“Well, I just won’t divorce him,” Hazel said loudly through the door that divided her bedroom from the walk-in closet she was now in. “You know as well as I do that it’s something that the Frobishers just don’t do.” She was admiring her outfit in the full-length mirror she stood in front of, turning to see if the diamond necklace she had just put on really went with the low-cut black evening dress she was wearing. Deciding it didn’t, she took it off and replaced it with a much smaller one. This was considerably lighter and consisted of a single line of diamonds set in a thin gold chain. She bent her head as she snapped closed the clasp at the back of her neck, and looked in the mirror again, adjusting the necklace so that it lay straight and so that the diamonds were central and the plain gold chain equally up either side of her slender neck to meet at the clasp behind. She turned again, looking at her reflection as she did so. This necklace was the first piece of jewellery her husband had given her, when she was still Miss Hazel Frobisher. He had handed it to her in a case across a table they had shared overlooking the Danube in Budapest in a small restaurant there.
“He’s had affairs before, I just know he has,” she continued to her sister in the next room, “but something about this one seems different to the others.”
She took off in the necklace again, returning it to the case she had taken it from, and closed it securely. She had decided that it went much better with the dress than the chunkier one she had tried on before. She snapped the case containing that one shut too, and returned both to the dressing table drawer she had taken them from.
“I’ve never found any evidence of course,” she said as she unzipped the black dress, catching it before it could fall to the floor and hanging it back up on its wooden hanger, “he’s far too clever for that, but a wife knows these things.”
She hung the dress up amongst the other gowns she had taken it from. It was new, bought specifically for the forthcoming party. It flowed when she was in it, it’s long dark lines complementing her slim figure perfectly. The shoes that she planned to wear with it appeared to have taller heels than they actually did. She had grown expert in choosing such styles, not wanting to emphasise more than she could help that at 5’8″ she was taller than her husband.
“He hasn’t visited me in the night for… well, you know… for months now and I’m sure that the trips he claims are for business are really an excuse to be with someone else.”
Lord and Lady Allenby had slept in separate rooms for many years now. It started as just the odd night apart when his business trips into the city ran late or when he returned home late at night from travelling overseas. He stayed in another room, claiming that he didn’t want to disturb her by coming into their room so late. The odd night became two or three when he told her that he was sleeping much better, not being disturbed either by her snoring, which she denied doing vehemently, or by her tendency to try to cover the whole bed, no matter how big it was, when she was asleep. This she couldn’t deny, usually waking to find herself at the centre of the bed, and James pushed to one side as far as he could go without falling off. Over what was only a few months the arrangement became more or less permanent. She hadn’t spoken up or complained when he moved his clothes out of the closet they shared and into another adjoining the room he was now sleeping in. If nothing else, the arrangement left more room for her ever-growing collection of clothes.
Some people chose to eat as a release when passion left their lives, perhaps a liking for chocolates or cakes, or enjoying too many frequent large and rich meals. Lady Allenby chose to shop. It wasn’t a conscious choice, though she liked her slender figure and worked hard to maintain it, but rather that she didn’t realise she was doing it. The Manor was very large, and easily absorbed the household items she purchased and the clothes she bought, which ranged from fine gowns and dresses for formal occasions to the elegant suits and skirts that she wore as daywear or for staying at home in, fitted somewhere in her wardrobe. Now and then she tried to thin out her dress collection, but her efforts were not usually very successful. Although she normally wore the eveningwear only once or twice, she could rarely make herself part with a garment, either to give it to charity or to just throw it out. She tended to hold on to everything in the hope that she might have occasion to wear it again. When the racks got too tight for her to view her collection easily, and when trying to thin it out by selecting items to dispose of failed, she would box up some of the things, for instance dresses that were no longer in style, and arrange for them to be stored in the Manor’s attic rooms. Even this wasn’t terribly successful. She tried, again more or less unconsciously, to buy outfits that would always look good on her, no matter what the current fashion might be. The items she wore as daywear were more easy to get rid of, and she did so frequently. Usually there was nothing wrong with what she was disposing of, she had just tired of it or wanted to make room for something new. Second-hand clothing that had once belonged to Lady Allenby was to be found being worn by its second owners for many miles around. She could always be relied upon to fill a sack for a charity she supported, or for one of the local jumble sales.
She pulled on and buttoned up a simple white blouse and slid a dark tweed suit over the base of it, breathing in a little to allow the small zip on one side of it to be pulled up into place. She finished the outfit off by selecting a pair of low heeled brown shoes from a shelf and dropping them on to the floor, stepping into each one as she did so.
“Well,” she said to her sister as she stepped back into the bedroom from the closet, “hopefully he won’t even bring it up. He knows how I feel about such things anyway, I’ve told him often enough.”
She didn’t add, but did think, that she knew enough about some of his more shady dealings to make his life very uncomfortable if he tried to divorce her. She even had some of the gardener’s original plant clips, and James’ first attempts at producing something similar, which at the time he thought he had disposed of. She had let the fact slip ‘accidentally’ when she had first grown suspicious. There was little point in having such a hold over him if he didn’t know it.
She liked both her position as Lady Allenby and the lifestyle that the estate and her husband’s money enabled her to lead. She planned on giving up neither easily. The real problem was actually that she still loved her husband. She was convinced that as he grew older, his ‘little amusements’ outside their marriage would grow fewer and fewer and would eventually stop altogether. Indeed, they seemed to have done so. There had been a definite rekindling of their relationship and a renaissance of their lives together until nearly 2 years ago, when she believed someone else had entered the scene. She had convinced herself up until then, that James had found again the love for her that he had first professed nearly 35 years before.
She thought back to their first meeting, a fortunate chance that put them in the same place at the same time. Not that his being there had been fortunate for James, of course. They’d first met in a hospital, where James had been recovering after an accident. The car James had been driving had been a convertible and he had not been wearing a seatbelt. When it had rolled over he had been thrown out of it. The throw broke his leg, but probably saved his life. His first wife, Dawn, had been wearing her belt, which had held her in place when it rolled. When the first of the emergency services had arrived, Dawn had been dead, a broken neck being the cause, though she would probably have died from the head injuries she had received if not from that.
Hazel had been visiting a sick uncle in the room next to James’ and had answered his plaintive cries for a nurse. His call buzzer, it seemed, wasn’t working. Or maybe was just not being responded to quickly enough. They’d begun chatting when Hazel asked why his leg was in a sling and James had recounted his story to her. She had felt sorry for him at first, but his light conversation and good humour had soon lifted her mood and time had passed quickly. So quickly in fact that her uncle, who was at least mobile, had come looking for her. She had excused herself to continue her visit with her uncle, but had called back before leaving, promising to visit again the following day. Her visits to her uncle became daily, and she spent at least as much time with James as she did with him. When her uncle was discharged, she continued to visit James until he too could leave the hospital. At his invitation, she had joined him on a tour of Europe’s main cities, acting as both companion and nurse, and pushing him around in a wheelchair when he became too tired to carry on using the crutches he spent most of the time getting around on. They started their tour in separate rooms, but as they visited each romantic city their relationship grew from one of friendship to one of romance. By the time they finished their tour and returned to England for James’s cast to be removed, they were not only sharing the same room, but had become engaged.
They delayed their wedding some months, mainly out of respect for Dawn, but Hazel spent most of her time with James at the Manor. They had separate rooms there, of course, for form’s sake if for nothing else. Each night, James would visit her, but would leave the following morning before their time together could be noticed by the rest of the family.
When they did finally marry, just over a year after they had first met, it was a relatively low-key affair. They used James’s local church and had the reception at the Manor. She had been a dutiful wife whenever the occasion called for it and had spent her days helping Lady Valerie Allenby run the house when she was not out visiting friends or enjoying various sports, which helped keep her slim and athletic.
When James’s father had died and she became the new Lady Allenby, she had taken to the role very comfortably and maintained the proper decorum expected of her. She liked her new position of responsibility for the household, though she did not like to get too much involved with the details. She would liaise with Polly over what dishes to serve that week and any special tasks that needed doing. When the new butler had arrived on the scene and had seemed willing to take over the details of running much of the household and of the upkeep of the house itself, she had been quite happy to delegate this responsibility to him. She had very little now to occupy her except shop.
“Are you ready?” she asked her sister Anne, as she headed towards the door out of the bedroom and onto the landing. It was almost as if it was Anne who had delayed their exit rather than Hazel.
“The taxi to take us into town will be here soon,” she continued, “we don’t want to keep him waiting.”
She had planned to order a giant birthday cake for James’s party. It would have had two tiers on it, the top smaller one made of ingredients that James could enjoy safely and the larger bottom part of regular foodstuffs suitable for the other guests. That idea had gone out of the window when Valerie had suggested that morning that Polly make individual cakes for everyone. It was a good idea. It would save cutting the cake into the many pieces that would be needed to accommodate all the party guests, and you could never be quite sure with store bought products that they really contained only the ingredients they said they did. Everyone had to be so careful with James’s allergies. At least if Polly made the cake herself, she could be sure that it contained only the things that it was safe for James to eat, and that the bowls and utensils used to prepare it had been thoroughly cleaned before being used in its preparation.
It did though leave her with the problem of what to buy for James. There was nothing that he needed nor, as far as she knew, that he wanted. When she had asked him directly for gift ideas he had dismissed the question, saying that he didn’t want anything but that if she insisted on giving him a present, he would be very happy with whatever she chose. Then an idea struck her. She would buy him a watch. It was, after all, what one was supposed to get when one retired. He had two already, a very smart Rolex which he wore for special occasions or when he wanted to impress at some function or other, and another that he had been given by his father that he wore for everyday use. It had become a little chipped and dented over the years but still kept good time, and wound itself automatically so that one didn’t have to keep doing it manually or worry about batteries as one had to with many of those on sale today. The town had several jewellers so finding something suitable shouldn’t be a problem and if she chose one today there would be time to have it suitably inscribed before the party.
Of course what she should really give him was divorce papers, but she had no evidence to back up her strongly held feelings and anyway as she had said to Anne on more than one occasion, she didn’t intend to let him off so easily. She had a fine life generally speaking. She loved being Lady Hazel and loved living in the house with its servants and fine grounds. She would have to give all of that up if she divorced him, which she wasn’t going to do without a fight. Sleeping in separate bedrooms had been something she had become used to, and she didn’t even really mind that their sex life had become virtually non-existent. She could do without it well enough and there were always possibilities with Timothy, who seemed still to dote on her, though she had given him very little encouragement to do so. Certainly not deliberately at least.
She made her way down the wide staircase to the hall without waiting for Anne, though she could hear her footsteps behind her. When the doorbell rang she assumed it was her taxi, and called out to Jeeves not to bother to answer as he emerged from the kitchen, that she would get it herself as she was already nearly there. It was, as she had expected, her taxi. The man didn’t wait to escort them to the car, nor hold open the rear door for them to enter, but returned directly to the driver’s seat as soon as he had muttered ‘taxi for Lady Allenby’. She held open the Manor’s front door and let her sister past her to the cab, while determining to reflect this in the tip she gave the man at the end of their journey.
By the time that Hazel and Anne had returned from their shopping trip they’d both been successful in their quests. Hazel had found a watch for James and had left instructions for it to be posted to her as soon as the inscription was completed. She had also found a nice bracelet for Julian at the same jewellers. She had decided to have that inscribed too and had left it, with the watch, to be sent on. She had found a nice dress too in one of the many clothing outlets they had visited. She would wear it at Julian’s party, regardless of whether they went out or stayed in. It hung from her arm in the large carrier bag the assistant had placed it carefully in, wrapping it in copious amounts of light plastic sheets to keep it safe for the journey. Anne too had bought dresses for both occasions, though they were not nearly as expensive as Hazel’s, not even if you added the cost of each together. She had also found gifts for the brothers. Again, they weren’t nearly as valuable as the ones Hazel had to give, but were trinkets to wrap and hand over. Anne was working to a far tighter budget than Hazel.
James’s cases were already in the hallway. There were two instead of the usual one. When Jeeves came into the hall from the kitchen he offered to take both ladies’ bags to their rooms after he had put the cases in the boot of James’s jag, but Hazel dismissed the offer. She planned to try the dress on again as soon as she had unwrapped it, before finding a suitable place to hang it so that any creases it had gained during their ride home would be gone by the time she wanted to wear it for real.
Jeeves picked up the two cases, and the smaller flight bag which James would keep with him for the journey, and took them to the car. James himself appeared from his study, dressed casually for a change and clutching his briefcase, before Hazel could mount the staircase to her room.
“Off again so soon, dear?” she said to him.
“I need to get to the airport in good time to meet Julian’s flight,” James replied. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back before you know it, and things will be very different after the party, I promise.” He kissed her lightly on the cheek and left the house to climb into his jag and start the drive to the airport.
The weekend passed slowly, broken only by the meals they took. Philip Leslie joined them for all of these and on the Sunday, Timothy arrived for lunch, spent the whole afternoon with them, and stayed to dinner too.
Early on the Monday morning she decided that she ought to be sure that the clothes James would wear to the party at the end of the week were ready for him. There would be no time to get them clean when he returned, as he wasn’t due back until the same date as the party. She wasn’t sure, but thought he would probably wear his dinner jacket. At least she could make sure that was ready as an alternative if what he was planning to wear wasn’t up to spec.
The walk-in wardrobe he kept all his clothes in was very similar to her own, though nowhere near as full of course. It didn’t take her long to find his dinner jacket hanging amongst the variety of suits he wore to different lunch engagements. She took it down from the rail to better examine it. It wasn’t really dirty but nonetheless it would look far better if it was freshly dry cleaned, along with the dress trousers that hung underneath it. She patted the pockets to ensure they were empty before transferring it to a metal hanger to send it out. It was lucky she had checked, she thought, hearing a rustle of paper as she pushed against the breast pocket with the back of her hand. She opened up the jacket and reached into the pocket, her hand returning with a credit card slip.
She couldn’t stop herself from examining it. She turned it in the light to better see the blurred imprint that detailed who had swiped it. She looked again when she thought she had read ‘New York’ on the address. It had been Pittsburgh that James had last visited, not New York, though she knew from her own travels there and from what James had told her that this often meant going via New York to get a suitable flight. It was usually just a change though, not a stop over, so there would be no opportunity or reason to be in a restaurant there.
The handwritten details on the slip didn’t give much away, just ‘dinner’ and the amount. She reached into the pocket again and withdrew another piece of paper. It seemed to accompany the credit card slip. She unfolded it and saw immediately that it was indeed the bill that accompanied the credit card payment. It was much more detailed than the slip had been, showing two diners or at least two dinners. She thought too that one of the main courses seemed much more like something a woman would order not a man, and there was only one dessert detailed. Again, more like a female companion than a male one. James had made no mention of any plan to stopover in New York before he travelled there, nor did he tell her on his return that he had met someone he knew and changed his travel plans slightly to fit in with theirs. Mind you, he hadn’t been home very long to tell her much about the trip, only that it had been successful. Of course, she could be reading far more into her find than it really meant, maybe because she wanted to. She would give him the benefit of the doubt and see if he told her more when he returned home from this one, and had some time to do it. She couldn’t help thinking that it was suspicious though, and fitted in with her own feelings that something underhand was going on.
Later on the Monday morning Julian arrived. At first Hazel thought it was James walking from the taxi that she had spied through the drawing-room window. As soon as she saw the camera clutched in Julian’s grasp though she realised her mistake. She greeted Julian warmly when he entered the drawing-room, hugging him to welcome him home before he even had time to put down the camera.
Now that she had Julian to share them with, the weekdays before James’s return passed a little quicker. She had Anne to talk to, of course, and Timothy was now a frequent visitor but she had heard all of their stories many times before. She had heard Julian’s too, but he told them in a way which always made them seem fresh, and usually disappeared to fetch a short film that accompanied each tale.
When James returned at the end of that week, he decided that he was very tired after the flight, which he said he hadn’t managed to sleep on at all and that he would go to bed to try to get a few hours sleep.
“Want to be fully charged up for the party this evening,” he said with a twinkle.
He certainly looked tired. His clothes hung from him almost forlornly and his eyes were puffy and had bags under them. Having been assured that preparations for that evening were all in hand, he excused himself to go to his room.
The feeling that she was being cheated on had been growing inside Hazel all week, although she had managed to keep it at bay when talking to Julian. She had confided her find to Anne, who had seemed more surprised that James had been so careless than at the treachery Hazel’s discovery pointed to. Timothy had been more supportive, patting her hand and reeling off a string of platitudes when she had finally broken down and told him what she found. There might after all, as he had pointed out, be a perfectly reasonable explanation that James had thought it not worth mentioning, or hadn’t yet had time to tell her about. Now that James was home though she could contain herself no longer. She determined to give him the opportunity to explain, but to force the issue.
She climbed the staircase to his room, shortly after he had got himself. It was a funny feeling, knocking on her own husband’s door before entering, as the door was closed when she arrived she thought she should. When she entered the bedroom it was empty. James was obviously hanging his things up in the wardrobe.
“It’s me, James,” Hazel said to the cupboard without going in. “Just wanted to let you know that I had your dinner jacket cleaned ready for this evening while you were away.”
She paused, waiting for a reply. James emerged from the wardrobe looking somewhat flustered, pulling back up his trousers as he walked.
“That was very kind of you, dear,” he said as he rezipped his trousers. He stepped in front of her as if to block her path to the wardrobe.
“I’ve hung them back up as they came, still left the polythene wrapping on to keep the dust off,” she said.
“Oh good. Well, no doubt I’ll be able to find them for myself easily enough then, when it’s time to get dressed for the party.” He yawned on to the bed. It wasn’t a proper yawn, more of a ‘why don’t you get out of here and let me get to bed’ kind.
“I … er … found a receipt before I sent it to the cleaners.” She said it hesitantly, not sure now that she was here that she really wanted to be the one to raise it.
“Oh, did you? That’ll be from New York probably. Had to stop off there on the way back to meet their president for dinner, so that he could sign the final agreement.” He said it quite readily. Almost as if he had been expecting the question. “Hope you kept hold of it,” he added, “I can give it to Mark. Legitimate business expense and all that — I can probably set it against my profits so I don’t have to pay the tax.”
She told him that she had left it in his study for his return. Seeming satisfied with his answer she left the room again.
She didn’t really know why she went to her own bedroom and watched his door through a small crack she had left in hers. If you’d asked her, she wouldn’t be able to explain her actions. Just one minute after she had left, she saw Anne emerge from his room and, after looking up and down the corridor, head for her own.
Hazel was sure there was no innocent explanation for this. If there had been, why had Anne been in the wardrobe rather than the bedroom? And why had she not made her presence known when Hazel had entered. Then there was the furtive way Anne had left James’s bedroom, shortly after she had herself. Now she thought about it, Anne’s prolonged visits to the Manor had started at around the same time she first started to suspect that James was having an affair. And, it now occurred to her, Anne’s trips home happened too often at the same time as James’s business trips for it to be a mere coincidence. The more she thought about, the more convinced she became that she had found out the truth at last. The evidence was mostly circumstantial, it was true, but there was just so much of it. Her own sister! How could Anne do such a thing to her? Now that she knew, things couldn’t go on as they had been. But Hazel was unsure what to do next. Confront them and bring everything out into the open? Or find a reason to send Anne away from the house? She doubted that would work. Anne and James could still carry on seeing each other, just not as frequently and away from the Manor. James would simply find reasons to be away more often. She could insist that she accompany him, but she wasn’t sure now that she wanted to. When she thought that his affair had been with an unknown, unnamed, ‘other woman’ she had managed to convince herself that she would fight to keep her marriage intact. Now that she knew who the other woman was, she was not at all certain that she wanted to. The thought of James and Anne together made her almost physically sick.
Well, whatever she did it couldn’t be today, she decided. Guests for the party would start to arrive in a few hours and she was determined that they shouldn’t realise anything was amiss. She would just have to control her emotions and thoughts until she had decided how to proceed. She tugged the jacket she was wearing down, as if the physical act underlined her resolve. She would take a couple of hours to try to sleep, or at least rest, her mind was racing too much to sleep, then take a long bath and get ready for the party. It would be a little early to do that, but would give her time to think, and would mean that for now she could avoid being in the company of her sister.
She couldn’t, just as she had expected, fall asleep when she lay on the bed for a few minutes and tried. Her mind refused to let go of the double betrayal, not only her husband but with her own sister! Whichever option she thought through it ended the same way — in divorce. She was not now sure that she wanted to keep her husband anyway, but a divorce would mean giving up her title and her life at the Manor, which she was just not willing to do. Even if she kept what she knew to herself she believed that it would only delay matters rather than resolving them permanently. She turned her head to look at the little bottle of sleeping tablets Timothy had prescribed for her which stood on the bedside cabinet. She would dearly have liked to take one, but best not. They were quite effective and if she took one now, she could well sleep through the whole party! She lay staring at the ceiling and thinking until it was time to get up and draw her bath.
She dressed slowly and methodically, just as she had taken her bath, and applied her makeup, wanting to delay as long as possible her descent downstairs where she would have to wear a composed face and pretend that everything was all right. Eventually, she could put it off no longer and after one last check of her reflection in the mirror left the room.
She went down to the kitchen, which was empty. Most of the food had already gone through to the ballroom leaving only the tray of canapés that James and Julian would share and the cakes which would be brought out to eat when the toast was made. The front doorbell rang and she left the room, passing Jeeves as he went to answer it. She looked in the hallway’s mirror as she went by and practised smiling as though nothing was wrong before entering into the ballroom to await and greet the first of their guests.