Following the hapless buffoonery of Biffo and Mungo foiling the dastardly plans of Baron von Spätlese in The Secret Army Aeroplane, Rupert Millar is back with another jolly jape set in a world of Edwardian high society. This is The Gower Street Hoax – A Caper…
Thaddeus Watts of 5 Fitzroy Square stood looking out of his window, feeling vexed. The reason for his vexation, though bound up in the wider complications and travails of the human spirit to which Thaddeus was more than usually subject, was, essentially, boredom. This ennui was bred of inactivity and, try as he might, Thaddeus could do nothing to shake it. He felt unimaginative, restless and devoid of inspiration. In short, unremarkable and that depressed him still further. He had hoped that being cut off from the world for a while would encourage his inner muse. A spot of self-imposed ostracism normally lead to, at the very least, some ideas for a few articles and perhaps allowed him to read the odd book.
This, however, had not happened. He couldn’t find anything he wanted to write about and he’d read all of his books before and couldn’t bear to re-read any of them. And so he was reduced to lounging around his rooms, lost in his own thoughts, feeling disaffected, listless and not in the least bit witty. Even the brightness of the day did nothing to lift his mood.This was very far from his usual self. Thaddeus was a well-known man about town. Charming, handsome and erudite, he was something of a darling of all the smart sets, a wit, raconteur, writer of comic operas and political satire, a well-dressed bon viveur and a notorious practical joker.
Turning himself from the window he cast another look at his desk where a neglected invitation to dine on Sunday lay. Mrs Gloria Hamilton-Fish was trying to tempt him out with her chef, Antoine’s, lamb’s ears in savoury jelly again. Thaddeus had considered it and for a moment had indeed been tempted. Antoine was one of the best cooks in London after all.
On the other hand, Thaddeus was well aware that the primary reason for the invitation was to try and bring him into contact with Mrs Hamilton-Fish’s daughter, Wandelmode. Vast, giggling, unfortunate Wandelmode and her awful, tuneless singing. The very thought of having to sit of an afternoon and listen to Wandelmode warbling of “a cross-eyed little poodle down Piccadilly way” while her mother cast knowing looks between her daughter and he was enough to put him off the idea of lunch completely.
He crossed the room and was just about to launch into another mental discourse on the pointlessness of it all while lying disenchanted and more than a little poetically on a couch, when there was a sudden knock at the door. He sat up at the noise. Springing to the window again he threw it open and looked down at the two figures standing outside.
“Hi!” he called down to them, “who’s there?”
The two men immediately looked up, smiled and waved and Thaddeus found himself gazing into the faces of his friends, Valtravers FitzPickering and Lovell Beazley.
“Thaddeus!” they called up, “Let us in, you rogue!”
“Wait there! I’m coming!”
Seized with newfound energy at seeing his pals and the thought of company he practically flew out of the room in a blizzard of unused paper. He leapt down the stairs four at a time with only the door bringing him, helter-skelter, to a stop. Throwing it open he addressed his visitors with open arms.
“Welcome, friends, welcome! By Jove but I’m glad to see you!”
They trooped in, each receiving a vigorous handshake from their host.
“I say, steady on, Thaddeus,” they said as they nursed their crushed and crumpled digits back into shape. “What’s the matter with you? Where have you been? Has being cooped up all this time sent you dotty?”
Thaddeus waved away their questions with both arms. He wanted conversation and, taking to the stairs once more, bounded up calling out. “Questions later! Come on, follow me!”
Valtravers and Lovell rolled their eyes and followed at a more measured pace, arriving upstairs in time to see Thaddeus fling himself with boyish abandon onto the couch. Casting their hats and coats onto the back of whichever chair presented itself they took up positions around the room in rakish poses, Valtravers sinking into a chair with one leg flung over the arm and Lovell reclining on a window seat.
“Oh my friends I’m so glad to see you,” Thaddeus repeated, adopting his most tragic demeanour as he played to the crowd. “I have been so lonely here, so lacking in good company that I’ve been cast into a well of despair.” Valtravers and Lovell watched with amusement as they saw their melodramatic friend warm to his new character of the tormented genius. “How long have I lain here lost in thought?” he emoted with limp gesticulations towards the ceiling. “How long dispirited, wracked with doubt?”
“I take it you haven’t managed to achieve much since you disappeared four days ago,” asked Valtravers. “Have you been here all this time? I must admit there was a moment when you didn’t appear for cards one night that we grew worried.”
“Did you really?” said Thaddeus propping himself up on his forearms and looking wide-eyed at his friends.
“No!” said Lovell from the window with a laugh.
“Oh, thank heavens!” said Thaddeus settling down again.
He was himself again now and, a sure sign he was happier with his lot, he balanced the heel of his left boot on the toes of his right switching the position with elaborate flourishes from time to time as he spoke.
“Oh, damn it all, chaps, it’s been awful I tell you, awful. I thought I might manage to achieve something while squirreled away but I haven’t and all I feel is rotten.”
“Heavens, old man, are you ill?” asked Lovell.
“Alack,” said Thaddeus doing his best to look wan. “Perchance.”
At once his friends rushed to his side.
“Lie still, dear fellow,” advised Valtravers with mock sincerity. “You need a doctor.”
“Do you really think so?” Thaddeus inquired.
“Absolutely!” Lovell declared. “Here, have a thermometer,” he added sticking a handy cheroot between Thaddeus’ lips. Valtravers lit it and the pair of them removed their pocket watches with a flourish, grasped a wrist apiece and took Thaddeus’ pulse.
“What are my chances, doctors?” inquired the patient, his voice frail and trembling.
Lovell and Valtravers looked up from their watches and shook their heads gravely.
“Your diagnosis too, doctor?” Valtravers asked Lovell.
“I’m afraid it is,” the other replied. “Acute ennui of the temporal mandible cortex.”
“The acutest case I’ve ever seen,” Valtravers concurred.
“What do you suggest?” said Thaddeus.
“Poetry,” Lovell declared. “Prose, you must stimulate your cerebral lobes.”
“I see,” said Thaddeus massaging his forehead, “yes, I suppose they are feeling rather underused.”
“If not,” Valtravers warned, “I fear you must surely perish.”
And the two of them retreated back to their seats.
“Alas,” said Thaddeus waving a cheroot-adorned hand defeatedly, “I am undone. I sometimes wonder if I shall ever have an original thought again.”
“Oh come on, Thaddeus,” Lovell chided. “You’re a veritable hive of first-rate ideas. Why, what about that gag you pulled pretending to be the king of a white tribe in darkest Africa? You toured the country for weeks before you were rumbled.”
“Or when you claimed to have discovered the location of El Dorado,” Valtravers chimed in.
“And that you had traversed the world by balloon!”
As his companions traded stories of past exploits, Thaddeus’s eyes grew wider as the germ of an idea took root in his mind.
“Thaddeus old man, you’ve had the whole of London talking for days with your pranks,” Lovell concluded. The words had an electric effect upon the budding recluse.
“Good lord I have it!” he exclaimed suddenly leaping to his feet and rushing to his desk. He began to scribble ideas down as quickly as he could.
“What? What is it?” cried his friends.
“Wait, wait!” he answered, writing feverishly and talking to himself under his breath.
At last, with a final triumphal cry, he threw down his pen and span around to face his guests, his eyes flashing with impish glee.
“Valtravers, Lovell,” he announced. “You have given me reason to love the world once more. Your timely arrival has shaken me loose from the grip of sloth and apathy and so I present to you, by way of thanks, a wager.”
The pair leaned forward – this was interesting.
“I put it to you that, within a week, I can turn any ordinary address in London of your choice into the most talked about place in town.”
“Rot!” said Lovell.
“Now, now” said Valtravers, who had always been more of a betting man, “I’ll take the wager, though I fear you’re sure to lose.”
“Don’t be so confident, my dear Valtravers” said Thaddeus, “Lovell? Will you take the wager?” Lovell looked unsure.
“Please, Lovell,” Thaddeus asked, “it would make it so much more fun if you were in on this too.”
With a wave of the hand, Lovell acquiesced. “Oh, very well.”
“Hoorah!” laughed Thaddeus, “And what exactly shall we wager?”
“A shilling!” said Valtravers.
“A guinea,” said Lovell raising the stakes.
“In for a penny, in for a pound, eh Lovell?” chuckled Thaddeus, “but truly my friends, money is too base reward for such a stratagem. Let us make it a more tantalising, indeed a more delicious and agreeable, proposition. The loser (or losers) buys the other a grouse supper and the best bottle of claret he can afford.”
“Done!” they cried.
“Excellent and now, dear company, it is for you to choose the site where this wager of ours shall come to a head.”
Lovell and Valtravers looked at each other, frozen with indecision as people so often are when expected to make a choice.
After a moment though, Lovell exclaimed, “Bloomsbury!”
“Gower Street!” added Valtravers.
“What number?” Thaddeus shot back leaning forward excitedly.
“Twelve!” the other two cried in unison as if, in that instant, possessed of one mind.
They looked at each other slightly surprised but Thaddeus leant back with a smile playing about his lips.
“Very well,” he declared. “Leave everything to me, chaps,” he added gathering up their coats and chivvying them out of their seats.“Now, I’m afraid the time has come for you to leave, I can’t thank you enough for your visit. Yes, Lovell it has been most wonderful to see you again but I’m afraid you simply can’t stay. I have much to do and precious little time in which to do it. No Valtravers you may not know what I am planning to do and I forbid you to ask. You shall just have to come back one week from today, that is to say on Friday the 18th.”
Shutting the door behind them he raced back upstairs and went to work.
For the next week Thaddeus Watts remained incarcerated in his study. This was no period of lethargic inactivity like that which had gone before, however. No, Thaddeus was now embarked on an undertaking that required every ounce of his skill as a writer, every jot of his imagination and he worked with all the fervour of a zealot. Day and night by sun or candlelight Thaddeus made his preparations, rarely leaving, save to take a quick walk here and there.
Early the following Friday morning, Valtravers and Lovell knocked on the front door of 5 Fitzroy Square. A little while later the door opened and Thaddeus appeared in a blur and swept past them shouting as he did so, “Come, come! We have not a moment to lose! Follow me!”
“But where are we going?” they cried.
“Never you mind,” Thaddeus replied with scarcely a glance in their direction merely adding the caveat, “but come with me or you’ll miss all the fun!”
Valtravers and Lovell took off after him and the trio struck out at a furious pace with Thaddeus at their head, he smiling with excitement, they barely able to take breath to ask even a single question.
Crossing over the Tottenham Court Road they arrived in Gower Street with its black-fronted houses and continued to pace along until Thaddeus drew up sharply in front of one. He rummaged in a pocket for a moment and then produced a key which he fitted into the lock. Finally his companions had a moment to question him while he was stationary. Breathing hard and slightly flustered they bombarded him with questions.
“Now see here, Thaddeus! What is going on? Whose house is this? Why are we here?”
But Thaddeus had the door open and merely beckoned them inside.
Why has Thaddeus led his befuddled companions here? What could be at this address? What on earth is our classically-named protagonist concocting? And have they time for a spot of tiffin?
Read on tomorrow only in The Arbuturian…
Main picture courtesy of peterberthoud.co.uk