Authors: Robert Goddard
‘You must leave him. Divorce him. I’ll take all the blame.’
‘You cannot. I am a married woman. And my religion does not recognize divorce. So you see, Geoffrey: the blame will all be mine.’
‘Can you bear it?’
‘With your help, I think I can. But it won’t be easy. There’s no point pretending it will. My family will disown me. I shall be penniless.’
‘We can live from my work.’
‘Can we? How much work will you have left once Victor has dragged your name and character through the courts?’
‘Do you really believe that?’
‘We could go abroad. There are openings for architects all over the Empire. Canada. Australia. South Africa. India. Places where nobody would care about our past or hold a divorce against us.’
‘Yes.’ Her eyes drifted out of focus. ‘That is what we would have to do, of course.’
‘It’s what we
Her gaze moved back to meet mine. ‘When?’
‘As soon as possible.’
‘But when? Every moment will be an ordeal once I am back with him. His eyes watching me, his hands—’
I pressed my fingers against her lips. ‘Don’t speak of it. It’s too awful.’
‘But it’s what I must endure.’
I took a deep breath, stared up at the ceiling and struggled to address the realities of our predicament. ‘We must go abroad. There’s no alternative. Then he can do his worst and it can’t touch us. But it won’t be easy for me to establish myself in another country. I have a few contacts – not many – and a little money. But not enough. Victor owes me the greater portion of two years’ fees, but I can’t ask for them until Clouds Frome is finished.’
‘You mean we must wait for Victor to pay you?’
‘Yes. I’m sorry, truly sorry. I don’t want you to return to him for a single night. But our whole future is at stake. We must follow our heads as well as our hearts.’
‘I can push the builder to hand the house over within a month. But there’ll be a host of minor problems, there always are, and the builder’s own account to wrangle over. It would look suspicious if I asked for my fee before all that’s settled.
another month. And Victor may not pay promptly. But by the end of May, God willing …’
‘The end of May? It sounds like for ever.’
‘No, Consuela. For ever is what we’ll have afterwards. Are three months too heavy a price to pay for the rest of our lives together?’
She kissed me. ‘
. I can be brave for three months – for longer if necessary. But when the waiting is over, you will come for me?’
‘Yes, my love. Never doubt it.’
When Consuela and I parted that afternoon at Paddington station, our plans were laid, our future mapped out. Only the thought that it was part of our grand strategy made the separation bearable and, even then, only just. Until Clouds Frome was finished and my fee paid, Consuela would impersonate as best she could the uncomplaining wife whilst I continued to pose as the dutiful architect. Months of agony and suspense loomed ahead, but both of us were confident we could survive them for the sake of what promised to follow.
Not that we were destined to be denied each other’s company during this period. I was a frequent visitor to Hereford over the ensuing weeks, calling frequently on my client to report on the completion of his new house and cajoling the painters and electricians into finishing their work ahead of time. In some ways I would have preferred not to see Consuela at all. To meet her in the drawing-room of Fern Lodge and swap comments about the weather, whilst the memory of all we had done was so fresh and clear in my mind, was unmitigated torture. And I at least had Clouds Frome to distract me. For Consuela the pretence was remorseless, the suspense endless.
We continued to communicate through Lizzie Thaxter, whose brother was now in prison, awaiting trial. She never mentioned him to me, but it was obvious that she was under considerable strain. Victor had insisted, I was told, that if she
to remain in their service she must disown her brother and have no contact of any kind with him. They were harsh terms, but terms she had felt bound to accept, since Grenville Peto had dismissed her father and other brother in the aftermath of Peter Thaxter’s arrest and contributions from Lizzie were therefore vital to the family’s survival. She posted letters to me from Consuela and undertook the delivery of replies. Thus we were able to meet from time to time without Victor or any of the Caswells in attendance, to exchange reassurances of our love and to discuss how the future stood.
Victor and Consuela took up residence at Clouds Frome on 12 April. The care I had taken and the expense I had persuaded Victor to incur were rewarded by fewer problems than I might have feared. But there was a garage still to be finished, a drive to be laid and a kitchen-garden wall to be erected. Victor therefore felt in no hurry to settle with me or the builder, and I could not risk arousing his suspicions by pressing for settlement. There were times when I imagined I could detect an inkling of the truth in the way he spoke or looked at me and I knew that our only hope lay in governing our impatience.
My estimate that the end of May would see an end to our waiting and hoping proved optimistic. Thanks to the appearance of damp in the dining-room chimney-breast, a delay of several weeks was inevitable. At first Consuela seemed close to distraction at the news, pouring out her disappointment to me in a long and emotional letter. But, by the time I was able to contrive a meeting with her, she had become resigned to the situation, summoning from her reserves of inner strength a self-control which was, in the circumstances, extraordinary. Our only consolation was that the remedial work meant I had to pay several visits to Clouds Frome. During these it always proved possible to snatch a few minutes alone with her.
Snatched minutes were mere tantalizing glimpses, however, of the intimacy we looked forward to. By the middle
June, I was at last able to submit a final statement of account. I could see no reason for Victor to quibble with any of the details and it was hard to imagine him failing to settle within a few weeks. Suddenly, the end was in sight, the end that would also be the beginning of my future with Consuela.
The world, of course, careers on its way heedless of individual ordeals and crises. June 1911 found most Londoners in the grip of coronation fever and, as the great day approached, it seemed to become the all-consuming topic of conversation and attention. I could summon no interest in pomp and pageantry at such a time and was surprised to receive a letter from Consuela a few days beforehand saying that she intended to make up a party with Marjorie, Hermione and the Petos and visit London for the occasion. A client of Caswell & Co. had apparently invited them to view the Royal Progress from the top floor of his premises in Regent Street. As I read on, her enthusiasm for the trip became understandable. She intended to become lost in the crowd as they made their way to Regent Street, spend the day with me in Pimlico, then reappear at their hotel later. The prospect was a delicious one, for we had not been able to relax in each other’s company since early March. As for my work, it had already become clear that nothing could be accomplished on such a day. Imry for one would be brandishing a miniature Union flag in the crowd somewhere along the Mall. Perhaps we should not have taken such a risk when we were so close to our goal and caution was essential, but we had been denied the closeness we craved for too long. Neither of us had the heart to let such an opportunity slip.
. Hold me close. So close I may forget what the past three months have been like.’
‘I’m sorry it’s taken so long. So very sorry.’
‘Tell me it’s nearly over.’
‘When will we be together without the need for plotting and planning?’
‘A few weeks. No more. As soon as he pays. We’ll go to France till the dust settles. We’ll honeymoon in Paris.’
‘Then, my love, we’ll go wherever we want to.’
‘You spoke of contacts.’
‘Don’t worry. We won’t starve.’ (What I did not tell Consuela was that those few acquaintances to whom I had mentioned the idea of setting up abroad had advised me strongly against it. Why go, had been the consensus, when my career seemed so promising in England? As for Imry, I still had not told him what was in my mind.)
‘I wouldn’t care if we did starve. It would be better than this lie my life has become. Every day, every minute I spend with him. Concealing. Pretending. Deceiving. He is not a good man, but sometimes I think he is not so bad that he deserves this. If only …’
‘If only what?’
‘We did not need his money.’
‘It’s money I’ve worked for, Consuela. It’s money he owes me.’
‘I know. And yet … He will come after us. I know he will. What if he finds us?’
‘But if he does?’
‘There’s nothing he can do to stop us, Consuela. He can sue, of course, but that’s all. The law is his only remedy. And it’s one we can bear.’
‘You’re right, I know, but sometimes I think—’
‘Try not to. Just hold on for a little longer yet.’
There was a difference in her that day, a nervousness, a presentiment that even at the last we could be cheated. She trembled as I caressed her, a trembling I could not still. There seemed no way of calming her, no way of reaching the part of her that was troubled. She had given herself willingly to me before, but now something seemed to hold her back and
our love-making. Afterwards she wept, but she would not tell me why. Then, earlier than seemed necessary, she dressed and set off for her hotel.
The first week of July brought a cheque from Victor settling my fee in full. It was accompanied by a letter from him, inviting me to attend a house-warming party at Clouds Frome, which he was staging on Friday the fourteenth, and to stay on for the weekend. By the next post came a letter from Consuela, telling me that she knew of Victor’s intention to invite me and urging me to accept. During the ensuing weekend, she suggested, we would have an opportunity to plan our escape. She also implored me to forgive any awkwardness in her manner when last we had met, which she attributed to the strain of prolonged dissembling.
Who, I wondered, was really the dissembler – Consuela or me? I had not, in truth, looked beyond the rapturous prospect of carrying her off to Paris for the rest of the summer. My vaunted plans for a new life in another continent were no farther advanced than when I had first proclaimed them.
Nor had I told Imry, as I would shortly have to, that he was about to lose his partner. The longer I postponed doing so, the less warning he would have and the less reasonable my action would seem. But postponement was all I felt equal to. When I thought of Consuela – her beauty, her simplicity, her faith in me – the way ahead seemed clear. But when I thought of all we would bring down around our heads – disgrace, penury, exile and condemnation – my resolution faltered.
It was on Wednesday 12 July, only two days before the Clouds Frome house-warming, that I kept an appointment with Ashley Thornton, the hotelier, at his offices in Piccadilly. I had assumed that extension or refurbishment of one of his hotels was what he wished to discuss, although my preoccupied state ensured that I had given little thought to the matter. In view of my intentions, I ought to have passed
a commitment over to Imry, but that would have forced me to tell him just what my intentions were. So it was that I found myself, distracted and struggling to concentrate, in Thornton’s office overlooking Green Park on a morning of broiling heat.
Thornton was a dapper little man with prematurely white hair and an apparent immunity to the temperature. He had a knowing, ironical twist to the mouth and a patient watchfulness about the eyes. Later I would come to know these characteristics and what they betokened, but for the moment all I detected was polite and measured scrutiny. These were the days before his knighthood – before, come to that, the bulk of his fame – but he was nonetheless a client I should have been eager to cultivate. As I would have been, but for all the uncertainties by which I felt beset.
‘They tell me you’re a rising star in the architectural firmament, young man,’ Thornton announced as soon as we were alone.
‘I wouldn’t say that, sir.’
‘No false modesty, please. It doesn’t pay in my business and I don’t suppose it does in yours either. The piece about you in this month’s
has been brought to my attention.’
‘You mean about Clouds Frome?’
‘Yes. The house is your creation, isn’t it?’
‘Well … yes.’
‘I like it. It’s impressively original. My congratulations.’
‘But I didn’t ask you here simply to congratulate you.’
‘No, sir. I didn’t imagine you had.’ By now I had begun to anticipate what was coming. Thornton wanted a Clouds Frome of his own: a Home Counties residence for a successful hotelier. An abiding curse of the architect is the client who merely wants him to duplicate his previous work, the more so since they are usually the clients with enough money to overcome his reluctance.
‘Hitherto, I’ve prospered by buying and modernizing old
Recently, I’ve come to feel – and my board agrees – that an hotel built specifically for us, here in London, would be a timely and profitable extension to our enterprise.’
‘I’m sure you’re right, sir.’ Not a house, then, and not a copy of an old design. A hotel, and a big one at that. My name associated with a London landmark. It sounded almost too good to be true.
‘It’s my belief that we need something individual, something stamped with our identity. I don’t want another Carlton or Waldorf. I don’t want mile after mile of cast plaster mouldings or half the African jungle transplanted in the lounge.’ By now he had left his desk and was standing by the open windows gazing out across Green Park. ‘Luxury, of course, in the highest degree. Every modern convenience. Everything, indeed, that the discerning traveller could possibly require. Elegance rather than grandeur. Comfort rather than opulence. You follow my drift?’