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She Fell Among Thieves

BOOK: She Fell Among Thieves
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She Fell Among Thieves

 

First published in 1935

© Estate of Dornford Yates; House of Stratus 1935-2011

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

 

The right of Dornford Yates to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted.

 

This edition published in 2011 by House of Stratus, an imprint of

Stratus Books Ltd., Lisandra House, Fore Street, Looe,

Cornwall, PL13 1AD, UK.

 

Typeset by House of Stratus.

 

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library and the Library of Congress.

 

 
EAN
 
ISBN
 
Edition
 
 
1842329804
 
9781842329801
 
Print
 
 
0755127005
 
9780755127009
 
Kindle
 
 
0755127218
 
9780755127214
 
Epub
 

 

This is a fictional work and all characters are drawn from the author’s imagination.

Any resemblance or similarities to persons either living or dead are entirely coincidental.

 

 

www.houseofstratus.com

About the Author

 

Born ‘Cecil William Mercer’ into a middle class Victorian family with many Victorian skeletons in the closet, including the conviction for embezzlement from a law firm and subsequent suicide of his great-uncle, Yates’ parents somehow scraped together enough money to send him to Harrow.

The son of a solicitor, he at first could not seek a call to the Bar as he gained only a third class degree at Oxford. However, after a spell in a Solicitor’s office he managed to qualify and then practised as a Barrister, including an involvement in the Dr. Crippen Case, but whilst still finding time to contribute stories to the
Windsor Magazine
.

After the First World War, Yates gave up legal work in favour of writing, which had become his great passion, and completed some thirty books. These ranged from light-hearted farce to adventure thrillers. For the former, he created the
‘Berry’
books which established Yates’ reputation as a writer of witty, upper-crust romances. For the latter, he created the character
Richard Chandos
, who recounts the adventures of
Jonah Mansel
, a classic gentleman sleuth. As a consequence of his education and experience, Yates’ books feature the genteel life, a nostalgic glimpse at Edwardian decadence and a number of swindling solicitors.

In his hey day, and as testament to his fine writing, Dornford Yates’ work often featured in the bestseller list. Indeed,
‘Berry’
is one of the great comic creations of twentieth century fiction; the
‘Chandos’
titles also being successfully adapted for television. Along with Sapper and John Buchan, Yates dominated the adventure book market of the inter war years.

Finding the English climate utterly unbearable, Yates chose to live in the French Pyrenées for eighteen years, before moving on to Rhodesia (as was), where he died in 1960.

 

‘Mr Yates can be recommended to anyone who thinks the British take themselves too seriously.’ - Punch

 

‘We appreciate fine writing when we come across it, and a wit that is ageless united to a courtesy that is extinct’ - Cyril Connolly

 

 

Dedication

To

JILL

1
I Make My Bow to Vanity Fair

 

If one’s life is divided into chapters, a chapter of my life ended one fitful April day, when I drove to the aerodrome at Croydon to meet an aeroplane which failed to arrive.

At the time I believed that that was the last of the chapters of which my life was made up, but though for the next twelve months I was more dead than alive, the following spring another chapter opened and I found myself grey-haired at thirty and desperately hungry for action of any kind.

So I turned to Jonathan Mansel.

Though he seemed a man of leisure, I knew him far too well to suppose him an idle man. More. I had seen him in action; we had shared adventure together more than once; and a man of such brilliant enterprise could no more have folded his hands than could water have run uphill.

On an elegant evening in May I dined with him at his flat in Cleveland Row, and when the cloth had been drawn I stated my case. He heard me out in silence, and after a little discussion which has no place in this tale, he got to his feet and started to pace the room.

‘Has it ever occurred to you,’ he said, ‘that there must be required much service which simply cannot be rendered by the ordinary private detective or plain-clothes man? I don’t mean military service; I mean the sort of service which deals with crime… Well, I don’t suppose it has. People don’t think of these things. But now that I’ve mentioned it, it must be obvious to you that, because of his birth and education, the range of the ordinary detective is strictly limited. You see, crime is not peculiar to the lower classes: felony is frequently – well, launched by people who live much better than you and I; and though, for instance, those people may be waited upon by a footman who is not what he seems, they do not discuss before servants the crimes which they hope to commit. That’s a very crude instance, of course. The game’s much finer than that. At times it’s extremely dangerous; but it’s certainly never dull. There’s no pay, of course, and if you get into a mess, you’ve got to get out on your own; but they’ll never give you away and, once they know you, they’ll trust you – into the blue. I mean, if I rang them up now and advised the arrest of a one-eyed man who would leave the Canton Club at a quarter to ten, two men would be there with a taxi at half-past nine. Well, that’s your reward…’

I do not know what I answered and I do not propose to relate the conversation we had, but I know that when I left him, the sky was pale; yet, though I must have been weary, I felt refreshed, for Mansel was soon to set out on a perilous quest and he had done me the honour to ask me to go with him.

And that shall be the prelude of the tale which I am to tell. To this day I do not know whom we worked for or at whose instance we did the things we did, but to them I shall always be grateful, because they made worth living the life I had found a burden and would have been glad to lay down.

 

My instructions were clear.

Anise is a village in Dordogne, seventy miles from Bordeaux. You will take in petrol there, at six o’clock in the evening of the seventh of June.

It follows that at that hour I brought my car to rest in front of a petrol-pump – so far as I saw, the only one to deface a shy little hamlet, that must have been very old. My servant, Bell, alighted, to see that justice was done, whilst I sat back in my seat, admiring some magnificent plane-trees and wondering what was to happen now I had kept my tryst.

Then –

‘William the Careful,’ said Mansel. ‘I knew you’d be up to time. But you must admit that Anise is hard to find.’

‘Hellish,’ said I. ‘I’ve been all over the place. I’ll swear the maps are wrong.’

‘They are,’ said Mansel, cheerfully. ‘And I can show you a signpost which actually points the wrong way. Anise is admirably hidden. And yet it’s only six miles from the
Route de Bordeaux
. And now get out, and we’ll walk across to our inn. I think you’ll like your room: it commands the sort of country that Morland knew.’

As I left my seat, I heard him speaking to Bell.

‘Well, Bell, how are you? Very glad to see you again. Mr Chandos is coming with me. If you berth the car under those limes and walk into that yard, you might see Carson.’

Carson was Mansel’s servant, and he and Bell were old friends.

As we strolled to the inn –

‘I’m fishing here,’ said Mansel. ‘When you’ve had a wash and a drink, you must come and look at the stream. It’s very much like another we used to know. And there’s our host, waiting to do you honour – he doesn’t get many guests.’

Here I should say that Mansel had a flair for good lodging. Except in the bigger cities, he seldom, if ever, would stay at a well-known hotel, but would find some simple house whose clients were very few: his manner was so attractive and his address was so fine that the host would spare no effort to do as he pleased, and before the first day was out, Mansel and those that were with him were lords of all they surveyed. And so it was at Anise. There was, of course, no bathroom, yet all was ready and waiting for me to bathe: some beer was on ice in my bedroom and a plate of most excellent cheese-straws begged me to break my fast, yet not prejudice the dinner to which I should later sit down.

So I drank and bathed and changed, while Mansel sat by the window and smoked and talked of fishing and the trout he had taken that day. And then we went down to the water he liked so well: but not to fish.

I shall never forget the spot, which seemed to me to belong to the golden days, and I well remember thinking that Virgil might have rounded a Georgic in just such a pretty place.

The sun was low, and the effigies of giant poplars lay in a row upon a meadow whose verge they kept. Beyond them the stream was flowing, a lazy, graceful ribbon of brown and gold, that lipped so closely its banks, which were very trim, that it might have been inlaid in the blowing turf. Beyond, again, was woodland, rising to clothe the shoulder which was turning the water aside, for the stream curled out of the forest and, after lacing the meadow, returned to the ward of the trees. On either hand lay pastures, walled by luxuriant hedgerows that must have stood twelve feet high, so that the pleasance, though spacious, was most secure. Since the evening was very still, the comfortable sounds of husbandry travelled to charm the ear: two fields away a reaper was whetting his scythe, a distant cow-bell lifted its time-honoured note, a peasant was cheering his oxen, and now and again the pomp of the stream was fretted by the splash of a leaping trout.

Mansel sat down by the water and took his pipe from his mouth.

‘Now these,’ he said, ‘are the facts.

‘Some two hundred miles from here lives a lady called Señora de —. Once her surname was Blonde, and since she was christened Vanity, you won’t be surprised to learn that somebody very soon named her “Vanity Fair”. And though she’s no longer young, the nickname has stuck.

‘Before you were born, that name was a household word. Diplomacy. For years she set the rivers of Europe on fire. She was the dazzling enigma of every embassy. Nobody knew in whose service she really was. No Court dared deny her entry. She held positions at two at the very same time. And then, to the general relief, she saw fit to retire – I mean, into private life.

‘Well, first you must understand that the lady’s immensely rich. Immensely. What is more, she knows how to live. She was very well born, half Russian and half Roumanian. She has outlived no less than three husbands – a Russian, an American and a Spaniard. Her only living child is a girl, twenty-one years old. She was the American’s child. By her father’s will this girl must inherit most of her mother’s wealth – two-thirds on her marriage and the rest on her mother’s death.

‘Now Vanity Fair spends money – she keeps the most astonishing state. Lives in the mountains as people used to live in Mayfair. But on her daughter’s marriage, much more than half her income will disappear. And her daughter’s engaged to be married…to the Count of Rachel, a Frenchman, a man of about twenty-five.’

Mansel lay back on the grass and stared at the sky.

‘And now,’ he said, ‘for the strong stuff.

‘Vanity Fair has the reputation of being one of the cleverest, most unscrupulous and most ruthless women alive. The death of her second husband was very sudden, and from time to time several other people who were known to have given her offence have come to untimely ends. There is not a tittle of evidence to connect her with their respective fates: but the series of coincidences is curious. Her son caused her great annoyance shortly before he died…’

‘Good God,’ said I.

‘Quite so,’ said Mansel. ‘If half what I’ve heard is true, Vanity Fair is some girl. Be that as it may, there are certain quarters in which her – her influence has been causing growing concern and the advisability of a close-up has been growing more and more desirable. But the insurmountable difficulty has always been to get a foot in. The Château Jezreel is rather a close borough.

‘Well, now at last Vanity Fair has given “certain quarters” a chance.

‘A few weeks ago she wrote to a detective in London who had served her some years ago, asking him to find her a chauffeur – who could keep his eyes and ears open and render her certain reports. She told him to take his time, as she wanted an exceptional man. The detective accepted her order – and went to the powers that be… As a result, in six days’ time I shall report at Jezreel as the chauffeur-detective required by Vanity Fair.

‘Well, that’s much better than nothing: but it isn’t nearly enough. A chauffeur is only a chauffeur, and if I’m to do any good I must have someone upstairs. And that is where you come in.

‘Vanity Fair has a weakness for nice young men. You needn’t be afraid: immodesty is one of the very few failings she hasn’t got. For her own sex she’s no use at all: but youth and manhood attract her – she loves to hold a young man with her mental charm. And so I hope to arrange that you shall be her guest at Jezreel. If I can bring that off, we shall have won the first round. With you in the salon, with me below stairs, and with Bell as connecting-file between us, we shall have obtained a real footing in the enemy’s camp. Carson will stay outside, representing our lines of communication. Anise will be his headquarters, but of course he’ll be on the move.

‘And that’s very nearly all that I’ve got to say. My instructions are to listen and watch –
and
to act
, if what I have heard or seen will give me good cause. Why she should want a detective, I’ve no idea: but it’s going to be a great help – to the other side. As for the role for which you’re cast, I’ve no doubt you find it offensive: to set out to betray your hostess has an unpleasant ring. But please remember this –
you need have no compunction
. If the half I’ve been told is true, Vanity Fair is a very monster of iniquity: and if you want something to go on – well, I have very little doubt that when she announces the date of her daughter’s marriage, it’ll mean that she’s fixed the date of her daughter’s death.’

There was a little silence.

Then –

‘You know, you scare me,’ said I. ‘I’m not slick enough for this job. I don’t mind how rough a game is and I used to know how to hit, but I can’t take on a woman like Vanity Fair.’

‘I hope you won’t try,’ said Mansel. ‘All I want you to do is to sit at her feet. And unless I’m much mistaken, she’ll have you there before you’ve known her a day. She’s a very notable woman, is Vanity Fair. She’ll never see sixty again, and the beauty she had has gone the way beauty goes: but I understand that she has an astonishing way – a way which “age cannot wither, nor custom stale”. I want you to let yourself go, to be entirely natural and play her game. In that way you’ll be playing my game. You’re under my orders, of course: but my orders will be her desires. As like as not, she’ll use you: I hope to God she does – for then, you see, she’ll be playing straight into my hands.’

I shifted uneasily.

‘I’m desperately afraid,’ I said, ‘of letting you down.’

‘I’m not,’ said Mansel: ‘and I’m a pretty good judge. I know that you’re not an actor. You’re far too simple and downright. And if you were to start pretending, she’d see through you in a flash. And so you’re not going to pretend. I hope to contrive that she asks you to stay at Jezreel. You’ll accept that invitation and just behave as her guest. And from time to time an English chauffeur, called Wright, will ask your servant questions on what you have seen and heard. Mark that. Not Jonathan Mansel, but an English chauffeur, called Wright. He may happen to look like me, but both our lives may depend on your never having seen him before.’ He laughed at the look in my eyes and got to his feet. ‘And that’s enough for this evening. Follow me very quietly. I don’t know whether he’s out, but I may be able to show you a trout I’ve been trying to catch for the last two days. He’s a wily old swab, all right. I call him “Vanity Fair”.’

 

Two days later, I was strolling alone in the meadow, absently fishing the water and wondering what was to come, for Mansel was gone to London to take up the role of John Wright and, as such, to leave by train for the South of France. He had taken the road to Paris: there he would leave his car and take to the air, and Carson would drive back to Anise the following day. And at Anise I was to stay, until I received my orders to leave for Jezreel.

I confess that I was uneasy.

I found my commission distasteful, and I felt very sure I was not the man for the job. Had anyone other than Mansel proposed to me such an office, I would have refused it point-blank: but Mansel’s judgment was so rare and he was so faithful a friend that when he smiled down my objections, I said no more. Still, I think I should have tried to withstand him, had I not been possessed by an instinct for which I can never account. I felt that behind this curtain which we were to seek to lift, there was set a scene which was waiting for Mansel and me: that the play to be rendered was far more grim and momentous than Mansel dreamed, and that he would have need of someone to stand with their back against his, if he and his fortune were not to go down together before, as the Psalmist has it, the terror by night and the arrow that flieth by day.

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