"I say! Excuse me, Miss - Scott, isn't it? May I have a word?"
She turned on the threshold of the Council Chamber and courteously waited for the silver-haired gentleman to catch up with her.
Jan recalled some vague notion that one was not supposed to offer one's hand to a Duke; it was for him to decide if you qualified for his notice -- or did chivalry overrule that principle, if you were female? And, when it came down to it, was it better to be snubbed on the grounds of caste or condescended to on the basis of gender, or was it all equally futile in the end? Her hands, in any case, were loaded with files, which rendered the question moot.
"Your grace?" she enquired. The natural stooping of old age -- he leant heavily on an ebony cane with a chased silver top -- and the modest Cuban heels of her formal shoes gave her an inch or so's height advantage. Looking down on the aristocracy she thought, with a bubble of inappropriate hilarity.
"Miss Scott, I wondered if you -- assuming it isn't a frightful imposition, and all that -- well, that was a long, dry hearing and it must have been far worse for you, having to be on your hind legs for most of it -- I wonder if you might do me the honour of taking a spot of lunch with me?"
His vowels and the clipped ends of his participles sounded terrifically archaic -- listed for special historic interest indeed, as if his was the Platonic ideal voice to which BBC Third Programme announcers only dimly aspired --
Then her brain caught up with the sense of what he was saying and her thoughts shattered into fragments.
Mercifully she heard her own voice, cool and steady and with just the right note of regret. "Your grace -- I appreciate the offer, but if it's about the application -- as you're represented, I have to go through Murbles & Co. Professionally, I'm not allowed to negotiate directly with you. If you'd like me to arrange an all-parties meeting, I can --"
He shook his head. "No, Miss Scott. I've just told young Jackman to withdraw our objection. He'll be confirming it in writing in the morning, but after hearing your very able submissions the Denver Estate is dropping its objections to your client's application. To tell you the truth, I doubt I'd have instructed them to oppose if I'd been in the country. But I suppose it was rather a hard decision for Bredon. Terrible position, being a deputy when the principal's abroad. Always safer to take the hard line and say 'no', I expect."
"Like Angelo," Jan said, recalling her eldest nephew's college attempt at Measure for Measure, recently endured. Association of ideas, no doubt, though the Duke in that ill-starred production had lacked personality almost to the point of invisibility.
The Duke of Denver grinned."Dashed unsporting of the old boy, don't you think? Having made all that palaver about leaving Angelo to run things how he saw fit, then sneaking around disguised as a Friar, exuding disapproval from every pore. Between him and Gloucester -- to say nothing of old Orsino moping about the place -- do you think, somehow, the Swan of Avon had a bit of a down on Dukes? Awfully humiliating, that thought, but still -- one doesn't like to fly in the teeth of the evidence."
"Prospero, too," Jan said, wondering how this conversation had arrived where it had, so quickly and without any warning. It was, of course, the first day of the month, and perhaps if one forgot to say "White rabbits" it doomed one to encounter them. White rabbits posing as octogenarian dukes, and trying to whisk one off to lunch in their very particular wonderland.
"Prospero, Duke of Milan indeed. But this rough magic, I here abjure --"
"--and when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book."
Her voice had deepened of its own will: words learned so long ago flowing out as if indeed bidden by some airy spirit.
"Yes; he was another, wasn't he? Anyhow, if we're going to discuss Shakespeare, we might as well do it over a chop or so and a bottle of something decent."
"But are we going to discuss Shakespeare? Your grace, I don't mean to be rude --"
"-- but you'd rather like to know what I mean accosting you this way? Quite right. Fact is, I'm a devil for getting away from the point and these days there's no-one to drag me back onto it."
Jan, who infinitely preferred solitude for herself, had found it left her with a keen perception of loneliness in others. Vague recollections of a Times obituary of eighteen months ago swam up. "Well, for what it's worth, my worst enemy wouldn't accuse me of that. Too blunt, if anything."
She saw a flicker of recollection in the Duke's grey eyes, followed instantly by a stab of such unmistakeable pain it was almost as if she were seeing him naked. Rather hurriedly, she added,"So. To the point. Why lunch? Why me?"
"Ah, yes. It occurs to me that this is one of those subjects that you start out, all well-meaning, and then find it turns out to be rather awkward to broach once one comes to the sticking point. Miss Scott, I came across an old acquaintance a few weeks ago -- a Miss Rossiter, I doubt you'd have heard of her -- anyway, something she told me then set off a train of thought, and I'm afraid I'm one of those annoying, restless sort of people who can't let a dangling end lie peacefully, but has to keep tugging away on it. And, if time and trouble haven't taught me different by now, well, I rather think that means I'm past praying for. Anyway, the long and the short of it, Miss Scott, is that I believe I may have known your mother."
"Oh." Of all the possibilities, that had been so deep buried, it had never even flickered across the surface of her mind. "I -- see."
That seemed easier than saying "Which?" or, worse, "Who?"
The Duke of Denver continued to look steadily at her, as if he knew it.
Jan swallowed. "That is -- it's complicated."
"Quite. Look, please may I offer you that lunch? The George isn't far away."
"Not there," she said automatically. The local public health department had -- after something rather close to a miracle worked by her junior partner -- been persuaded not to bring charges against the George Hotel, but no-one from Hallard Scott Davies would be dining within its fusty, aristocratic, unhygienic precincts for the foreseeable future, either. Unprofessional to say why, naturally. Fortunately, the Duke merely eyed her for a moment and then said, "My car's outside. I'll be guided by you. Lead on, Miss Scott."
They ended, once she had dropped her files off at the office and told her secretary to block out her diary for the rest of the afternoon, in the little bistro down by the grain quays. Most likely she'd have gone there in any event. It was her usual resort after hearings, successful or otherwise: comforting and familiar as a hot bath and tolerantly protective towards a woman dining alone.
Andre came out from the kitchen flapping a towel.
"Miss Scott! How delightful to see you once more. And how fortunate - we have salt-marsh lamb, and also some scallops -- delivered from the boat not two hours ago -- " His glance slid off her and to the Duke, then back to her. "And this will be your father, yes?"
There was a note of doubt in his voice; the contrast between her severely professional black suit and the Duke's equally formal but obviously Savile Row outfit must be all too apparent. And yet --
I knew your mother -- it's complicated.
How true was truth, after all, when the years had buried memory and surmise together?
"Regrettably, I have not that high honour," the Duke said, his quick, side-long smile turning what might have been a snub into something at once sincere and flattering. "A friend of the family, only. But the lady has had a hard fight in the lists of the Planning Committee, and is much in need of refreshment. May we see your wine list?"
She experienced a moment of sheer terror; surely nothing in the bistro's cellars would meet the exacting standards of a Duke of Denver? But Andre merely said, "My pleasure, m'sieu" and bent his dark head next to the silver one in an intense, expert, masculine conference.
"Pouilly-Fume to begin, Miss Scott," the Duke observed presently, "And the Nuits-St-George '28 with the lamb. That will be delightful."
When the Pouilly-Fume had been poured, and Andre had gone, the Duke raised his glass. "To your mother, Miss Scott. A lady of formidable wit, and a quite devastating way with a limerick."
That settled the last echoes of doubt. Whatever might have been said of the late Elaine Christine Latymer Scott, no-one had ever accused her of wit in her life. She would no doubt have considered it ill-bred of anyone to try. Jan raised her own glass.
"To Aunt Vivian," she said.
The Duke raised his eyebrows. "A trifle papal, that, what?"
Jan made a face. "Not really. In the case of the popes, surely, it was just a convention. A figleaf, really. Everyone knew."
She looked down at her left hand where it lay on the white linen of the tablecloth, bare of rings. Square-tipped, short-nailed fingers, naked of any hint of varnish; an even tan, fruit of hours in the open air; well-developed calluses, shaped by the grip of tennis racquet or dinghy lines. It had not occurred to her, before, to notice how like another woman's her hand had become.
"I don't do family law; that's Duncan's area. But illegitimacy is still a huge great mess, even now, and the woman always ends up paying. I cannot imagine what it must have been like before the War. And Aunt Vivian never said anything. Not to me."
"But you, having inherited all your mother's brains, worked it out?"
She made an impatient gesture, and almost knocked over the Duke's water glass. He, heroically, refrained from comment. "Not like that. Not like following clues and putting them all together and listing them in little columns - Things to Be Noted and Things to Be Done, and at the end going, 'Aha! Aunt Vivian was my real mother and my father was really my father!' like Hercule Poirot or Robert Templeton in the library scene at the end."
The Duke's lips twitched. "A detective story must have its structure, just like a five-act tragedy. I agree, though; real life is much messier. Shall we say, you got an inkling?"
She shrugged. "At first, I was brought up by this eccentric woman -- Mrs Macartney -- in a big old house in Oxfordshire. It was one of those amateurish private fostering arrangements you could get away with before the War. There were usually three or four of us there at any one time; the others came and went, but I stayed. Oh, it wasn't Dickensian or anything; there were plenty of books, and the food was good, and we had tree houses and bedtime stories and cricket on the lawn and fell in the stream and kept rabbits who escaped or died and all that sort of thing. Pretty idyllic, all things considered."
"It sounds as if it could have been," the Duke agreed. "And for at least some of the rabbits, too."
"I had this vague idea that my parents had been killed in a car crash; I'm not sure if I'd been told that or whether I'd made it up from things I'd read. But Aunt Vivian was always there; she used to come and take me out to tea, or to the theatre, or for treats on my birthday. Seaside holidays, a couple of times. She said she'd been a friend of my mother's, at Oxford, and that she'd like to adopt me when I was older."
"And how did your inkling develop?"
"Kipling, of all odd things." She smiled, slightly. "Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies were my favourites, until I discovered Stalky and then Kim. Of course, when I found Debits and Credits on the shelf I thought it was going to be the same sort of thing. And when I discovered it wasn't -- well, I was one of those irritating children who would never admit a book was too grown up for me. So I carried on reading and I suppose got something out of about half the stories and the others went right over my head."
"And then, I take it, you came across The Gardener?"
She nodded. "I don't know how to explain it -- but though I didn't understand it, fully, I knew Michael was me. And Helen was Aunt Vivian. And I was going to ask her, next time she came, but --"
She shrugged. The Duke topped up her glass.
"The Blitz intervened?"
Jan found herself unable to speak for a moment. She nodded.
"Ah! And so then I take it your father decided to step in?"
"Yes - though of course I didn't know he was my actual father at the time. But he arrived at Mrs Macartney's one day, and the next thing I knew, I was going to live with him and -- with his family. They adopted me formally after a year or so. It looked a lot less odd back then; plenty of children were being taken in by families with pretty tenuous connections to them -- evacuees, and so on. And anyway, it was clear Mrs Macartney was pretty much losing her grip and I couldn't have stayed there, even if there had been the funds -- Aunt Vivian had been paying for everything out of her salary -- she worked in an advertising agency --"
"That I do know. You see before you a former junior copywriter in Pym's Publicity. Which was, of course, where I met your mother."
"You?" She could hardly keep the disbelief out of her voice. He grinned.
"A minor excursion into paid employment in an otherwise unblemished career of unearned ease and luxury. I was chasing a murderer at the time. A horrible little blackmailing wart had been tipped down a spiral staircase, and I was faced with the unattractive prospect of sending his murderer to the gallows. Someone who was bound to be one of a group of perfectly decent people who'd been pushed beyond endurance by the little tick's demands."
Jan caught her breath. Surely this could not be so cruel a message, after all these years.
She found her hand being covered by the Duke's chalky, parchment-dry one. "Forgive me. I didn't mean to mislead. The murderer turned out to a chap called Tallboys, who'd got himself in over his head with some thoroughly unpleasant people. He confessed everything." His lips quirked up. "Mind you, if it had been Miss Meteyard who'd have done it, I doubt I'd have been able to prove it. She was a step ahead of me throughout the whole thing. I lost any doubts about your parentage the moment you started doing your Portia bit. Though you don't look much like her; different colouring, for one thing, and much more delicate bones."
"I get those from my father," Jan said drily. "The resemblance became a great deal more pronounced as I grew older. I suspect Mother -- Elaine -- thought I was doing it to spite her."
"Ah! It's a wise child who knows it's own father -- and a wiser one who doesn't draw attention to the fact. I daresay that would have been about the size of it, what? But, if you'll forgive my mentioning it, you don't seem to have made such a bad fist of things, all things considered?"
Her ears caught an upwards, questioning note in his voice, as if he had reached the real heart of the matter, and everything which had gone before mere persiflage and window-dressing. No doubt he had someone to answer to -- this Miss Rossiter, perhaps? And, after all, she should ask the Duke for the woman's address. Everyone who could really be upset by her existence was dead, now, and it would be nice to talk to someone who had known her mother, and not have to pretend.
She paused before replying, looking back. Not such a bad fist, indeed. A solid, unquestioned professional life, full of interest and the odd touch of excitement, if one's tastes ran to finding planning exciting. A house -- small, detached, perfectly proportioned, with a back garden running down to the river bank, and a landing stage. A double-handful of nieces and nephews, in the unlikely event one fancied borrowing domestic upheaval for a few days, by way of a break in routine. Well-spaced, comfortable holidays, in Brittany or the Italian Lakes. And, of course, half-a-dozen times a year (more often when younger, fewer these days) those discreet trips to London, camouflaged with shopping and dentistry; visits to that other life, the one she kept locked on the far side of the looking-glass, but which informed all the rest with its depth and counterpoise.
She wouldn't mention that part to the Duke, of course. But she would mention her lunch with the Duke to Miranda, when they met again. It would amuse her, and she owed that to her Ariel.