The Song of the Butcher Bird | 6 Grosvenor Square, London
The London House
It would have taken half the time to drive straight to the family’s country estate from Oxford, but early in the afternoon of his last interview with the Master of The Collage, William Saltwood motored in the opposite direction up to London.
With the encouragement of a final backhander, the head porter arranged for a carrier to transport the contents of William’s rooms to Chiddington, and he despatched a college servant to retrieve the keys to the two-seater Panhard Levassor that Polly Brockenden had left at the inn where they had met for dinner the night before.
Brockenden had left Oxford in the morning with his cousin George and a disreputable friend in George’s motor to shoot the few remaining pheasants the poachers had been kind enough to leave him on his own estate in Norfolk. George and the friend would do the shooting. Polly Brockenden was a traitor to his class in many ways, none worse that in his views on blood sports. He had left his Panhard for William to drive to Chiddington for the weekend, and then to return to London the following week. It was not unusual for Polly Brockenden to abandon his motorcar wherever he felt disinclined to drive it, or when a turn in the weather made open air travel uncomfortable, but in this instance it was a deliberate arrangement that suited both parties. The only drawback from William’s point of view was that he was required to leave Oxford a day earlier than he had expected, and after giving it some thought he decided that a tactical diversion to London seemed a better option than heading straight into the lion’s den at the Park. He knew that his parents would almost certainly leave London after lunch on a Thursday when there was an important weekend house party planned at the Park, and a night on his own in Grosvenor Square might help him prepare to face his father the following day.
Sugden, the Saltwood’s London butler, greeted William’s unplanned arrival at the house in Grosvenor Square with absolutely no sign of surprise, and confirmed that Lord and Lady Saltwood had indeed left town for the Park shortly after luncheon, which was a relief to their younger son. From past experience William knew that Lord Saltwood would be made aware of the latest fracas as soon as he reached the Park, and a growing realisation of just how dimly his father was going to regard this new development had taken a lot of the shine off the pleasure of driving the Panhard up to town. But an overnight stay in London would give his father twenty-four hours to cool off, and might give his mother a chance to intercede on his behalf as she had done so often in the past. He would have to take his medicine, he told himself as he swung off Park Lane and roared down Upper Brook Street into the square, and then lie low until the storm had blown over.
What he would do in the longer term was another matter. There was the hunting season to take him through the winter, but after that? The only thing he thought he could be certain of was that Lord Saltwood would not make him take a position in any of his numerous businesses. His father had made it plain that he did not want his younger son anywhere near his business interests until he could prove that he had at least the barest understanding of the meaning of the word Responsibility.
William spent the last of the afternoon on the telephone in the library as the shadows spread across the gardens in the centre of the square, trying unsuccessfully to find any of his cronies in London free to spend the evening with him. The Honourable Thomas Ashbury and Freddie de Vallain were otherwise engaged, and Bingleigh had been bundled out of the country on a chaperoned Grand Tour of Europe after their last escapade together. Two of the three other names in his notebook he might have called were still up at Oxford, and the third was in self-imposed seclusion at Cambridge, making a seriously boring effort to win the bow seat in the university rowing eight. William tossed his pocketbook onto a side-table and reconciled himself to an evening alone. He did not feel like venturing out on his own, so at six o’clock he asked Sugden to tell the cook that he would be dining at home, and as an afterthought he asked the butler to see if he could arrange for Brockenden’s motor to be refuelled before he left the following morning.
“Something simple, Sugden,” he called as the butler withdrew through the library door, “in here, if you wouldn’t mind.” The door froze for a fraction of a second as the butler registered the last part of William’s request, and then closed without a sound. With no-one other than the servants in residence, William decided he could eat where he liked and he wouldn’t bother to dress for dinner, no matter what Sugden might think of this multiple breach of etiquette.
He passed the time before dinner sprawled in one of the vast leather armchairs next to the library fire, with his feet on the upholstered fender, reading the afternoon edition of the newspaper that one of the footmen had been sent out to buy for him. He skipped the news pages and read every word of a glowing eulogy by the paper’s sporting correspondent to the glories of Great Britain’s achievements in the summer’s Olympic Games. It was a fanfare of jingoistic self-congratulation that William read with a series of melodramatic groans. The London Olympics had been an overwhelming triumph for an island race that ruled the world militarily, industrially and now athletically, wrote the correspondent. No other nation could have engineered the miraculous White City Stadium into existence at such short notice. No other nation could have organised the games and made a profit out of them. No other nation had come close to winning even half of Great Britain’s gold medal haul. Rule Britannia, crowed the correspondent.
And there was more to come. The Games would resume in just three weeks time, the report concluded complacently, no doubt adding considerably to Britain’s overwhelming gold medal superiority. We should undoubtedly triumph in the football, in both codes, and we had a laughable advantage in the boxing arena. Why, he asked in mock bewilderment, had so few other nations put forth their pugilists to stand against Great Britain? Could it be that their courage failed them in the face of our giant fighting policeman, Constable Oldman? There was a lot more in the same vein, as heavyhanded as the heavyweight favourite, and William groaned aloud. “Silly little man,” he said to the newspaper. “You try fighting Albert Oldman, you pasty blowhard.” He glanced up at the sombre portrait of the first Lord Saltwood staring out belligerently across the library from the silk-covered chimney breast. “What would you give him, Grandpapa? Ten seconds?”
He trawled half-heartedly through the society columns of the paper for references to his friends and acquaintances, and a small story on the third page caught his attention briefly. He recognised the name of the Australian who would be a guest at Chiddington that weekend. Apparently the man was offering to employ London horse bus drivers on his cattle stations in Australia. William knew that his mother had inherited a large property in Australia two years earlier on the death of her uncle, Lord Teppermoor, along with twenty-eight thousand heavily mortgaged acres of midge-infested Scottish heather and the run-down Grosvenor Square house complete with its old-fashioned staff. He imagined that this must be at least one of the reasons why his father had invited the Kidmans to Chiddington. There would, inevitably, be a business angle in this somewhere as far as Lord Saltwood was concerned. Lord Saltwood did not entertain at Chiddington simply for amusement.
From the fireside comfort of his armchair in the heart of fashionable London, the notion of Australia was as remote and ephemeral to William as the dark side of the moon. “Why bus drivers?” he murmured to his grandfather’s portrait as he scanned the next page. “How bizarre. Why do they call them stations? Even more bizarre.” Surely they were not all connected by the railway, although that might account for his father’s interest in Mr Sidney Kidman. His gaze moved idly down the crowded newsprint, and snagged briefly on a report of yet another murder of yet another prostitute in Whitechapel. There were the usual allusions to the ghost of the Ripper, but to William the main interest in her fate was that she had been strangled to death in the alley next to a public house that he and Tom Ashbury had visited to win a bet, one hot, sultry evening in July.
Sugden served dinner on a small table set close to the library fire, his disapproval under rigid control despite the casually inconsiderate demands being made on the staff. On Lord and Lady Saltwood’s departure they had been expecting a long weekend of light duties, but now they must run around after young Saltwood instead.
The butler’s face registered nothing but smooth aloofness, but if Master Saltwood had tried this little charade in Lord Teppermoor’s day, he told himself as he spooned parsley sauce onto a beautifully cooked piece of halibut that he had been looking forward to eating himself, his feet wouldn’t have touched any of the six marble steps on his way from the front door to the pavement. And good riddance to the little pillock and his grasping, stone-faced father, thought the butler. What the hell was the world coming to? To be fair, although Lord Teppermoor may have despised Lord Saltwood he had actually found his rake-hell great-nephew more of a chip off his own block. But this was taking unforgivable liberties. He wished young Saltwood had asked for soup. He would have taken a leaf out of his old lordship’s book and told the cook to lace it with a dash of her thunderously explosive homemade laxative.
“Can I bring you anything else, sir?” said Sugden.
William gave it a moment’s thought, glanced at his plate and the bottle of white burgundy wrapped in a napkin within easy reach, and shook his head as he resumed reading the paper. “No thank you, Sugden. I’ll ring when I’ve finished.”
The following day William notified Sugden that on second thoughts he would refuel the Panhard on the way to Chiddington himself, and if Brockenden telephoned to ask where it was, he could be told that William would be back in London on the following Tuesday. In the absence of both the Saltwood chauffeurs, the second footman had spent nearly two hours the previous evening arranging for the nearest garage to come and fill the Panhard with petroleum and oil, but the butler digested this with exactly the same absence of expression he would display when accepting a five pound tip.
He supervised William’s departure, standing by the open front door as the young man adjusted his tweed cap and goggles, his long driving dustcoat and his leather gauntlets.
“I hope you have a pleasant journey, sir.” Like all good butlers and sergeant majors, he could pronounce the word ‘sir’ in many different ways, the variation so subtle that all but the most discerning employers remained completely unaware of the distinctions. This morning, his timing and intonation stripped the word completely of any possible hint of deference or respect.
To the footman standing in the hallway waiting to close the front door it was an insult as clear as a guttersnipe’s catcall, and one corner of his mouth twitched. William was thinking about what he was going to say to his father and passed through the doorway into the sunshine unaware of Sugden’s opinion of him.
Even as the door closed, the butler’s face remained rigidly impassive. Never, ever let them see what you think, John. Ever. His own uncle Alfred, old Teppermoor’s previous butler, used to hammer the golden rule of service into the young Sugden when he had been first footman and then under-butler twenty years ago, tapping his forefinger on his nephew’s starched shirtfront to drum home every word.