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I DO not as a rule indulge in dedications because, not only does every book that I write carry an implied dedication to that brave, loyal, and sweet lady, my wife, but I also hold the opinion that every book of this nature should automatically be dedicated to everyone who reads it, particularly those gallant souls who actually buy copies. But on this occasion I am making an exception; and, having made the exception, I shall do things in wholesale fashion.

So I dedicate this book to you, madam—may trouble never dim your pretty eyes—and to you, sir—may your shadow never grow less—and to the large number of reviewers who have dealt so generously with previous efforts of mine; and, lastly, to certain cheerful idiots with whom I have played “King Oscar”—though I hasten to add that we did make some attempt to play the confounded game according to its few loose rules.

And now that we have, as it were, got together, put on your glad rags and come with me; for we are going to gate-crash a party, and strange and mysterious things are going to happen at this party, and before it breaks up you are, I hope, going to be as baffled and intrigued as Detective-Inspector Courtenay. Come with me and meet your host and hostess. Come and meet some of the guests. Come and meet “King Oscar”!


Ladies first. Your hostess, Mrs. Mostyn-Martyn. Note the “y’s”. They make all the difference between Mayfair and, say, Kensington. They place her at once.

Mrs. Mostyn-Martyn is still a young woman. She is twenty-nine—she has been twenty-nine for the past four years. She is a dashing, dazzling young person, somewhat given to the gay life and the throwing of parties and, it must be admitted, the society of decorative young men. She is the driving force in the Mostyn-Martyn household. It is said she wears the trousers. Certainly she wears them; shorts, slacks, and cocktail pyjamas, and with devastating effect. Just now she has on the cocktail pyjamas. They are of white silk and have, for some inscrutable feminine reason—possibly with reference to the old song anent nice girls and sailors—blue anchors worked on them here and there. Her hair is dark and curly. She is vital, tingling. She is spoken of as being a “good sport”. She has a glass in one hand. She waves you an airy greeting with the other, and indicates a well-stocked buffet. Help yourself! Three or four quick ones will give you that glow that is so essential to the success of such a party as this.

Your host, Mr. Mostyn-Martyn is thirty-eight and doesn’t care two hoots who knows it. Average height, fair, getting thin on top, no nerves, packs away the whisky in a rather thoughtful and absorbed manner, quiet, reserved, given to humming snatches of song. The only apparent effect the consumption of whisky has on him is to cause him to stagger slightly in passing through a doorway. Mr. Mostyn-Martyn has something to do with the manufacture of the faster type of sports cars. Being, as it were, wrapped up in cars, and much more interested in the insides of racing automobiles than the outsides of beautiful women, he is the despair of bright young things who occasionally overlook the desirability of stopping at that glow.

Now for some of the guests.

Doctor John Curtiss. Dr. Curtiss is Society’s pet physician, “John” being a fashionable Christian name again and “Curtiss” spelt with two “s’s”. Youngish, tall, absurdly good-looking with a fascinating touch of grey at the temples, cynical with a cynicism that is more effective than romanticism; deliberate, self-sufficient, and competent. Drinks like a fish—it seems to have no effect on him save that his eyelids droop lower and lower as the night and early morning wear away. Rather a pleasant, lazy droop at that. Dr. Curtiss is such a successful doctor and in such constant demand that he doesn’t waste his time in diagnosing complaints; he diagnoses the specialist to deal with the complaint. His practice is enormous, his income said to be fabulous. But he has his moments of relaxation; hence his presence at the party. Naturally—the Mostyn-Martyns’. Everybody goes to the Mostyn-Martyn parties. But, as a matter of fact, he has had to leave a very influential hypochondriac with a vague promise of “looking in later”, and actually arrived with his little black bag, which he has handed over to the butler for safe-keeping and which the latter has placed in the cloak-lobby in the big hall. The doctor wears a monocle in his right eye, and when I say he wears it, I mean he wears it—he doesn’t juggle with it. It is almost as much of a garment as an aid to vision. Once he screws it in his eye in the morning it is there for the rest of the day. He has been known to get into his evening bath—doctors are tigers for bathing—with it still in his eye, and frequently goes to bed with it. From which you will gather that the wearing of this shining disc is no mere affectation on the part of our Dr. John Curtiss.

The doctor is looked upon by a large number of people as being rather a subtle creature, a man who hides his real feelings under a mask of cynicism and complete self-sufficiency, who looks out at the world from under this mask and is faintly amused by it, as a man of brilliant but complex thought-processes. There is, say these people, considerably more in Dr. Curtiss than meets the eye. A few others, men chiefly, consider him a poseur. And they are all wrong. He is really as direct and naïve as a child; there is nothing more in him than meets the eye. He wears no mask—the mask is the real man—and he does not trouble himself to pose. But, because he reveals his feelings so simply and naturally, people say he hides them. People will say anything. People are easily bluffed. And yet Dr. Curtiss does not bluff them; he simply does not care and doesn’t think it worth while to dispel the illusion.

The doctor has a wife, who comes next on our list of guests. Thelma Curtiss is a magnificent creature, a veritable young Juno. Tall and generously but perfectly built, lazy, statuesque, feline, physically the feminine counterpart of her husband, red-gold hair lying hot and heavy on the nape of her exquisitely white neck, skin as smooth and fair as a Viking, she is a magnet; she overshadows all other women in a room. She wears, and can carry it well, magnificent but rather heavy and barbaric jewellery, bracelets and bangles that slide and clink dully, a girdle with a jewelled clasp that vaguely suggests Shakespeare in one of his more gaudy and spacious moods, long heavy eardrops that swing and glitter. In her fine eyes there lurks a hint of passion. She is an exotic, the type of woman who—we fancy—could launch a thousand ships or wreck an empire. Which is why, though her name is Thelma, they call her Cleopatra, or Cleo for short.

But it is only fancy. So often with these women it is only fancy, an inflamed imagination. Physically Mrs. Curtiss is gorgeous, glamorous, compelling, swaying men’s desires to unthinkable urgencies. Mentally she is a cow. Her husband knows the bovine mind in that Viking body. He doesn’t call her Cleopatra; he calls her Thelma—when he calls her anything at all.

Want proof? Meet this young man, one Rodney Spelton. Here you have one of life’s many paradoxes. Rodney Spelton is on the small side, five feet six inches in shoes with rather pronounced heels, painfully neat and dapper, patent-leather hair, polished manners, polished clothes, polished mind; the sort of man who, on seeing a picture hanging a hair’s-breadth from the strict horizontal, would be immediately irritated by it and not rest until it had been straightened. And yet this finicking young man with apparently as much sex-appeal as a butterfly, the last person you would imagine to have any attraction for a Cleopatra, is probably Mrs. Curtiss’s lover. This is the paradox. There is another in Spelton himself. For all his size—or lack of it—his tidy soul, his fussiness, his polished manner, he is quaintly cave-mannish and compelling with Cleopatra, and Cleopatra appears to relish it. From anyone else this treatment would receive one scorching glance from those normally limpid eyes, and thereafter be placidly ignored; but with Rodney Spelton, Cleopatra is a village maid.

It is also probable that Dr. Curtiss is aware of the state of affairs between his wife and Spelton; if so it is patently evident that he is not particularly perturbed by it. If the doctor does think about it at all, it is possibly to wonder what the devil, Spelton, possessing that beautiful body, can find in the bovine-mind to keep him so constantly at her side. The body possessed is nothing; the personality within, the flame that quickens and illuminates the body, is everything. Too well the doctor knows this . . .

There are two considerably younger people you must meet next. A young man, Peter Fenner, and his girl friend, Audrey Westcott. Although neither are over-burdened with worldly possessions they are inveterate party-goers. Fenner is a nondescript young man with a deplorable habit of getting drunk at every party he attends. He invariably attains the sozzled state, which is midway between tight and blotto. Miss Westcott is a snappy young woman who can be likened to a diamond in that she is pretty in a hard and brilliant fashion; smart, capable, cutting, and very sure of herself. With the same monotonous regularity with which Fenner gets sozzled at these parties, Miss Westcott collects him and takes him home, and then goes on to her own home. She carts him away in a little second-hand two-seater, and all three make a good deal of noise. These two will probably get married one of these days, and she will spend the rest of her life in collecting her husband and taking him home— and will thrive on it.

Then there is a middle-aged man, well-dressed, well-groomed, suave, easy-mannered, but rather silent, with a white carnation in the lapel of his beautifully cut dinner-jacket. Beyond the fact that his name is Mason no one seems to know very much about him. He is a stranger to the Mostyn-Martyns, but a stranger or two, introduced by one or other of the regular guests, is no novelty to them, and with everybody else he has been given the freedom of the house. But it seems that he will bear watching. Or so, at least, apparently thinks another young man, who is certainly keeping a watchful eye on him. This young man, rather square in the shoulder and straight of back, is addicted to playing the piano and doing card-tricks and juggling with tumblers—anything, in fact, than messing about with women—which is the normal procedure at parties such as this. But there is an exception, and you will meet the exception shortly. The young man’s name is Johns, and he is referred to affectionately as Johnny. A cheerful soul.

Now, if you are a hardened and avid reader of Berrow, you will have come across Mr. Johns before, in that classic Oil Under the Window. On the other hand if, as of course you are not, you won’t. In either case it won’t matter a damn. In any case I don’t suppose you give a damn; and neither do I. So there we are. But if, just supposing it wildly possible you actually have read that masterpiece, you will know more about Mr. Johns than anyone at the party does. And still it won’t matter a damn. But maybe you will have some inkling of why this chap Johns is keeping his eye on that other chap Mason, who, in his turn, seems to be keeping his eye on the sozzled Mr. Fenner, who is keeping his eye on the whisky . . . Where was I?

Oh, yes. There are still a few more people you must meet before we can, in the words of Mr. Stanley Holloway, “let party commence”. There is Lieutenant Jerry Weymouth, a second-lieutenant, very newly attached to a crack cavalry regiment, one of the cavalry regiments that has not yet turned in its horses and taken to tanks. Jerry is a peach. Jerry gets merry on the smell of the cork, and when merry simply will insist on singing the Adieu song from the “White Horse Inn”. But he must have a roof to sing it from, and then he sings it in the language and after the spirited manner of Richard Tauber. Twenty-five per cent of your time at a party where Jerry is present is taken up in keeping him away from roofs. Jerry does more damage to other people’s spouting than northeast gales.

Let Jerry Weymouth get another smell of the cork, however, and he grows pensive. Then he hunts out another roof and sings a dirge, supposed by some unmusical persons to be a fragment of autobiography. Then he goes to sleep. In spite of his midnight concerts Jerry is a likeable lad, without any real vices.

Next on our list comes, for a change, a young lady. She is a very pretty young lady, petite, with a neat little figure that needs no assistance from Mr. Gossard or any of his confrères, pretty brown hair framing and caressing with soft waves a little round face, soft brown eyes, full little mouth, and with rather kittenish ways. She is a sight for the strained eyes of tired business men, but a student of physiognomy would, in the dispassionate way of these scientific gentlemen, point out two things: first, that there is weakness in the soft curve of the chin, and, second, that in ten years’ time she will be more than a little plump.

This young lady is the Hon. Mrs. Bathgate, but whether she is an ‘Hon.’ in her own right, or whether she acquired the title when she acquired her husband three years ago—if one does acquire the title ‘Hon.’ in this manner—is more than I can tell you; these high and mighty mysteries of title and succession and precedence and whatnot being beyond me. And it doesn’t really matter, because never in any circumstances at these parties and gatherings is she addressed as other than “Honey”, which is not, as might be supposed, a play of words upon the title, but an affectionate rendering of her own baptismal name, Honoria. And, if you ask me, that is about the best thing that can be done to a name like that.

She is an expensively turned-out young lady. That deceptively simple gown cost money. Those rings cost more. On her left wrist are three bracelets; on her right is another one, of emeralds set about with platinum. She is a sweet little thing, a “little bit of fluff”, as I have said, something of a kitten; but if you study her attentively you may see in those big brown eyes, as they rest momentarily every now and again on the dark head of Dr. Curtiss, the same strained, appealing look that comes into the eyes of a hurt puppy. There is a hint of tragedy there. At the same time there is a queer little air of bravado about her, though it must be said that, as the evening wears away and the cocktails are lowered, that air of bravado gradually fades. In a word, Honey is not very happy, and the reason for her unhappiness appears to be centred in Dr. Curtiss.

The last thing that need be said about Honey is that her husband is not with her. The Hon. Mr. Bathgate—if he is an Hon.—is not a party-goer, considering such amusements frivolous and undignified and not compatible with his interests in legal and diplomatic circles. Rather an austere specimen, Honey’s husband. The question arises: Why did he marry a kitten like Honey? God knows! Why does any man marry any woman? Come to that, why does any woman tie herself up for life with any man? These questions are unanswerable; let us pass on. But just before passing take another look at that bracelet on Honey’s right wrist. It cost more than all her other trinkets put together—and you will find its twin, though somewhat smaller, on the wrist of the last guest to be introduced: Miss Dagma Leighton.

Dagma . . . Who can describe Dagma? I will try, but I warn you it will be but a feeble, dry-point etching. Tall, fair, slender, infinitely desirable, infinitely aloof; oval, Madonna face, absolutely flawless skin, fair, fair hair drawn back from a clear, broad forehead, sweeping back to the nape of the neck in unbroken line, fitting close and gleaming like a helmet of beaten gold, pale gold. You would expect to find eyes of cornflower-blue in this setting. But Dagma’s eyes are honey-coloured, flecked with green—intelligent eyes; Dagma is an intelligent woman, and intelligent enough to know when to hide her own intelligence . . . It may be there is a hint of severity in this poor description, yet, though her beauty is of classic order, I should not call it severe. For her mouth is warm and vivid, and there is a promise in the curve of her lips. But it is not a promiscuous promise. She is not a woman to be swept off her feet. But to her own choice and in her own time she will redeem that promise.

She wears a plain but superbly cut green gown that sweeps up from under the arms to a collarette about her throat. The gown is cut low at the back, the collarette does not completely encircle the neck, and from its two ends depend shoulder-straps that cross a back which might have been fashioned by Praxiteles. On the wrist of one lovely bare arm is the emerald bracelet that is the smaller twin to the one on Honey’s right wrist. In her ears, which are small and set close to the gleaming head, pretty enough to be exposed, are two long green eardrops. They might be emerald also, but of that I am not sure, as Dagma is not by any means a wealthy woman.

Dagma—emerald and pale gold . . . She has no title, but she is a great lady, walking the earth as a queen. She is Cleopatra’s complement—Venus and Diana. Thelma Curtiss makes men fall; Dagma Leighton raises them. Cleopatra stirs their desires; Dagma their imaginations. There is a difference . . . You wonder what she is doing at this party among these people, she is so obviously out of place. But she was born and bred among them. They are of her class, though they have forgotten their breeding, but they may not be her friends. Her life is bound up in theirs; she is in the earth, earthy, but not of the earth, earthy. She endures these parties because she is tolerant, and she is tolerant because she is intelligent. She is aloof because she respects herself. She is aloof because she is a lady. Her mouth carries that shadowy promise because she is a woman.

Her escort to the party is Mr. Johns, and she is the exception I spoke of when I introduced that young man. And she is the exception because Johnny also is intelligent and self-respecting.


That, I think, is about the issue. There are various other bright sparks here, but no one else to whom at present we need special introduction. There is a dancer who, strangely enough, does not tap but drifts about, light as thistledown, with gracefully flowing and weaving draperies. There are two genuine crooners, at whom Lieutenant Jerry Weymouth gazes with slightly cock-eyed admiration, and who assail the ear with those moans, groans and boop-a-doops peculiar to these sub-humans. And there is a gang of young men, indubitably afflicted by Allah, who, on the call by any one of them of “Let’s all go mad!” shuffle together in the middle of the room and do a Zulu dance to the accompaniment of much whooping. But they are more or less background; they are chorus to our principals.

Not a very nice party? Not altogether the sort of people you are accustomed to meet? Perhaps; but you must remember that it takes all sorts to make a world, and that the chronicler must take and picture the world as he finds it. He cannot pick and choose. He must not gloss over vices, soften faults. Else the subsequent action of his characters will be incomprehensible, and his tale artificial and more than a little smug. Besides, you are under my aegis, and a journalist and a detective can go anywhere without losing caste. And there is Dagma. If she can go to this party, we can.

These people are, possibly, of the Smart Set; but I shouldn’t call them Bright Young Things. The B.Y.T. are a gang of crazy children who should be up-ended and soundly spanked by their long-suffering but apparently feeble-minded parents. But these people are supremely natural in that they give rein to their inhibitions. They don’t really try to be smart, try to be clever, try to be funny; they simply treat life as a game and play it to rules of their own devising. They have shaken off certain of the conventions and shibboleths that bind the vast majority of us, and have replaced them with conventions and shibboleths of their own. You may make love to your neighbour’s wife. Married or single, she is a woman, therefore to be won. You may get as drunk as you please; that is a matter of your own dignity, health and well-being—and sense of humour. But you may not cheat at cards; for that is a matter of impersonal honour—a code. As I say, these people have cast out certain conventions. But some conventions, like the birds of the air, come home to roost. . .


From now on this chronicle will be presented to you in the past tense. That is one of the advantages of writing a novel; you have a sort of fourth dimension in which you may roam; you can take old Father Time by the forelock and lead him at your pleasure. In real life one is dragged at his heels as on an invisible leash from which there is no slipping the collar. There are, of course, a whole lot of disadvantages in writing a novel—there is the devil of a lot of work and dashed little money, but that is by the way.

So, having become acquainted with our cast of characters, with the exception of a few gentlemen from Scotland Yard, we shall leap ahead to where we can review the events of the evening in retrospect. Once in the past they can be sifted, and those of significance can be presented steadily, deliberately, as figures in a definite pattern. It is, however, possible that you may not realise the significance until you have the complete pattern...


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