“So you see, dear, I'd be most grateful if you could possibly see your way clear to coming to Duke's Denver to help me organise our spring fair. It's normally my daughter-in-law who does it, but this year she is reluctant to, after all that dreadful publicity. I think she's being very silly, myself – the more you hide away, the longer it will take for people to get back to normal when they see you, and after all, dear Gerald was quite innocent, except for the affair.... ” The Dowager Duchess paused for breath.
“Oh, I should be delighted to come!” replied Miss Climpson, trying not to show how relieved she was that the invitation had been issued and she no longer need worry about where she was to sleep. For a few weeks, at any rate, she would have a roof over her head, and meals provided.
She had not been born in poverty. Her father had been a Church of England clergyman, much influenced by the Tractarians who had been publishing their work and formulating their theories while he had been up at Oxford. Alexandra Katherine, known as Katherine or Kitty, had been the youngest of eight children, four boys and four girls. Canon Climpson had also had a private income, and the family had lived well.
The boys all went to prep school when they were eight, and then on to a minor public school which, although they didn't know this, gave a substantial discount to the sons of clergy. Canon Climpson, however, disapproved of education for his daughters, and provided they could read and write, and their governess kept them out of the way and in the schoolroom, he was content. Kitty, who was at least as intelligent as her father, would have liked more schooling, but knew it was useless to cajole her father, who reacted with increasing stubbornness. However, a sympathetic governess helped guide her reading, and she managed to educate herself to a reasonable standard. And learnt, too, to hide it from her father and brothers, and other men of her acquaintance, as her father, in particular, “disliked a clever woman”.
As the years went by, it became clear that Kitty, as the youngest daughter, would be expected not to marry, but to stay at home and look after her parents as they aged. So when she left the schoolroom, she began to do parish work in her father's parish. She had no formal training, but taught herself how to listen to people, how to notice what they were not saying, as well as what they were. She also learnt – slowly and painfully, and not without some embarrassing mistakes – to notice other things; to know that if Mrs X was not in church, it was probably because her husband had come home drunk again and slapped her around, whereupon a tactful visit next day might be appreciated, but if Mrs Y was absent, it was probably because she herself had been in the pub all night. And Mrs Z never missed unless one of her children was ill, again, requiring a visit on Monday morning.
She learnt, too, how to make endless small talk, talking a lot but actually saying very little. People liked her, she knew, and she was not unhappy. At times she wished she had more to look forward to, but then she looked around at the conditions in which many of the parishioners had to live, and knew herself fortunate.
She and her mother got on very well, and she genuinely mourned her when she died. Her father, whom she had never liked much, became increasingly eccentric and difficult as he grew older, and Kitty found it impossible to please him. When he died, she felt as much relieved as anything, but then discovered that he had left all he possessed to his sons, and she was left destitute.
The family rallied round, and she was able to make her home with one or another of her siblings for some years. She knew herself to be a “poor relation”, but was grateful to have a roof over her head, which she tried to repay by looking after the children, and doing any odd jobs she could find. Stanley, her third brother, was a businessman, and invested in a typewriting machine, which she learnt to operate and became proficient at the art.
A reprieve from being the family slavey came in 1915, as it became apparent that the war would not be, as first thought, “all over by Christmas”. The older nephews had instantly volunteered, and the older nieces went off to train as nurses, ambulance-drivers and so on. In early 1915, Kitty went off to train as a VAD.
It didn't take her long to discover that this was no work for her. She disliked sick-nursing, and, although she tried her hardest, it was not a success. She was, however, an able administrator, and soon found her niche working in that role, doing much of the routine work that nobody else cared to do, and her hospital soon found her indispensable.
But in 1919, six months after the Armistice, the hospital was closed, and Kitty found herself alone in the world. She had lost touch with her siblings during the past few years, and found herself reluctant to get back into touch. The nieces and nephews were all grown up now, and many of the latter had not survived the War.
There was always the typewriter. Kitty gathered her courage, and signed up with a London typing bureau, to earn her living as best she could. This proved less easy than she had hoped, as typing jobs were scarce, and became scarcer, and over the next few years home became a series of increasingly dreary boarding-houses, the bedrooms cheaper and cheaper, the food more and more unpalatable. Her one comfort was her faith. She found a church where the Roman rite, with which she was most comfortable, was used, and she became a valued member of the congregation at St Edfrith's, Holborn.
She found she was able to supplement her income by doing a series of odd jobs for the wealthier members, helping with their accounts, for instance, and in some cases doing their shopping. And they, in turn, referred her to their friends who needed a “little woman” to do small jobs for them, and thus, eventually, she came to the notice of the Dowager Duchess of Denver, just as the typing agency, which had been struggling for some time, finally closed its doors.
She assumed, at first, that her role would be to do all the work while the Dowager Duchess took all the credit and people said things like, “How wonderful Honoria is. I don't know how she does it, at her age!” However, in this she was to find that she had totally misjudged the Dowager, who not only worked extremely hard to ensure the Fair was a success, but also made sure Miss Climpson received due credit for the work she had done. The discursive, slightly vague manner hid, she was to find, an extremely sharp mind, which also saw through Kitty's own discursive screen. Like called to like, and the two women got on extremely well.
Kitty particularly liked the way the Dowager noticed, and dealt with, any minor discomforts any of her staff might feel. When she realised that Kitty was High Church, she immediately organised a car each Sunday to take her to worship at Duke's Peveral, where the service was far more to her taste than that provided at Duke's Denver.
The family began to gather at Duke's Denver on the Saturday before Palm Sunday. Lady Mary Wimsey and her brother, Lord Peter, came to stay at the Dower House, although Bredon Hall itself remained ominously empty apart from Mr Matthew Wimsey, the librarian, who lived there all year round but was seldom seen, preferring to take his meals alone and to immerse himself in the library between them. On Monday in Holy Week, just one week before the Fair, a telegram arrived at the Dower House saying that the ducal family were spending Easter abroad this year.
“Cowards!” said Lord Peter, amused. “But oh curses, I suppose that I shall have to open proceedings and make a splash at the jolly old coconut shies and so on!”
“Yes, you will,” said his mother. “But cheer up, Miss Climpson has organised swing boats for us!”
“Oh, dans mes bras, dans mes bras!” exclaimed Lord Peter. “I do love a good swing boat, and we haven't had them for many years. Even Bunter couldn't find any last year that he could persuade to come to the fair! However did you do it?”
“Oh, I remembered the fun fair from my childhood, and their winter quarters are in Norwich, so it was easy to get some of the rides to come here. Not all are coming, of course, but a great many are. I expect you will be able to book them for next year, too, Lord Peter.”
Easter Monday duly came, and with it, the Fair. It was a big success, attracting visitors for miles around, and Kitty was run off her feet all day running errands here and there. By the time it finished, at 6:00, the Dowager Duchess was obviously exhausted, and retired to bed with her supper on a tray. Kitty, also exhausted, would have liked to have followed her example, but felt it her duty to supervise every last bit of clearing up, so that the following morning no trace of the Fair would be left.
That night, although she was very tired, Kitty couldn't sleep. Her employment here would be coming to an end the following day, and although she had spent next to no money during the past couple of months, she still had very little, and would need to find work within weeks, preferably within days. She wondered whether the employment bureau she had occasionally patronised over the past year would be able to find her something more permanent, perhaps in another typing bureau. And could she afford to place an advertisement in the paper? The last time she had done that, she had received several spurious responses, and no prospects of sensible employment.
Heavy-eyed, and rather heavy-hearted, she came down to breakfast the next morning. Lord Peter Wimsey was the only other person in the dining-room, making his usual hearty meal. “I say,” he said, suddenly, “You look a bit like the morning after the night before! Are you sure you're quite fit?”
“Yes, thank you, Lord Peter,” she replied. “I am a little tired, but you would expect that. Would it be possible for someone to drive me to the station to catch the 11:50 to Liverpool Street, do you think?”
“But wherefore away so soon?” asked his Lordship. “I am sure my Mama would be most distressed if you were to leave without saying goodbye. And, anyway, I wanted to talk to you. I've been looking for you, or someone like you, for the past several months.”
All trace of the silly-ass-about-town, that Kitty had realised was as carefully cultivated as his mother's discursiveness, dropped away as he explained that he wanted to recruit women like Kitty, single and, ideally, middle-aged. “There are so many places I can't go, and people I can't talk to that you can,” he explained. “Even Bunter can't pass himself off as a vulnerable woman when it comes to answering those ads wanting to separate them from their money, or to use them for unspeakable purposes. Besides which, people won't gossip to me, and only some people can and will gossip to Bunter, whereas a woman like you, who appears harmless but really isn't....”
Kitty laughed. “Really Lord Peter, you flatter me. But yes, I see what you want, and I'm fairly sure I can be that kind of person. Now you must tell me how you want me to start.”
It was soon arranged. She was to find a flat, in an area of her choosing, and use it as a base from which to live and work, and, as the business expanded, take a suite of offices and start a typing bureau as a “front” for the real work. The typing bureau could, and should, break even, and Lord Peter would finance the rest, on condition that he had first call on their services.
And so it began. The flat was found, and furnished to her taste, and, with her salary she was able to acquire the kind of knick-knacks and ornaments she loved, and to dress as she preferred, too. Lord Peter was apt to lavish presents on her, until she complained of his extravagance. And after the first few, small, jobs she was able to do for him came the Agatha Dawson case and after that, although she was quite badly injured during the dénouement, her self-confidence grew in leaps and bounds. It was not long after that that she employed her first assistant, and within the year, the typing bureau was set up and other women also joined the company. Kitty had, at long last, found her niche.