(1938-12-21) In the Dead of Winter
Details for In the Dead of Winter
Summary: On the night of the Winter Solstice two flame-haired artificers experience variously tedious and thwarted evenings. Briefly, they meet. Little do they know.
Date: December 21st, 1938
Location: The bar at the Dorchester Hotel

Clocks all about London are striking half past eleven; and an expensive, somewhat aged redhead who'd sworn to be here at eleven on the dot, honestly, is tripping upon hasty, dainty, green satin shoes into the bar of the Dorchester Hotel.

At first glance she's all sables and violet-tinted sun-spectacles (at this hour!) though the latter she wrenches off, revealing big green eyes rimmed with kohl, above a brilliant carmine smile. She looks all about her, henna'd head tilting this way and that, for someone who, by her subsequent behaviour it's plain to see, isn't there — she nibbles the arm of her sun-specs, contemplates her next move, and trots up to the bar, dropping them upon it with no care for whether they crack. "Harry, sweetie," she calls across to the bartender, who is presently occupied with other customers, "a glass of the Montrachet…?" Upper middle class mezzo-soprano, with a trace of Paris.

But, fond enough as he is of Mrs Fairfax - and fonder still of her current habitual company, liquid, missed, and noted - the canny Harry has a party he fancies are better heeled to attend upon first. Conrad G Warrington, the American vice-president (of, it is said, his father's bean-canning firm); Captain Featherstonehaugh, a regular soldier, an irregular payer; Earl Jellicoe, and Henry Green, or some similar literary gentlemen. No, it couldn't be him, Mr. Green always brought a lady, and the only woman at the table is Warrington's cheap, hard-nailed Pall Mall company. Must be one of them pansies, Harry muses, but his service is assiduous all the time. Pansies can often pay, and even when they can't, they often stick to those what can.

For his part, the 'pansy' under the barman's unforgiving surveillance is doing his worst to disguise the patent fact that he is enduring something of a dull evening. Even his satisfaction at Warrington's open wallet is fast fading; there's no joy in sponging off a fool who couldn't truly distinguish one from any old piss-artist. This exquisite, sharp-eyed, and, for the table, most definitely scruffily turned out youngish man keeps up desultory conversation with Jellicoe, whose rank and gamesomeness somewhat ameliorate his inexperienced, embarrassing lunges at sophistication, but Gally Beauclaire no longer troubles to dissemble about the entirety with which he regards the others as bores and chores. He drinks pink gin fast, running a twitching, beringed hand through the disordered, thinning hair that makes him the second flamehaired artificer to cling to the corpse of the year's midnight at that gaudy oasis, the Dorchester. Even the environs' grandeur and comfort visibly chafe on Beauclaire, whose acute taste winces at reconciling them with the pleasing bleakness of the season, and the times.

Whilst Harry is occupied with gentlemen whose pockets overflow even more bountifully than he whose special friend Fabia Fairfax is known to be — she claims a barstool for herself and hops up onto it, hooking the satin kitten heels of her shoes about the crosspiece. Her Barguzin sable coat sighs away from her skirts, revealing, naturally, the same green satin. She has in her possession a small silvery evening bag, which she drops next to her sun-specs as she looks about — not with yearning, not with disappointment, but with a curiosity for where her evening may still lead her…

Then Harry does bring her her glass of wine — and a small sealed envelope, which he slides across the bar to her with a discreetly apologetic air. "Oh, Christ," she says to him, rolling her eyes. "Well, why don't you make my next one the usual, and you know which room to charge it to, don't you, sweetie."

He does.

She occupies herself unbuttoning the wrists of her white kid mousquetaire gloves, rolling the hands up inside the sleeves, and turning her assortment of glittering diamond rings around so that the stones face outward again. Her nails sport a perfect French manicure, pale pink and white.

"Of course, Guy's working for more interests than the BBC's these days," Jellicoe is confiding importantly, placing himself decisively back under sufferance. He is a fresh-faced, happy, confident man, a boy really, only just twenty. He drinks his cocktails back with the fervour of a proud and fairly newly-fledged hell-raiser, the memory of privileged, supervised sherries still tingling at his tongue. Opposite him, the literary man looks much older, and suppresses a sigh - secret knowledge? Unquashable contempt? He doesn't seem to care himself. It's that faintly, titillatingly sort-of-Gallic voice that rouses him, though he doesn't trouble to ascertain much about the speaker except sex, state of preservation (admirable, with good and needful reason) and resources (a chancer if ever he scented one).

But it's enough to make him ask the nearest waiter out of the side of his thin, contorting mouth, "To whose room is she charging it, pray? Charlie Chaplin's?"

The waiter eyes Fabia. He had the unusual fortune of being on room service duty the night the door to a certain suite upstairs was answered by a young lady pridefully clad in nothing but platinum blonde hair and diamonds, and the bill signed by Mrs Fairfax; he would love to make a full evening of answering Gally's question, but he has, alas, been paid well to shut up, and he lives in the optimistic expectation of receiving further remuneration for similar silences for as long as she continues to call upon one of the Dorchester's longer-standing guests. "I don't hardly like to say, sir," he replies, turning his gaze upon Gally with mournful regret. "Not Mr Chaplin's, sir."

It's too warm in here. Fabia has popped down from her stool again and wiggled out of her sable coat and draped it over the bar. Her green satin gown is revealed thus to be almost backless, a couture piece cunningly constructed to hold to her slender figure seamlessly, with very little effort; below her hips the skirts blossom into unanticipated fullness with her movement. Her arms where they are visible above her mousquetaire gloves, her almost-bare shoulders, are beautifully shaped and lightly muscled, in a manner unusual for a woman of her years. The diamonds about her neck are astounding even at a distance.

Then she's up on the barstool again, skirts flowing down all about it; and Harry is placing a martini glass (three olives on a stick, what else could it be?) next to the Montrachet she has hardly touched. "Bless you, sweetie," and she lifts it in a toast to him. Half of it down the hatch in one go.

"Oh, I think we know what that means," Gally exclaims, clearly perking up immensely; his voice is musical in a sinister way, somewhat like a cleric defrocked and decamped to Capri. "C'mon, Connie, give our friend here a gold sovereign and see if he eases in our company. Be a gent," a slight sneer he cannot avoid spiking the Yank upon intimates he realises this is technically impossible, "you know you want to." But Warrington's doxy, unaccountably annoyed by the progressing display of her senior, but in fact more distinguished rival at the bar, and the effect it seems to be having on her thus-far docile vice-president, vetoes any such subsidy, and instead leads a compliant but wistful Warrington rather firmly off. Gally smiles severely at that; a victory achieved at any cost - or ideally, none.

"Did I tell you about Guy ond Cornford and the canal by John's?" Jellicoe presses on now eagerly and innocently.

"You did," Gally confesses with the last of his patience wilting from his lips. "Go and bother Evelyn with it, just right for one of his beastly books, I should think."

"I say!" George laughs amiably for reply, always slow to recognise a dismissal and more than ready to order another bumper. "Anyway, bit lonely here, now, what? Should we get ol' ma Karenina over there to keep us company?"

Beauclaire's expression becomes even more neutral and obscure; probably he is silently working out how far into the Russian master's tome his present companion ever ventured. When Jellicoe accomplishes his feat of chivalry and sends the waiter La Rousse's way with a fresh half-bottle of bubbly (as he puts it), Gally protests neither in word nor deed.

What Fabia thinks of the missive left for her in Harry's keeping by her absent friend, might be conjectured from the way her fingers deftly, gracefully tear the letter into a large number of small pieces and stuff them into the glass of Montrachet, wherein elegant dark blue handwriting blurs and fragments of the Dorchester's own letterhead curl in upon themselves in shame.

What's this? Strange gentlemen offering champagne? Not bad champagne either. She unhooks her heels from the crosspiece of the stool and swivels upon it, crossing one leg over the other at the knee as she regards their table — more room round it than hitherto, and that rather cheap creature in particular seems to have decamped. She lifts a shoulder in question, and at some sign received from Jellicoe — well, all right. She hops down again. Silver bag in one hand, half a martini in the other, waiter following with the liquid offering lately received and her heavy coat draped across his arm, and an empty envelope abandoned on the bar, next to the stewing remnants of her correspondence — she glides across to their table, holding herself like the Queen of Sheba, if the Queen of Sheba were subtly nonchalant about the consequence of her rank.

The company Mrs Fairfax is about to keep resemble, initially, some sort of allegorical composition; the graceful, beaming, dark-headed and muscled young nobleman who has evidently taken command of the occasion; the raffish but overcome Captain, his chestnut moustache drooping amidst the ashtray until kindly nudged out by yet another supplementary waiter; and the man with the sardonic mouth and the frowning glance, sans age or obvious calling, perhaps a type she will recognise, from dyed roots to exotic ring to scuffed boots, as in some way one of her own - as he did her - though neither, perhaps, may know quite fully whereof they surmise on that interesting subject. Whoever he is, he seems surprised at the success of Jellicoe's gallant overture and at the very least none too pleased. Probably he dislikes being involved in an enterprise not of his own choosing.

While young Jellicoe makes an array of charming introductions - "Lieutenant Jellicoe at your service, madame; these are - Captain Featherstonehaugh, my company commander; Mr Beauclaire, the writer" - the litterateur so named slips a Mickey Finn in his drink, in plain sight of the lady, an exploratory gleam in his light eyes. Soon the lieutenant is as unfit for conversation as the captain. "Waiter," Beauclaire complains, "I think my friends are overdone. Could you get a man to see them back to Albany? They won't be missed at barracks yet, I should think. Not as if there's a war on…"

Two chairs empty; the redhead in green satin alights upon the edge of one, and the waiter settles her coat tenderly into the other, filling it. "Fabia Fairfax; how do you do, gentlemen?" is her contribution to the general introductions, as she offers her paw about the table, languidly, palm down, in strict order of rank, to be kissed by Jellicoe, ignored by Featherstonehaugh, and have its gleaming fingertips clasped with reluctance by Beauclaire.

It is a pompous and not wholly believable compliment paid her by Jellicoe which provides Gally with the second or two he requires to dose the man's drink; she has one eye on each of them and sees it all. The instant Jellicoe looks away from her again she favours Gally with a fractionally raised eyebrow and a tiny, tiny smirk over the rim of her rapidly emptying martini glass. My, aren't we a naughty boy. And then her face is smoothed (as it were; it's a few years too late for the operation to be wholly successful) into its previous expression of amiable interest and she sighs, "Oh, the poor fellow, so early in the evening, too; has he been a bit too various? Some gentlemen just can't switch from one thing to the other very well, can they. I'm sure," she adds gently, guilelessly, as the living corpses of the two soldiers are carted away by waiters accustomed to this sort of duty, "you can, when you put your mind to it, Mr Beauclaire." Her empty cocktail glass clinks onto the table.

"How did they do," Gaillard muses absently, "oh, rather ill, it seems, I'm afraid. Still, rather them than me, and if the Captain had sobered up enough to give me another rodomontade about a coup in the Liberia, or the young Earl had prevailed in reaching the third year of his store of undergraduate anecdotes… the boy's only OTC straight up from the Varsity, you know. Well, the other place, anyway. Any rate, any more of them, as I say, and it'd have been my head on the table and my rather lighter porte-feuilles being rifled for tips by the assistant head-waiter. From sheer dullness."

As if to accept her gauntlet, he shrugs shoulders built for lounging as he offers a suggestion, "Negronis next, …Mrs… Fairfax? Or would you rather something a little more verdant? I should guess you have fascinating and edifying experiences with the diet and the city of Verlaine. And, if the painful discretion of that waiter was anything to go by, perhaps the habits, too."

Beauclaire is not being charming. He is not even being polite. Certainly unfascinated and unedified, he nonetheless seems to grow more reconciled to the circumstances as moments, syllables, and gulps past. "I knew it couldn't be Charlie Chaplin, in fact, Mrs Fairfax. I should think you have a far more exalted series of rapports. I'm longing to hear all about them."

Charlie Chaplin? His remark is to Fabia unedifying; she didn't overhear the syllables hissed from his lips to the waiter's ears. But she is warming to this dissolute creature into whose sole company she has tumbled in a matter of moments — though something in her tone chides as well as coaxes.

"Longing. Really. The things you say. I don't care for sweet vermouth, I'll have—" And a waiter is hovering; Fabia catches his eye and lifts her voice to utter, "My usual, sweetie, and a Negroni for the gentleman." She unclasps her silver evening bag and draws out of it a twelve-inch ebony cigarette holder (which must have been shoved in there at quite the awkward angle), an ornate silver cigarette case monogrammed with a flamboyant 'FF' (perhaps she told the truth about her name), and a matching lighter. Her cigarettes are Sobranie Black Russians; she opens the case and fits one into the holder while lecturing him.

"You might do me the courtesy of trying to lie a little more enthusiastically. It might be good practice for the next time you spend an evening wedged in between assorted bores. And you still are, aren't you, you're as bored out of your head with me as you were with them. You can't imagine I might say anything you haven't heard twenty times before — this week alone. Heavens, sweetie, the solution to that is to say something more than usually provoking oneself, instead of merely inviting strange women to retell anecdotes from their sex lives. Which, frankly, I don't mind doing, to an appreciative audience, whom I'm assured won't yawn." Upon her final word she widens her eyes at him, so very pointedly.

"You are a curious sight here at any rate, Mrs Fairfax," Gally concedes with another diagonal sort of shrug, "even if I confess you may have guessed pretty near to the mark when you suggested I wasn't expecting to hear anything out of the ordinary. But then, I seldom do. A bore is simply anyone who cares to talk of anything other than their library and their linen, dirty or otherwise. I do hope you agree."

He doesn't seem to care for the Negroni, ("The Count was a real bore, come to that", out of the side of his mouth again) and is rather more enthusiastic about the Sobranies, one of which he qualmlessly rifles from the Fabian case, lighting it with the guttering final inch of a candle. Its healthful effect soon lightens his temperament into raising his glass, muttering carelessly "To the dead of winter," and draining three-quarters of the wretched thing. "What are you doing in the Dorchester? This place is a standing invitation to the Warringtons of this world, my dear. I was only fulfilling a promise to a rather curious tutor of young Jellicoe's."

Fabia smiles her agreement, murmuring, "Oh, help yourself, sweetie," when her new friend's hand delves into the cigarette case she left lying open on the table next to her handbag. She returns his toast, drinking deeply: "To all that lovely sap flowing again in the spring, any minute now." And then, "I came to have a drink with someone who lives here," she answers, "although, as I imagine you saw, he has taken to keeping his appointments rather less conscientiously than he did two months ago." Her shoulders shift, narrow bands of green silk almost falling from them; it's the way of the world, her demeanour suggests, and despite the violence she did to that sheet of paper she's not truly vexed. "I thought I might go upstairs and run a bath and ring round to a few friends to see whether anyone wants to go out; shall I do that, or shall we really start turning over the linen?" She sets down her glass, extracts the olives, draws one away between her lips and crunches it with a tiny, appreciative sigh.

"To go out is, I feel, on several grounds deplorable," Gally remonstrates with intense mock-sobriety. "To go is noxious to the body, and the state of being out in any regard exhausting to the spirit. I had rather be a courted cocoon, a chrysalis…such an unfortunate word, that, so beautiful, but all too rhythmic…anyway, sometimes fate and the muse are merciless taskmistresses, eh?" The Negroni is finished, so he takes a generous splash of poor Jellicoe's forlorn champagne, interspersed with satisfied, rather rapid sucks on the Sobranie, and haphazard, even aggressive flicking of its ash - displaying a nervous form of energy quite at odds with the languid creed he professes. He has provided no actual answer to Fabia's suggested course.

But he smiles at her riposte of a toast, and raises his glass happily. Perhaps too happily. Just then, both the 'gentleman' and the lady's receptacles explode, the shards falling about harmlessly, but the liquid contents, now sticky and odorous, adhering all over both of them.

Not puzzlement, but rational annoyance seems to join the champagne in seeping across Beauclaire's whey-hued face. "But that only happens now and again, when I meet…" He stubs out the Sobranie in evidently violent pique on the tablecloth, missing Fabia's arm scarcely by half an inch. "But why the hell didn't you say, Mrs Fairfax. Bloody inconvenient it's turned out too."

Ignoring, characteristically, any share of his own guilt in the matter, Gaillard Beauclaire, Esq., storms out of the hotel, leaving his latest acquaintance, or more likely her mysterious friend, with the bill.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License