About The BookMarie Howard dreams, in 1919, of being elevated from understudy to leading lady at the Tavistock Theatre. She does more than just dream! Marie schemes to replace temperamental actress Dolly Martin, oblivious to possible consequences.
Before long, loved by London audiences and adored by two very different men, Marie is forced by events into a course of action that changes her life more dramatically than any role she has played on-stage.
As Hitler rises to power in Germany, Marie deals with personal loss and also with the increasingly deadly enmity between her husband and his vengeful brother. Who will win the life-long battle being waged between them? And what surprises await Marie in war-torn London?
If you’re a fan of romantic sagas that tug at your emotions, you need to read this book because you’ll feel deeply involved with its memorable heroine and her triumphs and tragedies from beginning to end.
Get Up To SpeedBackstage, the Tavistock Theatre is buzzing with gossip and intrigue. At the heart of it all is Nell’s friend, Marie Howard, who – in Nell’s view – is far too headstrong for her own good.
Nell’s biggest fear is that Marie’s impulsiveness will have a catastrophic effect on her standing as an actress, but her friend is deaf to all pleas for caution. Now a fateful encounter aboard a boat to Kew is about to cause further, far-reaching, dramas.
It was Sunday and Nell had suggested a picnic. Something needed to be done to cheer her friend up and the weather was wonderful. But Marie had come with the utmost reluctance. She had been reluctant to do anything or go anywhere since the coaching sessions had ended so abruptly and had flown into a rage when Nell said that it was perhaps all for the best. Well, Marie would eventually come to her senses. People did, once enough time had elapsed for them to see things in proper perspective. In Nell’s view Marie had had a lucky escape from a very dangerous situation.
“He was right, wasn’t he?” Nell ventured as they stood on Westminster Bridge watching for their boat’s arrival.
“Who was?” asked Marie impatiently.
“Wordsworth. Earth can’t have anything to show that is fairer than this, even allowing for the fact that he wrote his poem after standing on the old Labelye bridge. How sad for him that he was born too soon to see the Houses of Parliament as they are now! He would have seen the old Royal Palace which no doubt was picturesque in its way but which surely can’t have compared with our Palace of Westminster.” Big Ben chimed noon just then from high above them in its Clock Tower at the near end of the main Parliament building that, with its turrets and spires culminating in the soaring splendour of the Victoria Tower, dominated the skyline. “His bridge,” Nell said, warming to her theme, “needed twelve night-watchmen to protect those crossing it from robbers and rogues – that is, till the establishment of Sir Robert Peel’s police. But Wordsworth could still see how dull a soul would need to be, to pass by a sight so touching in its majesty.”
“You needn’t do this,” Marie told her.
“Do what, dear?”
“Keep up a constant flow of chatter. I don’t need humouring or … or anything. I just need … him.”
“Oh look,” said Nell, pointing to a boat rounding the bend from Waterloo and chugging up the Thames towards them, “there it is! We’d best hurry if we’re to catch it.”
They weren’t wearing clothes for hurrying in. Their hats had big brims to protect their complexions and the pointed toes and narrow heels of their shoes were more suited to an elegant stroll than to trotting across bridges and boarding boats. Marie’s lilac silk dress from Selfridge’s was daringly cut in the new mode, so that not only her arms but also her ankles were exposed. As a salve for her conscience she still wore the black stockings that Mam insisted on but beneath the dress, instead of a vest and woven bloomers, she was wearing a dainty lawn chemise and matching knickers, hand-made and tucked with Valenciennes trim. Nell’s less fashionable rose-pink frock with long sleeves kept her covered up but the progress of both girls, carrying their picnic-hamper between them, was slowed by the restrictive width of their skirts as well as by their footwear and the need to hold on to their hats whenever these fell prey to the breeze from the river.
They reached Westminster pier in time to board the NELL GWYN, however, and their arrival interested one passenger in particular.
Otto Berger was not especially surprised by the good fortune which brought two such lovely young ladies to sit right in front of him on the upper deck aboard his boat to Richmond. Why be surprised when good fortune was his by divine right? It must be, because his wishes were almost invariably granted. Often the wish had barely been formed before it was met. His brother Ludwig said that he had the luck of the very devil.
Perhaps he had. Perhaps his luck was devilish rather than divine. Its source was of little concern to him. Otto didn’t believe in questioning, or in worrying. He had better things to do with his time. Life was, after all, for living and few could dispute that he lived his with vim. He also lived without regret over the girls he had loved and left, just accepting that they came and went. Otto hoped, though, that they did not forget him quite as quickly as he forgot them. It struck him now that there was one girl he had not altogether forgotten. She was not dissimilar from the girl whose dark hair cascaded from beneath the straw hat with vibrant pink roses emboldening its brim.
He found himself thinking of Lenka with slight nostalgia: but why be nostalgic when the girl he had almost married was in far off Bohemia, whereas this girl was here? There was the added fact that he had been lucky to escape marriage to a nymphomaniac. If there was one thing Otto objected to, it was sharing his woman with his whole regiment! And Lenka must also have been unstable in other ways, as evidenced by the fact that she was now hitched to Ludwig. What an extraordinary image they must present, with her beauty and his hideousness – an image that Otto would soon be seeing for himself. After seven years’ absence he was due to go home tomorrow and had been resigned to spending his last day in London alone. Now a far more attractive plan was forming. The two in front of him were talking. He decided to listen in.
“It won’t always be as bad as this.”
“No, it’ll probably be worse. You can’t imagine just how bad it is, having to be Nancy to his Bill and then … then nothingness. I can’t stand it. I swear it’s driving me mad. And as for Clive’s little asides and sniggers, as well as the knowledge that Dolly’s having the last laugh … ”
“But she isn’t! She’s still out on her ear and you’re still his leading lady. You’re still that, if nothing else, Marie – and that, more than anything, is surely what you want to be.”
“Wanted. Now all I want is to be his everything instead of his … his past history.”
“You’ll never be in his past, Marie. No man who’s been close to you could ever forget you. You’ll haunt him, I reckon, to the end of his days. He only did what he had to do. He could never have done it if he hadn’t had to.”
“I’ll make him sorry. I promised to make him sorry and I shall.”
“Can’t you see that he’s sorry enough already? I can. He’s suffering, dear, quite as much as you are – and his acting is suffering, what’s more, which yours is not. This last week, since he … did what he did … his performance has gone right off.”
“Has it? I hadn’t noticed.”
“You aren’t noticing anything much, other than your own heartache. I’d say his heart is breaking.”
“I hope it is. I hope he rots in hell.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Perhaps not … but I feel better for saying it. He’s hateful.”
“He’s also mortal.”
“What on earth’s that supposed to mean?”
“Simply that he isn’t the god you’d set him up to be. He fell for you, Marie, in a big way but the falling didn’t make him capable of changing society. He has to live by certain rules. We all do – even you.”
“I can’t see why we should have to. Nor can I see how love can possibly ever be wrong.”
“The love itself isn’t necessarily, but … ”
“I knew there’d have to be a ‘but’.”
“Yes, ‘buts’ are my territory – which is perhaps one of the reasons why my life is so much duller than yours is. I often wonder how my life would be if I had your free spirit and the fact is I doubt I could cope with it. So I reckon my future is destined to be uneventful while yours will be the opposite.”
“What was the particular ‘but’ in question?”
“I can’t remember. Oh, yes, I can – it was the circumstances that were wrong, not the feelings. If he hadn’t been married already, then everything might have been fine and dandy and there’d have been nothing to stop you and him marrying. There’s plenty to stop you as things are, though, so it’s best to move on and put the whole messy business behind you.”
“It wasn’t messy … and I can’t move on from the Tavistock!”
“Not from the theatre, at the moment, certainly … but you can, if you try, move on in your mind from Mr Brodie. It isn’t as if he were the only fish in the sea.”
“He is, for me.”
“He won’t be for long – not if I know you, Marie.”
“You don’t know me – you can’t, if you think I could be so faithless to Charles!”
“It wouldn’t be faithlessness. It’d be … wisdom.”
“That’s a matter of opinion.”
“Has your uncle noticed anything?”
“If he has, he hasn’t said, although he’d have to be dense not to notice I’m different. But men are dense!”
“Not all of them.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Nell! Here I go again, thinking of myself and forgetting how much you miss Billy. Forgive me?”
“There’s nothing to forgive. My wounds aren’t fresh like yours are. If it’s any comfort, the missing does begin to hurt less eventually, as you’ll find out for yourself.”
“It isn’t and I shan’t – not while I’m in Charles’s arms each evening. He might be Bill and I might be Nancy but beneath all that we’re Charles and Marie and … and I ache for him! That is, I would if I didn’t loathe him so. I’ll never let another man treat me like he has treated me. I’m finished with men forever.”
Otto Berger was intrigued. How very enlightening the conversation had been and yet how mystifying! He at least knew now that the redhead’s name was Nell and the beauty’s Marie and that she was in Charles’s arms each evening even though they seemed to have parted. There was a Clive who was making asides and sniggering and a Dolly who despite being out on her ear was laughing. And mention had been made of the Tavistock Theatre, which was where this little drama seemed to be happening. It was all most entertaining … and Marie’s last statement certainly needed putting to the test. If she was finished with men forever his name was not Otto Berger!
A bee soon proved to be Otto’s accomplice. Perhaps attracted by the colours of their dresses, it flew toward the two girls and started buzzing purposefully.
After watching for a while as they flapped at it with their hands Otto produced his pocket-handkerchief and, standing, said: “Permit me, dear ladies!”
Nell turned to see a stocky gentleman doffing his grey homburg hat as with his handkerchief he expertly dispatched the bee. “How clever!” she commented as he held the dead insect for her inspection. “Thank you for coming to our rescue, Mr … er … ?”
“Berger,” he told her. “Otto Berger – as you will see, the ‘g’ is hard, not soft – from Bohemia.”
“Oh, so you’re a foreigner?”
“That is one way of describing me. There are others.” He smiled revealing two gold teeth, one at either side of his mouth. “We won’t go into those, though. I am delighted to have been of service and to meet you both. Of course, I don’t know … ”
“Our names!” Nell exclaimed, much to Marie’s irritation. “No, you don’t, do you? You’ve told us yours but we haven’t yet told you ours.”
“There’s no need,” Marie intervened, seeing a high forehead, wide-set brown eyes seemingly amused by her and a square jaw. “The bee has gone now and we’ll soon be at Kew. As my friend said, Mr Berger, we are grateful to you.”
“I can well understand your wish to preserve your anonymity,” he told her, apparently oblivious to the fact that her back had been turned on him. “I would wish to preserve mine, too, if I were a star of the theatre.”
“Oh, so you’ve recognised Marie?” Nell queried innocently.
“Who in London does not recognise her? It is an honour to have made your acquaintance … even if I have not made it altogether.”
“Oh, there’s no honour in knowing me! I’m just a nobody. It’s Marie who’s the leading lady. Have you seen her at the Tavistock in OLIVER TWIST?”
“I haven’t had that pleasure, unfortunately, although I have naturally heard of her success in it, playing opposite Charles …”
“ … Brodie,” Nell helped him, ignoring a dig in her ribs from Marie. “It isn’t surprising that you’ve heard how successful the play is, since as well as this being our longest run ever in one production we’re still sold out months in advance.”
“You are? That’s too bad.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because, regrettably, I am leaving London for home tomorrow – and, while it might be feasible to postpone my departure for a short time, I can’t postpone it indefinitely.”
“Oh, what a pity! Where did you say your home was?”
“In Bohemia, which belonged to Austria before the war. Now my little homeland has been gobbled up by the new republic of Czechoslovakia.”
Marie saw that it was time for her to speak. “So,” she queried, “you fought for our enemies?”
“I did not fight, dear lady – not I, personally, although I have to confess that my countrymen were coerced into siding with Germany.” He smiled, flashing his gold teeth. “As for me, I was in South Africa when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his Sophie were assassinated and Austria declared war on Serbia – and in London, en route for home, when the Kaiser signed the order for Germany’s mobilisation against Russia. So I was not permitted to leave your beautiful country and spent the war in an internment camp in Yorkshire.”
“Then you should be ashamed of staying safe when men like my father and Nell’s fiancé were dying in their millions fighting the Hun!”
“If I had fought,” he replied, “it would have been wrong in your eyes – and it is also wrong that I did not fight. So, as I cannot do right I shall not try. Nor can I profess shame for having been safe since the safety was not of my choosing but forced upon me by circumstances over which I had no control. I apologise on behalf of my countrymen, though. I am not proud of their part in things. There are no winners in war, to my thinking. You’ve both paid a terrible price for Britain’s victory … and there have been fatalities, too, in my family.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Nell said, deeming it wise to speak before Marie did. “We tend to forget that there were losses on both sides and that people … over there … are flesh and blood just as much as we are over here.”
“Yes, we are, as you can see,” Otto agreed cheerfully. “I am the evidence that you needed.”
“I must say, you speak English almost as if it were your own language, but it isn’t … is it?”
“No, German is my native tongue,” he told her. “It’s spoken both in Bohemia and in Austria proper. But I’ve had plenty of time to perfect my English in Yorkshire and, before the war, in South Africa where I was negotiating to buy an orange grove.” He frowned. “I’d still be living in Cape Town but for one of my brothers.”
“Is that a fact?” said Nell, hoping to hear more. It was not every day that one was lucky enough to meet a gentleman who came from abroad and who could afford to buy whole groves in distant countries. Mr Berger must be an aristocrat at least. “I don’t see … ”
“ … how Ludwig made me leave? The wretch sent me a telegram in our mother’s name urging me home immediately. Had I known then that he sent it,” Otto shook his head bemusedly, “wild horses could not have budged me. But at least Ludwig did not achieve his wish.”
“What was his wish?” Nell asked him.
“To see me fight on the German side, knowing my antipathy toward Germany … and to see me killed, even if it meant killing me himself.”
“Surely not!” Nell was profoundly shocked. “Nobody would want to kill his own brother … would he?”
“Ludwig would,” Otto told her soberly. “He hates me almost as much as I hate him. We have our own private war to win.”
“Why do you hate each other … why are you warring?”
“That’s a very long story and we seem to be arriving at Kew.”
Marie said pointedly: “You’ll be continuing as far as Richmond, Mr Berger, won’t you?”
“That was my intention,” he said, smiling to such a degree that she wished he would swallow his gold teeth, “until you lovely ladies changed my mind for me. Now I see that Kew is definitely the place to be.”
His persistence was far worse than the bee’s and as they left their boat Marie felt like screaming. Was there no getting rid of him? There did not seem to be – especially with Nell flirting so shamelessly. Nell was such a shy little thing normally, yet here she was, behaving like a loose woman with this horrible stranger. Whatever was she thinking of? She was certainly not thinking of Billy, whom she had sworn to love and miss for the rest of her days – and nor was she thinking of Marie, neglecting her so and paying far more attention to the foreigner than to the heartbroken friend she had insisted on bringing on this picnic. Why, Nell and Mr Berger were now carrying the hamper and neither she nor he seemed to have noticed that Marie was trailing all alone behind them. It really was too bad of Nell to prefer the Bohemian’s company to Marie’s. And how could she be so insensitive as to consort with someone who should by rights have fought in Kaiser Bill’s army?
At Kew Green, where tall, gracious houses looked out on to a vivid expanse of grass and trees, Marie was sorely tempted to leave Nell to it and take a bus back to Marylebone Lane. Were she to do so, how long would it be before those two noticed? She was stopped by two considerations: firstly, she could not leave her friend unchaperoned. There was no knowing the fellow’s intentions. Marie had heard that foreigners were a law unto themselves. They had strange habits, abroad, and were certainly not to be trusted. But for them, over there, there would never have been a war. Nell’s memory must be short for her to talk animatedly and seemingly endlessly to a man who was Britain’s enemy in his heart even if he pretended not to be. Why, it was not beyond belief that Mr Berger actually knew, or was even friendly with, those responsible for Billy’s death in Flanders! Whether he knew them or not, he by virtue of his nationality was indirectly responsible. The second consideration against taking the bus home was that today was Sunday and the house in Marylebone Lane would have been taken over by Aunt Gwen’s folk. Her Pa and Ma always came over from Shepherd’s Bush on Sundays to smother Uncle John with all their complaints. Better to be here with Nell and her foreigner than there in such an atmosphere. That decided, Marie made up her mind to bid Otto Berger a speedy ‘goodbye’.
The pink silk handkerchief that had saved them from the bee had been stylishly returned to the breast pocket of the mid-grey suit that he wore with darker grey spats over his shiny black shoes. What with all these and his hat, Nell had never seen a smarter gentleman. And he was speaking to her as if she were the only woman in the world!
How could it be that he was more interested in her than in Marie? Nell didn’t see how and yet here he was, being charmingly attentive to her and seeming to have forgotten that she was one of a pair. She knew she was wrong to encourage his attentions when out with a friend and knew too that she would soon have to do the right thing by Marie but oh, how amazing to be the star attraction for a change instead of always walking in Marie’s shade! It had never occurred to her that she minded walking there and she didn’t mind, most of the time. But once in a while she had wondered how it would feel to change places with Marie and be Somebody instead of Nobody. Well, today she felt like a very special Somebody which was all thanks to the extraordinary man who had rescued them from that bothersome bee.
He must be a very rich man indeed, because he was staying at Claridge’s where it cost a king’s ransom to stay. But he spoke of staying there as if such luxury were commonplace. And oh, the tales he told about his travels to Paris and Rome and Africa before the war! Better even than those, though, were the hints he gave about his home in Czechoslovakia.
Apparently Bohemia had been a kingdom, like Britain, until the fifteenth century when – as Mr Berger put it – the crown passed to Hungary. Then, he said, it went to the Habsburgs who were Austrian Emperors. Now his country had become a province of the new republic that had been formed at the end of the war. So while he had been Austrian he was now Czechoslovakian whether he liked it or not. How very odd! His home, from the sound of things, was very big and he referred to it as a Schloss. It had a clock tower and stables and a fountain and – in his words – it unfortunately also had Ludwig living in it. When Nell asked why he lived with his hated brother he had answered that it was more a question of Ludwig living with him. Which was no answer, now that Nell came to think about it. There was a third Berger brother, she had learned, who also lived in the Schloss – whatever that was – and both those brothers had wives living there with them too, but no children. Nell’s Mr Berger did not appear to have a wife: not that he was hers except in a manner of speaking and not that it mattered to her whether he was married or not. Why should it, when she would always be faithful to Billy’s memory and when the likes of the Bergers married their own kind, however nice they were to passing strangers?
As they reached the huge black and gold wrought iron gates guarding the entrance to the Royal Botanical Gardens Nell turned and said to Marie: “Ah, there you are, dear – so you haven’t deserted us!”
“It’s hardly me who has done the deserting,” Marie said meaningfully, glowering at her friend. “Apart from the fact that I can’t get a word in edgeways you two were walking too fast for me to keep up.”
“Oh dear,” responded Otto, “that must be my fault! I do apologise for monopolising Nell … and for forgetting the length of my legs. I must make amends. I am sure I shall think of some way of compensating you for all your aggravation.”
“Compensation won’t be necessary,” Marie said edgily, objecting to his manner as well as to his casual use of Nell’s first name. “I was merely mentioning that if anyone was guilty of desertion it wasn’t me. Well, Nell – are we going in, or aren’t we?”
They went in, through the turnstile, with Otto Berger insisting on paying all three token admission fees. Better, Marie decided, to let him pay than to slap his smiling face, which would have been her preferred option had she not been brought up to behave like a lady. Once inside the Gardens she forgot him for a while.
She had surely arrived in Paradise. This was the Garden of Eden, wasn’t it, with its trees of knowledge and of life, where Adam and Eve lived until they ate the forbidden fruit and were banished? It seemed like an Eden, here within the compass of London, so exotic were its flowers, so green its backcloth. The scent was almost overwhelming and there was a music of sorts from the water-sprinklers as well as from a wide variety of birds. They were too late for the lilac of Alfred Noyes’s poem, but in time for the cuckoo which when dawn was high and all the world a blaze of sky would – though very shy – sing his song for London. In another verse the poet said that Noah had hardly known a bird of any kind that wasn’t heard at Kew and, now that she was hearing for herself, Marie believed him. Oh, to have Charles here with her and to wander hand-in-hand with love in summer’s wonderland! As things were, without him, the poem and her surroundings somehow mocked her.
In company with other Sunday strollers, all dressed in their best and the ladies mostly holding parasols, they made their way along Broad Walk and came to a lake on the far side of which a pale, ornate temple rose as if from Greek myth.
“Where better,” Otto Berger said, looking across at it, “than the Temple of Arethusa to eat our picnic?”
“Our picnic?” echoed Marie disbelievingly.
“Of course! Now that I have helped carry it I am sure that Nell at least will expect my help in eating it. Or am I wrong?”
“No, you are not!” Nell answered him, shaking her head vigorously. “Otto is welcome to join us, isn’t he, Marie?”
Nell hoped there would be enough food to go round. Maggie, who was deaf and dumb, had prepared a picnic for two dainty young ladies. When cutting wafer-thin slices of bread and removing the crusts before making sandwiches with egg and cress she was not catering for a man’s hearty appetite. Nor could her queen cakes be described as particularly filling but knowing this – and that they were their favourites – she had given the girls six. If Nell ate next to nothing, maybe nobody would notice and maybe Otto would not feel as hungry at the end of the picnic as he had felt at the start of it.
“You’d better eat faster,” Marie told her, “or else you’ll starve.”
“Or I could eat more slowly,” said Otto Berger knowingly with a flash of his gold teeth.
“That would be another solution,” Marie agreed, much to Nell’s chagrin. “When Maggie made this meal she, strangely enough, wasn’t catering for three.”
“Maggie is … ?” he asked interestedly.
“My mother’s maid,” answered Nell before her friend could put her foot in things again. It was beyond her why Marie was being so hostile to Otto, who had just been telling them how Arethusa was a nymph who had been turned into a spring so that she could avoid the attentions of the river god Alpheus. He was such a very knowledgeable gentleman that it was a pleasure to listen to him. He seemed to know something about absolutely everything. “I can’t imagine a more perfect spot for a picnic … and doubt Marie and I would have found it but for you pointing it out, Mr Berger.”
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“Unless you remember to call me Otto, I shall have to resort to calling you Miss Sedgwick,” he said, “and that seems rather formal, doesn’t it, now that we’re friends?”
“Yes,” Nell agreed, blushing a little. “Yes, it does … Otto.”
“Crikey,” cried Marie, “pardon me for playing gooseberry! Just let me know if you want me to leave.”
“Of course we don’t want you to, dear!” exclaimed Nell in horror. “Whatever could have given you that idea?”
“It seems to me,” Otto Berger said, perfectly at ease on the plaid rug they had spread on the grass at the edge of the lake, just in front of the temple, “that, given the choice, Marie would have preferred a sting from the bee to being saddled with my company.”
“I wouldn’t have been stung, necessarily. The thing about bees,” Marie told him with a glare, “is that if ignored they just disappear sooner or later.” She paused, then added: “There’s something to be said for knowing when to make an exit.”
“Ah yes,” he readily agreed, “there is! And I learned from Nell earlier that you are a master – or should I say ‘mistress’? – of the art. I am regretting more and more that I shall be leaving London in the morning. Were I only not leaving, I’d make with all haste for the Tavistock Theatre.”
“It should be some consolation, then, to know that you’d have had a wasted journey,” said Marie, brightening at the reminder that he would be gone by this time tomorrow. “Unless you were prepared to queue for hours and put up with the pit or the gods, you’d have no hope of obtaining a ticket.”
He smiled benignly. “I don’t queue … and am used to obtaining the unobtainable.”
“You are?” asked Nell.
“Yes.” Then he said, sounding perplexed: “My sense of timing is usually better than this. Now that we three have met I feel considerably less enthusiastic about going home than I did. But it will be good to see Mama again after so long.”
Nell ventured to ask: “Does she also live in the … the Schloss?”
“She does,” he told her. “Would you care to see a picture of our little home?”
Otto extracted a photograph from his pocketbook and handed it to her. “But this isn’t little,” she gasped, “it’s a castle! Look, Marie … just look at where Mr Ber…, I mean Otto, lives!”
With the photo thrust in front of her Marie had no choice but to look. She saw a white castle set against a pine-clad hill. Its vast width accommodated countless tall windows and several doors, the main one opening on to a paved courtyard where stood a carriage and pair complete with coachman. There was a clock tower to one end rising above battlements beneath which was a long row of small circular windows rather like portholes on a boat.
“What,” Otto asked her, “do you think of my home in the Giant Mountains?”
She could hardly answer. His home was strangely familiar and his mention of the Giant Mountains struck some unaccountable chord in her. There was a sudden coldness around her heart … a sudden sense of having lived this moment in advance. Marie shuddered. “I think,” she said at last, glad to be handing the picture back to him, “that if he bought this your father must be extremely rich. How does he earn his living?”
“Papi doesn’t earn it,” Otto grinned. “He does nothing but lie in his coffin.”
Nell gasped: “He lies in his what?”
Conscious of her shock and of Marie’s seeming nonchalance he said: “Don’t worry, Nell! Papi isn’t a vampire: he’s dead. Before dying he ran our brewery, bleach works and linen factory that collectively make the money I spend – an arrangement very much to my liking. It was my grandfather, Johann Adam, who founded our family fortune in the latter half of the eighteenth century.”
“So you live off the fat of the land thanks to others’ endeavours, not your own,” Marie said in a derisory tone. “Have you no qualms about being so … so indolent?”
“None!” he confirmed cheerfully, taking a toothpick from an inlaid mother-of-pearl case and extracting food particles from between his teeth. “Are you suggesting, Marie, by any chance that I should have qualms?”
She thought his habits were disgusting and would have liked to say so but remembering her manners, or trying to, she simply said: “Yes – I make no apology for being opposed to inherited wealth.”
“Would you still be opposed to it if you were the inheritor?”
“Of course I would!” she retorted hotly. “I don’t have one rule for me and another for everyone else.”
“No. If I were an heiress I’d still want to work for a living. It is work that gives a person backbone, besides which I love working.”
“Do you have a particular reason for this … quirk?”
She had the oddest sensation. He was looking at her almost as if he knew about her and Charles, although he obviously could not possibly know. Marie said defensively: “I don’t have to have a reason for loving my work. Acting doesn’t seem like work to me, actually. It seems more like … ”
“ … a real-life flirtation with Charles Brodie?” he smiled. “I’d often wondered what went on between actors and their leading ladies.”
“How dare you!” She was angry and needed someone to blame for his surfeit of information. Marie rounded on Nell: “Have you been talking about me?”
“No, dear, of course I haven’t. You should know me better than that.”
“Well, if you haven’t, who has?” Marie realised too late that she had fallen into a trap. “Not,” she added, “that there’d be anything to say, especially.”
“Wouldn’t there?” asked Otto Berger. “I obtained a different impression, earlier.”
“Earlier?” Marie questioned before comprehending. She indignantly accused him: “You were listening in! Giddy godfathers, when Nell and I were talking on the boat, you were listening.”
He said, unperturbed: “As I remember it, you did most of the talking.”
“Oh … oh,” Marie had such a strong urge to hit him that it took all her self-discipline not to, “you are insufferable … and are certainly no gentleman!”
“While you, I take it, are a lady?”
Nell, doubting the wisdom of letting Marie respond, rushed in saying the first thing that entered her head: “I can see nothing wrong in inheriting … things, if they’re there to be inherited. For me work is just a means to an end, whereas for Marie it is more in the nature of a … calling, which is one reason why her name is in lights while mine is at the bottom of the bill.”
“I’m sure that you’re too modest, Nell,” Otto said, helping himself to the last queen cake. “Once again I find myself wishing I could stay and see you both on-stage. Perhaps I am anti-work because my efforts in that department have never met with too much success.”
Marie asked with heavy sarcasm: “You have attempted dirtying your hands, then?”
“Yes – in Yorkshire, where they wanted agricultural workers. But my axe slipped as I was felling trees and I almost felled my foot instead. So I went to hospital for treatment and a lengthy convalescence and since then have accepted that I should not attempt to earn what is mine by birth. Besides,” he ended with a smile, thinking of the nurse who had assisted in his convalescing, “living takes up all my time!”
“You should be ashamed of yourself for being so idle!”
“Should I?” he asked Marie. “Why?”
“Because life was never meant to be so … so easy.”
“Was it not? I’ve never come across any dictum that says it should be hard. Where did you obtain your information?”
“Giddy godfathers, you’re impossible!”
“At least you aren’t indifferent to me. Your indifference would wound me deeply, whereas I’m encouraged by your fury. Incidentally, I’ve been meaning to ask who they are.”
“Who who are?” Marie could not credit the thickness of his skin. “And if you see my anger as remotely encouraging, then you’re even more arrogant than I originally thought you were!”
Ignoring her comment, Otto answered her question: “Your giddy godfathers. You’ve made several mentions of them. Are they real people or imaginary ones you draw on when incensed?”
“At least you’re aware of your incensing capacities!”
“Are you complimenting me?” Marie’s glare was answer enough, so before she could speak Otto suggested: “What he needs is a dose of jealousy.”
“What who needs?”
“Why, Charles Brodie! The way to bring a man to heel is by making him jealous – but I imagine you’re already well aware of that.”
Marie was flabbergasted. “There are no words with which to describe a person who eavesdrops on private conversations and then, as well as being proud of his dirty work, assumes his interpretation of what he has heard is the correct one. And as if the eavesdropping and assumption weren’t bad enough you’re now compounding things with silly advice.”
“Is it so silly, though? If Charles has not treated you as you perhaps deserve to be treated, wouldn’t it serve your purpose were we to … ?”
“We?” Marie interrupted him incredulously. “I trust you aren’t expecting me to take any suggestion of yours seriously.”
“I was merely suggesting dinner for the three of us,” he said. “With me leaving tomorrow there isn’t time for an affair.”
“If you think for one second that I’d ever have an affair with you, you’ve taken leave of your senses – assuming, probably wrongly, you ever had any sense.” Remembering his first sentence Marie then said: “Dinner for three – do you mean you, Charles and me?”
“Hardly,” he answered, “although such a potential ménage a trois would certainly have interesting possibilities. I was in fact envisaging inviting you and Nell to dine with me tonight.”
“Crikey!” Marie was surprised and guilt-stricken to realise she had virtually forgotten Nell was there. So antagonised was she by Otto Berger that it was almost as if her friend had momentarily ceased to exist. “Of course you meant Nell! I’m letting you tie me up in knots, which is quite uncharacteristic.”
“It might console you to know that I’m not entirely unaffected by you, either.”
“Oh … fiddle-faddle!”
“It’s a new experience for me to meet with such hostility. Theoretically I would have expected to prefer pleasing ladies to antagonising them, but I’m finding a certain,” he searched in vain for the right word, “je ne sais quoi in your inimitable reaction to me. Could it be that we are meant for each other but have yet to establish that fact?”
“If I thought for one moment we were,” said Marie, “I’d shoot myself.”
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