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There comes a moment in every child’s life that marks definitively their transition to adulthood. That time had not yet come for Pamela Mitford, shivering and peevish on the steps of a narrow house in Mayfair. The night was crisp and cold but it was an attack of nerves that was making her tremble. Beside her was Louisa Cannon, all too aware that fair-haired Pamela was bait for the lions’ den within.
‘Tell Koko to come and fetch me,’ Pam said, her back to the door. ‘I don’t want you taking me in. It makes me look like a baby.’
‘I have to. I promised your mother I would chaperone. And besides, nobody here knows I’m your nursery maid,’ replied Louisa, not for the first time. The journey from Asthall Manor in Oxfordshire to London had been a long one, in spite of the familiar train route and a taxi that had appeared at Paddington Station almost the instant they stepped out.
‘Please. Go and fetch Koko.’
Koko meant Nancy, the eldest of the six Mitford sisters and their one brother. Louisa had worked for the family for five years and could tick off the codenames they used for each other like a French vocab test. Reluctantly, she rang the bell, and the door was opened alarmingly quickly by a girl who looked to be almost the mirror of Louisa: of similar height, with the same pale brown hair, though hers was pinned up beneath a mob cap, and a dress that also looked as if it were well made but well worn, most likely a hand-me-down, as Louisa’s was from Nancy. Her clean face looked tired but the freckles on her small nose livened her, somehow. She noticed Pamela’s back turned to her and the two maids exchanged a look that acknowledged the boat they both were in.
‘Good evening,’ said Louisa. ‘Could you tell me if Miss Nancy Mitford is there, please?’
The maid looked as if she might start laughing. ‘I’d better ask who’s asking,’ she said in an accent that Louisa recognised as coming from south of the river.
‘It’s her sister, Miss Pamela,’ said Louisa. ‘Only, she doesn’t want to come in with me and I’m not to let her in alone. May I come in and talk to Miss Nancy?’
She gave a nod and held the door open. ‘Follow me.’
Along the hall, the girl pointed to a door then disappeared through another. Louisa thought it was odd she hadn’t been shown in formally but soon understood why. In a dimly lit sitting room, two large, shabby armchairs faced a fire that crackled and spat. From each, a long thin arm stretched towards the other. The first, a woman’s, was clad in a black silk glove to above the elbow; the second was a man’s, whose wrist was covered by a stiff white cuff and the sleeve of a dinner jacket, his hand naked bar a heavy gold signet ring. The two were playfully entwining their fingers as if in a sort of Punch and Judy show, the male hand thrusting and parrying, the female lightly poking and withdrawing, allowing itself to be easily caught again.
Louisa had been watching this a beat too long when the head belonging to the gloved hand peered around the side of the chair’s wing. The shock prompted by Nancy’s bobbed hair had subsided for Louisa some time ago and now she rather admired it. The face was not conventionally pretty but it had its charms, with what moving-picture critics would call ‘rosebud lips’ painted dark red, a pert nose and big round eyes that were half-closed now, focusing on their erstwhile nursery maid. Louisa registered a typical mix of fondness and exasperation.
‘Beg pardon, Miss Nancy,’ said Louisa. ‘I’ve come to let you know that Miss Pamela is here.’
At this, the man looked out. His face was all angles and planes, and his hair had been combed so flat and smooth it looked like a sheet of gold beaten onto the skull. Sebastian Atlas. He had been down to Asthall Manor with Nancy a few times, in spite of the fact that Lord Redesdale went puce at the sight of him, much to his daughter’s delight and his wife Lady Redesdale’s displeasure, though hers was indicated at a lower register. If Lord Redesdale hath fire and fury, Lady Redesdale hath ice and ire.
‘Well, why doesn’t she come in, then?’ drawled Sebastian, flicking Nancy’s fingers away and sinking back into the chair. His other hand reached out and picked up a tumbler of whisky.
Nancy gave a dramatic sigh and stood up. She shook out her dress of crumpled silk, weighted at the hem with hundreds of tiny beads in a black and white zigzag pattern. It was her most, perhaps only, fashionable dress and worn with a frequency that drove Nanny Blor to distraction.
‘I’m sorry, Miss Nancy,’ said Louisa, quickly deciding not to drop the prefix, though that had been their habit not so long ago. ‘But Miss Pamela doesn’t want me to come up. She thinks it looks childish to have a nursery maid with her.’
Something of Nancy’s old look came back then and she gave Louisa a half-smile. ‘What a dunce,’ she said. ‘Chaperones are almost fashionable again, but she wouldn’t know that.’
* * *
It was Nancy who had proposed to their parents that Pamela come to London, join her for a party or two and make herself known a little, so that they could invite some of them for Pam’s birthday dance the next month.
‘Otherwise,’ Nancy had spelled out, ‘you’re asking them to come to a stranger’s party in the sticks and they’ll think it’s because we’re desperate. It’s not like it used to be. It’s 1925, Farve.’
‘I don’t see what difference the year makes,’ her father had replied tersely.
‘All the difference. You’ve got to be in the right crowd. You can’t show up for any old thing.’ Which wasn’t, Nancy told Louisa in confidence, exactly accurate. There was nothing ‘the crowd’ liked more than turning up for any old thing and every old thing, where free-flowing wine and the promise of hot dance was on offer. They knew that they were the beating heart of any gathering and all others were thrown into darkness by their pulsing light. Louisa knew it may have been Pamela’s birthday but Nancy planned to make this her own party.
* * *
The plan on this particular night was a dinner at the house of Lady Curtis, mother of Adrian and Charlotte. Nancy had met Adrian through Sebastian, in the summer at Eights Week in Oxford, the annual rowing regatta and the only time the female sex were admitted as supper guests within the university’s yellow stone walls. She had taken up the ukulele only a few months before and told Louisa it had worked a spell on the men there as if she were a snake charmer in Marrakesh.
Having fetched Pamela from the front steps, the three of them stepped inside the hall. The maid had disappeared but the sound of jazz from a gramophone player could be heard drifting down from up above.
‘Must you come too?’ Pamela whispered to Louisa as they climbed the narrow staircase carefully, the eldest sister leading the way. ‘I’m with Nancy after all.’
‘I promised Lady Redesdale,’ reminded Louisa. She felt rather sorry for her charge, whom she had heard weeping quietly in the bathroom earlier before finally emerging with a button in her hand that had come off the skirt fastening. Pamela said nothing but passed it to Louisa, who stayed equally silent as she fetched needle and thread and sewed it back on, standing before the gently hiccupping girl.
As the three ascended Louisa braced herself for what was to come. The glimpses she had had of Nancy’s friends at Asthall weren’t the same as seeing them in their natural habitat, free to indulge in the ways of the New Age. Stepping inside the room felt like disappearing into the society pages of Tatler, only with colour. It took a moment for Louisa to adjust her eyes to the blur of young men and women close together, their features both softened and highlighted by the flickering flames of the fire and Tiffany lampshades dotted around. Her eye fell on the detail: a smear of red lipstick on an empty glass; cigarettes in long holders that threatened to singe the hair of anyone standing nearby; headbands with elaborate feathers drooping from them and daring purple socks that showed when a man crossed his legs. Pamela had been swallowed whole by the crowd, like Jonah into the whale, so Louisa found a chair by the wall where she could keep watch on her charge and Nancy’s friends.
Standing by a huge fireplace, his fingertips resting on the chimneypiece to steady himself, was Adrian, his glass held out for more whisky, blithely ignoring another young man who poured it. Louisa knew him from his photograph in the papers, usually under a scandalised headline about the antics of the ‘Bright Young Things’, as well as Nancy’s description. His sonorous voice was a shock; it did not seem to belong to his body, as thin as a grass snake. His dark, wavy hair had not been entirely tamed by the cream he’d applied and his light blue eyes, though glassy, paid close attention to Nancy’s collarbone as she drew nearer. His bow tie was undone and there was a wet patch on the front of his shirt from a carelessly handled drink. Louisa knew Adrian was considered the catch – if he came to Pamela’s party, he was the domino that would make all the others say yes.
‘Who have you brought for me, darling?’ Adrian asked, talking to Nancy but looking directly at the younger sister. ‘She looks like a lamb to the slaughter, the poor dear.’ He laughed and drained his glass.
‘This is Pamela,’ said Nancy. ‘She’s still only seventeen, so she really is a lamb. Do be gentle, A.’ She gave him a look that Louisa knew to be saying the contrary.
Pamela put her hand out and said in as grown-up a voice as she could manage, ‘How do you do, Mr Curtis?’ which only made him roar with laughter.
‘How old-fashioned,’ he said, flapping her hand away. ‘We don’t talk like that, my dear. Call me Adrian. What can we get you to drink?’ He turned to tap the man with the whisky bottle on the shoulder but was interrupted by a groan from a woman sitting in a chair nearby. She had rather more unruly curls, hers having been allowed to grow longer and puff out, and though her eyes were brown, not blue, she shared something of the man’s sulky lips. She was lean, too, with cheekbones that spoke of centuries of selective breeding.
‘Please ignore my brother,’ she said, ‘he’s a bore and far too rude. I’m Charlotte, by the way.’
‘I’m Pamela.’ She added nothing to this, and stood silently. Apart from a few months in France, Pamela’s whole life had been spent in the nursery, in the company of her brother and sisters, or Nanny and Louisa. This was uncharted territory.
‘Come, sit down here,’ said Charlotte, as she pulled herself out of a chair and picked up two drinks from a tray, handing one to Pamela. Pamela took the glass from Charlotte after thanking her and swigged, only to start spluttering, and when she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand it came away smeared with the lipstick she had daringly put on in the taxi.
‘Oh fiddlesticks!’ she exclaimed, which made Charlotte titter.
‘You’re sweet,’ said Charlotte. ‘Come here, I’ve got a hanky, let’s clean you up a bit. Do admit, it is rather droll.’
Pamela nodded with relief and a giggle of her own.
Before Charlotte had quite finished dabbing at Pam’s chin, however, she stopped still and stared at Nancy. Louisa saw she was winding a carriage clock that had been standing upon the mantelpiece. ‘Has it stopped?’ Charlotte asked.
Nancy paused and gave her an exaggerated wink. ‘Party time,’ she said. ‘I always put the clocks back half an hour to give us a little more.’
‘Funny,’ said Charlotte, and carried on.
Louisa turned from them and was pleased to see Clara Fischer walking across the room. Clara, referred to as ‘The American’ by the Mitfords, was closer to Nancy’s age at nearly twenty-one but was rather kinder to Pamela. The two of them had spent some time playing with the dogs together at Asthall, chatting easily about their many and varied canine features and how they wished animals could talk, speculating on what they would say. Clara was straightforwardly and enjoyably pretty, with blonde hair tonged into perfect waves and pink, full lips. She always wore light colours in flimsy, delicate materials, which made her look as if she could be unwound like a reel of chiffon ribbon.
She walked towards Pamela. ‘Hello … I didn’t know you’d be here tonight.’
Copyright © 2018 by Little, Brown Book Group