Friday, December 2, 2016

The Rockingford Raphael by Fred McGavran

In an English mansion, 1937, Miss Sylph de Quimby innocently paints a copy of a long-lost Raphael, in which her cousin shows a great interest; by Fred McGavin.

How difficult it is to recreate a masterpiece, I reflected as I placed the grid over The Rockingford Raphael. The panel of two inch string squares fit just inside the frame, perfectly matching the squares I had ruled on my canvas. Streaming through the east window of the Great Hall, the morning sun illuminated The Martyrdom of St. Claridon Frigidus as brilliantly as the day it was painted. If my palette were true and my hand steady, I would copy the painting square by square for the Masterpieces of Great English Houses exhibition at Miss Trillingham's Country School for Young Ladies.

I had returned to Rockingford-on-Quimby after Michaelmas term determined to practice the moral and practical virtues she had so elegantly enunciated at matriculation. On that brilliant September afternoon before tea, the whole school had assembled on the lawn to hear her recite "The Seven Virtues of Polite English Maidenhood," her immortal contribution to English pedagogy. Those virtues - piety, purity, patriotism, pedigree, poesy, painting, and penmanship - defined young English women of quality in 1937.

As a new girl, I found myself deficient in the moral virtue of pedigree, so I determined to excel in the practical virtue of painting. My classmates were the daughters of dukes and earls and an occasional baronet, but my only relationship to greatness (so I supposed) was being the daughter of Lord Rockingford's most trusted maid servant. To avoid exciting undue curiosity, however, His Lordship permitted me to identify myself as Sylph de Quimby, implying the closest association with the estate if not being in line for the coronet.

Lord Rockingford only entertained family after his return from internment in Germany during the Great War, preferring the devoted company of his faithful dependants to the carping criticism of an ignorant and debased public. Thus, for nearly twenty years, not even the highest nobility had seen The Rockingford Raphael. When I described it to Signore Rogerio Puttanesco, our drawing master, he could scarce believe his good fortune that he would see it, if only in copy.

"An unknown Raphael, hidden in one of the great houses of England!" he exclaimed. "What, pray tell, is the provenance?"

Provenance for a painting is like pedigree for the nobility; everything in art and aristocracy depends upon the purity of its lineage.

"The 7th Lord Rockingford acquired it as a prize of war whilst campaigning with the Duke of Marlborough in Germany," I replied.

"Indeed?"

"The grandest prizes have come into the Rockingfords' possession through le droit de seigneur."

Mother had passed on to me the Rockingford family history that His Lordship had confided during their long afternoons together in our quarters on the third floor, when I was sent out to play or to watch Cook in the kitchen. Indeed, Lord Rockingford valued Mother's company so highly that he would allow only her to rub him with liniment after the hunt. When she finally came to bed, she would throw open the window so we were not overcome by the astringent odor permeating her person.

"Miss de Quimby," Signore Puttanesco assured me, "the art world breathlessly awaits this revelation."

Now poised beside my easel, brush tinted with the heavenly blue of a Raphael sky, I dared make my first brush stroke in the upper left quadrant of my grid. I fancied I saw a fresh light of hope in the uplifted eyes of St. Claridon in the original staring at the angels hovering over the ice floe on the Tiber River where the martyr suffered death by freezing during the sordid reign of the Emperor Septimius Severus.

"I'm damned if I will give you £100!" Lord Rockingford's voice echoed from his study.

A door slammed, and heavy footsteps pounded down the corridor toward the Great Hall. As I stepped back from my easel in alarm, a man clad in the oil stained coveralls of a mechanic nearly knocked me over.

"Hello, Sylphie!" exclaimed Ronald Quimby, third cousin to His Lordship. "What are you doing?"

Ronald was a large man with the Rockingford blue eyes, auburn hair, and a graying moustache like His Lordship's, but he had the angry, frustrated demeanor of a man separated from an inheritance by too many degrees of consanguinity. His Lordship employed him in the Great Garage to keep him from sullying the family name in some more prominent occupation.

Sent down from Oxford before the Great War, Ronald had accompanied His Lordship into captivity after their failed attempt to kidnap the Kaiser in the doomed charge of the Rockingford Hussars. Ronald had been unable to readjust to civilian life after living with His Lordship at the Kaiser's palace at Sans Souci, where they were both treated as German nobility.

"I am making a copy of The Rockingford Raphael for an exhibition at Miss Trillingham's School."

"I did not know that we had a Raphael," Ronald said, suddenly fascinated by the original. "What do you think it is worth?"

"I never look upon fine art with a tradesman's eye," I replied, repeating one of Miss Trillingham's purest sentiments.

"There must be someone who could appraise such a work."

"Signore Puttanesco at Miss Trillingham's has informed us that he is quite well versed in the practical aspects of art," I offered, eager not to disappoint him in his newfound interest.

When frustration at his situation had not thrown him into one of his black moods, Ronald would take me on drives through the countryside in one of His Lordship's motor cars, whilst Mother and His Lordship were enjoying their long conversations.

"Could you loan me a fiver?" Ronald said, sensing my solicitude.

"I certainly could not."

"If anyone could get £100 from His Lordship, it's your mother."

"I doubt she would exert herself without being apprised of all details of the business," I replied, quite irritated that he would take advantage of our friendship.

"Sylphie, this is serious," he said, adopting the whining tone he employed when rebuffed.

The door to the study slammed again, and we heard Lord Rockingford striding down the corridor towards us.

"We'll talk later," Ronald said, hurrying out of the Great Hall through the far door to the kitchen.

"Oh, hello, Sylph," His Lordship greeted me. "What have we here?"

"I am making a copy of The Rockingford Raphael for Miss Trillingham's exhibition."

"Be careful whom you tell about it," he said. "I wouldn't want a pack of Americans queuing up at the gate thinking they could view it for a fee."

Americans were very much out of favor with His Lordship after Edward VIII abdicated to marry Mrs. Wallace Simpson.

"And Sylph," he continued. "I shall be upstairs this afternoon.

"Upstairs" was his term for his conversations with Mother.

"I shall be employed here the rest of the day, Your Lordship," I said to put his mind at ease.

Due to so many interruptions, by tea I had only completed four squares in a diagonal from the upper left quadrant to the saint's fingertip upraised to heaven. Nevertheless, Cook was quite amazed when she came to view my progress.

"Never fancied the Rockingfords were much into art," she said.

She stood admiring the Raphael, nearly lost amongst the large portraits of the Lords Rockingford in armor and lace collars surrounding it. Then, taking my arm as she had so many times, she led me to the kitchen for tea.



Boxing Day at Rockingford-on-Quimby: Ah, how the very words evoke in me the joys of the season. The servants gather in the kitchen the day after Christmas, all aglow with anticipation. At precisely 4:30 PM, the doors are swung out, and everyone files into the Great Hall, where Lord Rockingford himself awaits us. After we have lined up along the walls beneath his ancestral portraits, His Lordship passes amongst us attired in his afternoon tweeds, flush from his first whisky of the day.

Regardless of merit, everyone receives at least a shilling and, in exceptional cases, a sovereign. Standing beside my easel, I watched His Lordship's progress about the Great Hall, followed by his new estate manager Mr. Devon Scintilton, a recent graduate in accounting from one of the red bricks. Mr. Scintilton was so devoted to His Lordship's affairs that he worked tirelessly in his office in the canned goods closet behind the kitchen, even taking his meals there.

Mr. Scintilton wore a heavy gray suit that concealed a slight and awkward frame, and had the pale complexion and heavy spectacles that mark a member of his dismal profession. His fine black hair was worn longer than usual on top and was combed to one side, as if he feared a bald spot were developing. He was, however, young.

As each of the serving staff bowed or curtsied at Lord Rockingford's approach, he would raise his hand palm up over his shoulder, and Mr. Scintilton would hand His Lordship a coin and check the servant's name off a list. I noticed an angry red welt on his right hand when he handed a coin to His Lordship for the cook's helper beside me.

"Fine piece of work, Sylph," His Lordship said to me, admiring my half finished copy of The Rockingford Raphael.

Looking up, I saw Mr. Scintilton studying my copy to the extent his poor eyesight would permit him. And then he looked at me. The Great Hall, the servants, Mother, even His Lordship vanished from my perception, and I was alone with only his two brown eyes peering through his spectacles. Neither of us dared look away until His Lordship harrumphed, "I say, Scintilton."

Flushed, the poor young man hurriedly handed him a £1 sterling coin, which Lord Rockingford pressed into my hand. As he moved on to Mother, Mr. Scintilton glanced at me once more, and in that glance did such things with my heart that only poets dare express.

"Quite a lovely year, my dear," His Lordship said to Mother as he handed her a stack of £5 gold sovereigns.

We were both blushing so much at our good fortune that we hardly noticed Ronald Quimby beside Mother. Fists clenched, he was wearing the same suit in which he had matriculated at Oxford before his misadventure so long ago. His garage man's shoes emphasized how much he had grown since the suit had been fitted. When His Lordship handed him a coin, Ronald glanced at it and grimaced.

As soon as His Lordship had completed his round and departed the Great Hall, we hurried into the kitchen for tea on the one day a year the female staff was permitted a glass of sherry and the male staff a glass of whisky. Ronald joined Mother and me beside the pastries after securing the promise of the drawing room butler, a teetotaler, to give him his dram.

"£1 for a year's labor," he said, tossing down his glass. "He treats family no better than the servants."

"Oh, come now, Ronald," Mother said. "Do not allow a spirit of spite to enter into our Boxing Day celebration."

"I will need far more than £1," he said, reaching for the bottle.

"How can that be?" I wondered.

"I have made some poor investments."

"I say, Mr. Quimby," a rude voice interrupted us. "Has Lord Rockingford met your expectations?"

I turned to see a vile little man in filthy overcoat, mud covered shoes, and rat like moustache behind me, clenching a ruined Derby hat in his dirty fingers.

"Alas, I fear he has not," Ronald replied.

"And who might you be?" I said in the tone Miss Trillingham herself taught us to address the lower classes.

It was shocking to think that such a creature had been admitted to Rockingford Hall.

"Triglyf Loench," he replied, baring orange teeth.

Since childhood I had heard Cook and other servants say, "Call Triggy" when they wished to wager, "A present from Triggy" when they won, and "A quid for Triggy" when they lost. For servants in the great houses of England, a well placed wager is often the only route for advancement.

Mr. Loench was very punctual in paying winnings and even more punctual collecting losses. He had never before entered Rockingford Hall. From this I surmised that his business was of importance.

"I shall have everything arranged by New Year," Ronald said, tossing down his second whisky.

"100 quid will not wait for the New Year," Mr. Loench replied.

To my horror, he set a filthy hand upon a petit four and consumed it in one mouthful, before taking a glass of sherry from one of the upstairs maids.

"We shall talk tomorrow, then," Ronald said.

"Indeed we shall, Mr. Quimby," said Triglyf Loench.



"I say, Sylphie," Ronald said admiring my finished copy of The Rockingford Raphael. "As good as the original, I should say."

Indeed, viewed in the pale January sun, my Martyrdom appeared nearly indistinguishable from the original, save only a light dusting of soot from generations of candles and fires in the Great Hall that dulled the original.

"I am sure Signore Puttanesco will be quite pleased," I replied, happily anticipating his joy to see my copy of this nearly forgotten masterpiece.

"I have arranged a private viewing for Signore Puttanesco," Ronald said.

"Of my copy?" I asked. "The whole school will see it at the exhibition."

"No, Sylphie, I have arranged for him to see the original."

"For what purpose, pray tell?"

"A confidential appraisal."

"I cannot imagine Lord Rockingford submitting any family property to anything as vulgar as an appraisal," I said, horrified by the scandal such a procedure could cause. "Lord Rockingford will never allow it out of his possession."

"Mr. Scintilton insists. We must have the appraisal for insurance purposes in case of loss."

"Well, in that case," I said, feeling again those warm affections associated with Mr. Scintilton. "But how shall you conceal its absence?"

"We shall substitute your copy until the original is returned," he said. "Here. Let us see how well your copy fits.

He removed The Rockingford Raphael from the wall, placed it face up upon the great table, and pried the original out of its frame with a screwdriver from his coverall pocket. Then he took my copy from the easel and inserted it into the frame.

"A perfect match," he exclaimed, holding up my copy to the light. "See, Sylphie, no one will ever know that it is a copy."

As he replaced the frame with my Martyrdom on the wall between two glowering Rockingford ancestors, I felt a shiver of pride. Who could have imagined that anything I created would come so close to greatness?

"Ronald, I must have my copy back by Trinity Term for the exhibition at Miss Trillingham's," I said, watching him place the original inside his coveralls.

"That will be no problem at all, dearest Sylphie," he said.



I was so thrilled to have been of some assistance to Mr. Scintilton in obtaining insurance for His Lordship that I could scarce conceal my excitement. When I searched for him in the canned goods closet off the kitchen where he made his office, however, he was not present.

"In the Great Garage, I should think," Cook called to me over a boiling kettle.

Mr. Scintilton was so devoted to His Lordship's affairs that when he was not engaged in the science of double entry bookkeeping, he was consumed by his researches. Although he had intimated that they enjoyed a prospect of success, he had not yet confided to me their nature. Forgetting his shyness and taciturnity, I wrapped myself in my school cape and hurried to the Great Garage.

"A £50 advance just to see the damned thing!" I heard Ronald cry from somewhere in the shadows beyond the old Bentley. "Enough to pay off Triggy and have a real weekend in London!"

"And the equipment for the laboratory?" Mr. Scintilton asked.

"That as well," Ronald said. "I am taking the Rolls down to London this afternoon and will pick it up at for you Cope's."

A door slammed at the back of the garage as he departed, and I stepped between the Rolls and the Aston Martin Mark II, which only His Lordship and Ronald were permitted to touch. An oblong of pale light appeared on the floor from the half open door of the oil closet. As I approached, something dark and hairy scuttled across the floor in front of me. I gasped. The spiders that infested the Great Garage were known to give bites that raised fearsome welts.

"I say!" Mr. Scintilton called. "Is someone there?"

I stepped into the oil closet, where he was sitting at a large bench with a pair of tweezers in his right hand and a glove on his left, with a small glass jar before him. A hooded table lamp with the light pointing downwards illuminated his hands. Several screen cages were piled up on the bench. When I looked closer, I felt a thrill of terror: they were filled with spiders. Had not Mr. Scintilton been present, I am quite sure I would have fainted.

"Pray forgive me for disturbing you, Mr. Scintilton," I said, recovering enough to begin the speech I had practiced a hundred times on my way from the kitchen. "Ronald tells me that I have been of some service to you in your labors for Lord Rockingford."

Under the bulb hanging over his bench from the ceiling, he appeared paler than usual.

"What has he told you?"

"That you are obtaining an appraisal of The Rockingford Raphael for insurance purposes."

"And this?" he said, gesturing to what I took to be his laboratory.

"Not a word."

"Then, my dear Miss de Quimby, or may I call you Sylph?"

"If I may call you Devon," I blushed.

"I am engaged in secret researches for the Admiralty to synthesize the venom of the Rockingford Spider, or Acanthepeira Rockingfordensis, as it is known in scientific circles."

Scientific matters were far beyond the comprehension of delicate young ladies, or so Miss Trillingham taught us. But we were all aroused to the fiercest patriotism by any mention of the Admiralty.

"Why might the Admiralty be interested in spider venom?" I inquired.

"Because it is unknown, it is untraceable."

My heart beat so fast at the thought of knowing such a heroic personage that I could scarce comprehend what he was saying.

"Ever since the Rockingford Spider became attracted to empty Imperial Oil cans, its bite has become most dangerous," he continued. "Some property of the oil must enhance the natural toxicity of its venom. If only I could isolate that property, then I could synthesize a substance to enhance the effectiveness of medicinal agents."

Pausing, he looked at me intently, as if he feared I might question his motives.

"Similar work is being done to derive new anesthetics from curare, the poison used by savages in the Amazon jungles," he added.

Never had I imagined that Lord Rockingford's estate manager would be on the verge of such findings. How his eyes brightened to see me flush.

"How is your work progressing?" I asked, scarce able to contain my excitement.

"I have perfected a method to remove the venom sack safely from the spider by first snipping off the right hind leg."

As he spoke, he opened one of the screen cages with his gloved hand and removed a spider by one leg before slamming the lid shut on the others. Holding it under the light on his bench, he raised his tweezers, removed a leg with one pinch and the poison sack with another, and tossed the now seven legged creature out into the garage. Then he dropped the poison sack into his glass jar.

"I am very near to having a sufficient supply to synthesize," he continued. "All I lack is the proper equipment, but Mr. Ronald Quimby now promises to provide that."

"Dearest Devon," I said. "Your secret is safe with me."

"Miss de Quimby, or Sylph I should say. You have made me very happy."

As I made my way back through the Great Garage, I forgot the spiders lurking in the shadows. Of course they were harmless with their venom sacks removed, but what could such seven legged monsters presage?



When I returned to Miss Trillingham's at Hillary Term, I found Signore Puttanesco in his office, stuffing papers into a briefcase. His appearance was disheveled, and a look approaching horror passed across his fine features when he saw me. He was not surprised to hear that I had not brought my copy of The Rockingford Raphael with me.

"I cannot deal with another copy of The Martyrdom of St. Claridon Frigidus, Miss de Quimby," he said. "My reputation at all the Cork Street galleries has been ruined."

"Whatever can you mean, Signore?" I asked.

"My dear girl, The Rockingford Raphael is a forgery."

Never have I been so amazed.

"How can that be?" I exclaimed.

"Even the dealers were fooled at first. They paid Mr. Ronald Quimby a £50 advance, and now they are demanding that the money be returned."

"Pray tell how the Martyrdom came into the hands of dealers," I asked in the tone appropriate for any person of quality discussing trade. "I advised him to contact you for an insurance appraisal."

"There are better ways to convert an objet d'art to cash than through insurance," he replied, showing for a moment some of his former savoir fair du monde.

"But it has hung in the Great Hall for generations," I protested.

"Not for generations enough. In the inventory of Pope Julius' Raphaels, The Martyrdom of St. Claridon Frigidus is listed as being in the Papal Apartments in the Vatican. No one from the outer world has seen it for 500 years."

"I am quite certain that His Lordship will consult his solicitor when he hears such slander is being spread about his estate," I said.

"Miss de Quimby, Ronald and I have been undone by the most pernicious sort of carping and officious pedantry," he said, closing his briefcase. "Historical scholarship has surpassed its limits."

All traces of his Italian accent had disappeared, and I heard a trace of Cockney in his complaint. Evidently Signore Puttanesco had learned English from association with the lower classes.

"Surely such an ancient copy must be of some value," I protested.

"Only to those who boast of fraudulent trophies on their walls."

"Do not despair," I said, eager to console him. "I shall bring my copy to Miss Trillngham's exhibit next term, and we shall be comforted by the sang froid of the saint."

"I could not bear it," he protested. "Now I must depart."



Ah, the bittersweet thoughts that filled my breast as the train approached Rockingford Platform at the end of Hillary Term. After Signore Puttanesco's abrupt departure, Masterpieces from the Great English Houses had been cancelled. Miss Trillingham was unable to find another instructor of his stature to curate it. She did, however, call me into her private parlor to offer condolences that have inspired me to this day.

"Miss de Quimby, I am very much aware of your disappointment," she began. "Nevertheless, I have arrived at the judgment that poesy is a better occupation for a young lady of quality than painting."

Erect, regal, tea cup held parallel to her person in Queen Victoria's finest manner, she was the model of proper English womanhood. Her hair, rising above her noble countenance in a pompadour supported by a brace of tortoise shell combs, and her massive bosom, supported by I know not what bustier, always provoked astonishment.

"Certain painters have been known to be unfit companions for young ladies," she continued, having interpreted my silence as a question.

"What, pray tell, shall inspire me to poesy?"

It had taxed my imagination to copy Elizabeth Barrett Browning's verses during penmanship class.

"Proper subjects lie all about us, dear girl," she replied. "We have only to observe and appreciate them."

Of course I accepted her counsel.

"And Miss de Quimby," she continued in a more subdued tone. "I would not let His Lordship know of Signore Puttanesco's unexpected congé. It might unduly disturb him."



I have only once seen a sky as blue as the heavenly sky into which St. Claridon Frigidus gazed in his last agony, and that was the day Devon Scintilton met me at Rockingford Platform. Three months absence had only increased my affection for him, and his letters bespoke his passion. Due to the secrecy of his work, however, he could not fully apprise me of his researches. Nevertheless, the acquisition of the latest scientific apparatus had greatly accelerated his progress.

In that wonderful moment when I stepped out of the station, fully expecting to find Ronald waiting with the Vauxhall and saw instead my Devon in the 14th Lord Rockingford's cabriolet, I was seized by such powerful emotions that I had to grip the railing to steady myself. Devon sprang to my aid, and for a second I fancied that he was going to welcome my return with an embrace. Alas, no; amongst people of quality, public expressions of passion are never permitted. So he waived to a porter to bring my bags and gently took my arm.

"My dearest Sylph," he exclaimed as we trotted out of the station yard and onto the road to Rockingford. "I perceive that you are exhausted by your studies."

"I am overcome by the joys of returning to my home," I said, and we proceeded to talk about so many happy subjects that the miles quickly passed until we reached the gated portico to the estate. Indeed, I was so intoxicated by Devon's presence that I hardly noticed two men in bowler hats and long dark coats standing beside a mud spattered Austin 7 parked at the gate.

"Whatever business could such people have at Rockingford?" I asked Devon.

"They are bailiffs," he replied.

The very thought of a bailiff entering Rockingford was an insult to the very concept of aristocracy.

"I fear that Mr. Ronald Quimby's latest venture has failed to prosper," he continued, stepping down from the trap.

Then I saw His Lordship's gamekeeper standing with his shotgun on the other side of the gate. Whilst the gamekeeper blocked any advance by the bailiffs, Ronald swung open the gate, returned to the cabriolet, and drove us between the twin porticos crowned with the Rockingford crest.

"I hope poor Ronald is not discomfited by his misadventure," I said.

"Oh, no, dear Sylph," Devon assured me. "Mr. Ronald Quimby has put himself at my disposal to advance my researches."



Trinity Term was fast approaching, but the spirit of poesy was absent from Rockingford-on-Quimby. Sometimes I paced the Great Hall beneath the stern visages of bygone Lord Rockingfords, hoping for inspiration. Then I would see my copy of The Rockingford Raphael still hanging in the place of the original and become even more melancholy. All my efforts to achieve distinction at Miss Trillingham's were fraught with failure.

Ronald was nowhere to be seen. According to Cook, he now took all his meals in the Great Garage, where he was devoting himself to assisting Devon in his researches. Apparently his affairs with Triglyf Loench had been satisfactorily resolved, for although I occasionally saw Mr. Loench consulting some of the staff, he made no particular mention of Ronald.

Outside the estate was pale green with spring, lambs were bleating and serpents were moulting, but I could find no subject on which to focus my literary efforts. Or, rather, I could think of nothing but Devon. We exchanged many glances whilst eating in the kitchen, and sometimes a whispered confidence afterwards, but his work for the Admiralty too often kept him from me. So my thoughts followed him to the Great Garage, place of so many secrets. Suddenly passion and curiosity met, and I had my subject: the Great Garages of England.

That afternoon I asked Devon to accompany me into the Great Garage to stimulate my pen. At first he was reluctant, but seeing the intensity of my passion, he relented.

"I would wear boots, Sylph, in case one of those damned things tries to run up your leg," he advised.

I shuddered to contemplate a seven legged spider scrambling up my stockings. After pulling on the boots, I took his hand. It was unnaturally cold. Had I not known otherwise, I might have thought he was possessed by thoughts other than love. As we entered the Great Garage, he dropped my hand and turned on the lights.

For a moment I stood admiring Lord Ronald's vehicles: the Rolls Royce touring car, the Bentley convertible, the Aston Martin, the Vauxhall, and the lorry. Toward the back were the carriages, including a landau, a phaeton, the cabriolet, and a fiacre the 16th Lord Rockingford had acquired in Paris so he could be driven about without unduly calling attention to himself. Furthest away was the motor tricycle he had acquired from Mr. Benz in Berlin in 1887 during his grand tour. When he served as governor of the Punjab, his consort had put the tricycle to good use on her periodic inspection trips to observe how far the Indians had advanced in acquiring civilization. Though her hopes were often disappointed, she was renowned throughout the Raj for having found a more reliable way to clear the roads ahead of her than her husband when he progressed about the Punjab with a regiment of cavalry.

"Are you finding what you need?" Devon inquired, speaking in an unnaturally loud voice, as if to alert someone to our approach.

I heard something move on the other side of the steam tricycle and took Devon's hand again.

"Oh, I say, Sylphie," Ronald said, stepping out of the oil closet and wiping his oil stained fingers with a filthy rag. "Whatever brings you here?"

I was surprised to see he was wearing a face mask around his neck such as chemists affect when dealing with dangerous substances.

"I am seeking inspiration for my essay on the Great Garages of England," I replied. "May I inspect the laboratory?"

"I should think not," Devon said.

"Why ever not?" I asked Devon, hurt that he would try to dissuade me.

"But of course," Ronald replied. "Sylph is practically family."

He looked intensely at Devon, as if that fact had special significance.

Suddenly I sneezed violently, as if I were allergic to some substance inside the oil closet.

"Allow me to offer you a face mask," Ronald said.

I released Devon's cold hand to accept a mask from Ronald, which he kindly helped to secure over my nose and mouth. Inside, the oil closet was much altered, with chemical apparatus covering the work bench, and cages of mice stacked along the walls where the spiders had once been housed. From a long glass tube a translucent brown liquid was dripping into a test tube.

"We shall soon have enough synthetic venom to begin animal tests," Ronald confided, nodding toward the squealing mice.

"The Sea Lords must be pleased,'" I said.

"It would be best to omit any mention of our researches in the oil closet from your essay," he cautioned. "The Official Secrets Act strictly forbids it."

Again I felt those patriotic sentiments that had first excited me when Devon described his work.

"Your secrets are safe with me," I promised. "But tell me the progress of your insurance appraisal for The Rockingford Raphael. I see that the original has not been returned to its place."

"Despite my admonitions, the insurer's agent has retained it as security for the payment of a £50 appraisal fee."

"Scandalous!" I exclaimed. "Has not His Lordship consulted his solicitor over this outrage?"

"His Lordship's health has entered a difficult stage," Ronald replied, looking at Devon as if for confirmation. "We dare not excite him."

"I quite understand," I agreed. "Nothing irritates him so much as trade."

Mother had confided that His Lordship's joie de vivre had declined after Lady Rockingford announced her forthcoming return from Cannes, where she had fled with their two young sons in 1929.

I stepped out of the oil closet, removed the face mask, and returned it to Ronald. He smiled when he saw me reach for Devon's hand.

"Everything shall be ready by Boating Day," he said, referring to the boat races on the Quimby River that Lord Rockingford and all his relatives in line for the title attended every summer.

"How exciting," I said. "I cannot wait until Trinity Term has ended, and the Long Vac has begun."



Here I fear my pen must rest. After Lord Rockingford and all the other sixteen Rockingfords between Ronald, myself and the title had been poisoned with synthetic spider venom Cook mistook for paprika for the deviled eggs for the Boating Day picnic, and even Ronald succumbed to a later accidental ingestion, I instructed my solicitor to conduct a discrete inquiry into the whereabouts of The Rockingford Raphael. It was located in a shabby gallery off Cork Street and recovered for less than £5. I returned it to its rightful place between the 6th and 7th Lord Rockingfords and hung my copy in my chamber. After a particularly difficult day, I often retire to admire my one time skill and reflect upon my happy youthful adventures in the fine arts.

6 comments:

  1. The Quimby family stories would be a worthy successor to P. G. Wodehouse.

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  2. Strong, witty writing with a wonderful cast of intriguing improbables to tickle the readers imagination, thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  3. A worthy episode in the Rockingford chronicles; in fact, it may be the best of them all.

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  4. A story written in a very formal style.

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  5. Very good read. As always

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  6. Another superior read from the pen of Fred McGavran. As usual, the plot is complex with the presentation of truly interesting characters.

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