that a friendship between The Hon. D_ F_-F_ and an unknown young man is providing meat for the gossip-mongers. In the meantime, Lord S_ languishes in Perthshire, and will eat nothing but salmon.
As their cab clattered away, Georgina, in black velvet and high heels, followed Margaret up the steps of the Dorchester, pulling her invitation from her clutch bag with a gloved hand. Underneath the chandeliers was a glittering throng of people. Willowy girls in long dresses danced with young men in dinner jackets. Stout matrons scrutinised the crowd through lorgnettes, trying to determine the eligibility, or otherwise, of their offsprings’ associates.
Diana Fitch-Finn, in a cloud of pink chiffon, and deep in conversation with her friends, had not noticed the arrival of John Strathkine.
‘I’m surprised you got an invitation,’ Margaret remarked to him.
‘I didn’t,’ he said. ‘But the doorman knows me.’
‘You look louche,’ Georgina grinned.
Strathkine had lost weight, and a permanent frown creased his brow. He didn’t even smile.
‘I can’t believe she’d do this,’ he said. ‘She doesn’t even love him.’
‘How d’you know?’ They looked across the dance floor to where Diana sat chatting, her fiancé standing at her side.
‘He goes sailing,’ complained Strathkine. ‘Can you imagine it? Blue blazers, and yacht clubs – how nouveau riche! And she gets seasick.’
As if this thought had fired him up, he plunged through the crowds, and they saw him offer Diana his hand. Startled, Diana stood up, and, as though wishing to avoid a scene, allowed him to lead her on to the dance floor. Annington looked on and smiled, as though nothing were amiss.
‘Introduce me,’ said Georgina to Margaret, who led her across to him.
‘I hear you sail,’ she said, when the formalities had been completed. Margaret moved away to greet someone else, and Annington, who had been watching his fiancée with a fond expression, was soon deep in the praises of his yacht.
‘The Duquesa’s a beautiful ninety footer from the 1920’s, all teak, I’m restoring her. We’re going to sail her down to Antibes for the honeymoon.’
He went on to explain that his father was helping him to set up a yacht brokerage.
‘Luxury vessels, you know, for film stars, millionaires, people with money..’
‘I love sailing,’ said Georgina. ‘I was brought up near Chichester, and as a child I spent many a summer’s day sailing a dinghy in the Harbour.’
The band started a dreamy waltz, and Annington glanced across the floor to where Diana and Strathkine were still in one another’s arms.
‘Shall we dance?’ he said.
9th May 1954. The London Spy wishes The Hon. D F_-F_ and Mr A_ happiness in their engagement, as they prepare to set sail for the joyful shores of matrimony. Rumours that the lady suffers from mal-de-mer are circulated by those who are not to be trusted.
Georgina called on Margaret at her flat in Belgravia. The French windows were open on to the first-floor balcony, and the roar of London filtered in on the warm air. Plane trees rustled their new leaves in the sunny street outside.
The Daily Telegraph lay open in the drawing-room, and Georgina smiled as she recognised a familiar name.
‘Edward Annington announces his crew for Cowes Week. Have you seen this photo, Margs? What a crowd of eligibles. The sailing yacht ‘Grecian Goddess’.’
Margaret cast a glance at the six young men, with their clean cut features and sailing shirts delineated in the sharp clear light one finds by the sea.
’Not U,’ she dismissed.
But look at Annington,’ insisted Georgina. ‘He’s wonderful. I danced with him that night at the Dorchester.’
The yachtsman’s smooth features and slicked back blond hair gleamed.
‘He could do so much better than Diana,’ mused Georgina.
‘Be above meddling between man and wife,’ warned Margaret, wagging a finger. ‘Anyway, stop reading that nonsense, we’re going to the Flower Show, are we not?’
It must have been one of the most successful years ever for the Chelsea Flower Show, as the crowding in the marquees was immense.
Georgina looked up from a huge multicoloured stand of fragrant sweet peas to see Diana Fitch-Finn with John Strathkine, walking towards her in the crowd. She held his forearm and he rested his hand on hers, as if to prevent it from fluttering off. Her white gloves hid her engagement ring, if she were indeed wearing it. They looked for all the world like a pair of lovers. Georgina bent her head back down to the sweet peas, but Diana must have seen her, because when she looked up again, the couple were walking in the opposite direction.
23rd May 1954. The London Spy was surprised to see The Hon. D_F_-F_ at Chelsea this week, with the flower of the nobility. ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin’ – will he be helping her to lay out her beds?
‘Is that Georgina Maltravers?’ a male voice asked.
‘Speaking, may I ask who’s calling?’
‘This is Edward Annington.’
‘Oh, how lovely to hear from you. How goes it with the yacht?’
‘Well I’m down at the Hamble at the moment, working on Grecian Goddess for Cowes Week. I’ve been out with the crew every day. Weather’s been great, Force 5 winds, absolutely unstoppable.’
‘I wish you luck with the Regatta. Is it true that the Duke of Edinburgh’s racing this year?’
‘Miss Maltravers, we have to have a talk.’ His tone had changed.
‘Talk away, Edward,’ she smiled, but her face fell at his next words.
‘Listen, I know all about the London Spy now. And, if you don’t stop writing your vapid rubbish, I shall sue you for slander.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘I’ve been talking to Diana about your gossip column. She says that every time you’ve seen her in public you’ve written some vile thing about her, trying to blacken her name. She knows it’s you.’
‘Why would I do such a thing?’
‘She says you’re jealous.’
‘Mr Annington, I think you’ll find that the London Spy simply reports what has been observed in society.’
‘It is you, isn’t it? I’d have expected better of such a clever lady. Why don’t you get a proper writing job?’
‘I could not answer to the identity of the London Spy, Mr Annington.’
‘Well, Diana and I know it’s you, trying to drive us apart. She says you’re after me yourself. Well, let me tell you, I love Diana with all my heart, and I’m going to make her my wife, and I wouldn’t look twice at someone like you, who poisons everything she touches with her vile insinuations.’
‘I wish you joy of your union, Mr Annington, but if you’re trying to discover who’s driving you apart, you’d do better to examine the conduct of a certain Viscount with greater suspicion. And as for suing the London Spy for slander, I think you’ll find it very difficult, should the information in question prove to have been true. You would of course inevitably attract further unwelcome publicity in that case. I have nothing more to say to you, Mr Annington.’
Georgina slammed the receiver down, then buried her face in her hands, and gave way to an agony of tears.
Nothing like a day at the races to cheer one up, especially at Royal Ascot, thought Georgina, as she steadied her navy blue plumed hat against the summer breeze, and gazed at the distant riders through her racing binoculars.
Beside her a gentleman shouted, and waved his hat.
’Rashleigh! Rashleigh! Go on Rashleigh!’
People turned to look at him.
‘You’re completely barmy, Strathkine,’ said Georgina.
Pale faced, the Viscount fanned a handful of betting slips in trembling fingers.
‘It’s a multiplier,’ he said. ‘I’ve put every penny on it. If I’ve backed the winner in the next three races, I’ll pay off my debts and rescue Diana from the butcher. Go on Rashleigh! Rashleigh! Hoorah!’
Elated at his victory, Strathkine tucked the slips into his pocket, and raised his hat to Diana and her friends, who, in their pastel silks and their flowers and feathers, looked like a crop of gaudy blooms.
‘Excuse me,’ he said to Georgina, and strode off, grinning, to join them.
By the end of the afternoon, Strathkine had also won on Festoon in the Coronation Stakes, and Prescription in the Queen’s Vase.
21st June 1954. The London Spy takes her hat off to Lord S_, victorious at Royal Ascot with a filly on whom he’s had his eye for some time.
‘Kensington two-six-four.’ Georgina raised the Bakelite receiver to her ear, and then withdrew it a little, as a torrent of words poured from Margaret.
‘Diana’s vanished! She was supposed to be meeting her mother in Harrods yesterday, to buy her wedding trousseau, and she didn’t go! Her mother had come up especially, all the way from Lostwithiel! Her mother searched the whole department store, then rang her flat, and had no reply! In the end, she had to call the police. The police broke the door down, at the flat, and no-one was there. Diana hadn’t taken anything with her, except her handbag. It was as if she’d just walked out of the flat, and vanished into thin air. Everyone thinks she’s been abducted. The police are watching all the ports -’
‘Has anyone seen Strathkine recently?’ cut in Georgina.
‘He’s in Scotland. Anyway, I can’t imagine she’d go against her parents so far as to run off with him.’
‘Well, we shall see. Would you excuse me, Margaret? An idea has just occurred to me, and I’ve a telephone call to make.’
After Margaret rang off, Georgina dialled ‘0’.
‘Good afternoon, Operator. Could you possibly get me the Registrar’s Office in Gretna Green, please?’
11th July 1954. Apropos of the mysterious disappearance of The Hon. D_F-F_, the London Spy announces a scoop. Records in Gretna Green reveal a recent marriage, no doubt en route to Perthshire. Felicitations are offered.
A steady breeze stirred up little white wavelets and swayed the full skirt of Georgina’s cobalt blue sailor dress, as she surveyed the finish line of the Cowes Regatta. Striding towards her was Edward Annington, fresh from a yachting victory, with a white shirt and cream flannels setting off his tan.
‘I owe you an apology, Miss Maltravers,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry I hurt you,’ Georgina said, shaking his hand with a wistful smile, and releasing it reluctantly.
‘Well, as you said, you weren’t the cause of our break-up. Diana’s heart belonged to Strathkine from long before we even met.’
‘Perhaps she may have been right about my jealousy,’ said Georgina, daring herself to meet his sea-grey eyes. He looked away.
‘I suppose I’ll never really belong in high society, with my background,’ he said. ‘I know I’m an upstart in the eyes of these people.’ He waved a hand vaguely at the chattering crowd.
‘On the contrary, society’s changing,’ said Georgina. ‘In fact, I’m not sure that the London Spy really belongs, any more.’
His eyes narrowed as they returned to her face.
‘Would you do me the honour of joining me for dinner on board the Duquesa? Where are you staying? I’ll send the car round at seven.’
Georgina’s heart had been fluttering as she changed into her evening dress, in high hopes of a quiet tête-à-tête, but on board the MY Duquesa, the table was set for eight. Annington introduced his parents, and two other couples. She recognised a famous actress.
‘Lilian and Hugh are buying the Duquesa,’ said Annington, ‘and Colin here is the editor of the Daily Telegraph. I thought you might like to meet him, and discuss your journalistic career.’
15th August 1954. The London Spy bids a fond farewell to her readers, having accepted an appointment with a rival publication. She is optimistic that all will be plain sailing. Anchors a-weigh!
Words ©2013 chateauxenespagne.com
(Newspaper advertising signs photographed on the Bluebell Railway, Sussex)
All characters are fictional, except of course for the Duke of Edinburgh (God bless His Royal Highness)!