Trouble with lichen, p.13
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.13

           John Wyndham
 
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  ‘Does she know where it comes from?’

  ‘No. Fortunately, I didn’t tell Paul that.’

  ‘What do you suppose’ll be their next step?’

  ‘Look into our imports, and try to trace something from those, I should imagine.’

  Diana smiled. ‘If they are able to find their way through that part of my defences in less than a year or two I shall be astonished,’ she said. ‘And as for Darr, you’re continually getting parcels of queer stuff from all over the world.’

  ‘But not a great deal of it is lichens, unfortunately,’ Francis told her. ‘Naturally, I was careful and took precautions against accidents, but an intensive investigation is rather a different matter….’ he shrugged uncertainly.

  ‘Even so,’ Diana said, ‘who’s going to identify the particular species of lichen? We gave it a nice long name, but the only people who can say which plant the name belongs to is us – you and I.’

  ‘If they find the collectors, they are not going to have much trouble in discovering which lichen they’ve been collecting,’ Francis pointed out.

  They sat in thoughtful silence while the waiter fussed, and refilled their glasses. Francis broke it to say, philosophically:

  ‘It had to come, Diana. One’s always known it must, sooner or later.’

  ‘I’d rather have had longer,’ Diana said frowning, ‘but I suppose I’d feel like that whenever it came. Just that damned Wilberry woman and her allergy… It can’t be a common allergy, either, or I should have met it before. Still, it can’t be helped now.’ She was silent again for a moment. Then she went on:

  ‘We’ve kept saying “they”. Have we any idea who “they” may be?’

  Francis shrugged.

  ‘No telling. No reputable firm would touch it in the circumstances. But the Saxover name would get her a hearing anywhere else in the trade.’

  ‘Yes. I suppose it would be in the trade?’

  ‘I should say so. It would be unlike Jane to pay unnecessary commission to an intermediary.’

  Diana frowned. She told him:

  ‘I’m growing to like this still less, Francis. There could be ways of handling it that would be fantastically profitable… while they lasted.’ She gave a rueful smile. ‘After all, I haven’t done so badly myself – but if one had had no scruples…!’ She let that drop, and continued: ‘A plain leak was one thing, but this is different, I mean, if they have no scruples about how they get hold of it, they’re not going to have many when they’re sure there’s a chance of making billions out of it.’

  Francis shook his head.

  ‘They won’t be able to hold it – whoever “they” are,’ he said. ‘Look at what’s happened just because I told my own son and daughter.’

  ‘Possibly,’ she agreed. ‘But what I meant is that it might be as well to spike them now, by publishing. Once they’re convinced that it is the real thing, their quickest way to get more is to steal it, and the process, too, if they can – or, better still, to kidnap one, or both, of us.’

  ‘That’s something I did think of,’ Francis told her. ‘There’s nothing to be found at Darr now, and, if I should disappear, publication will follow automatically. I imagine you will have taken similar precautions?’

  Diana nodded.

  They regarded one another, across the coffee cups.

  ‘Oh, Francis,’ she said. ‘This is so damned silly, and petty. All we want to do is to give people something. To make an old, old dream come true. We can offer them life, with time to live it; instead of a quick scrabble for existence, and finish. Time to grow wise enough to build a new world. Time to become full men and women instead of overgrown children. And look at us – you hamstrung by the prospect of chaos; me, sure they will try to counter that prospect by suppression. Both of us still on the same old stands.’

  She poured herself another cup of coffee. For nearly a minute she sat peering into it as if it were a dark crystal. Then she looked up.

  ‘It has gone too far, Francis. We can’t hold it any longer. Will you publish?’

  ‘Not yet,’ Francis told her.

  ‘I warn you, I shall begin to prepare my ladies.’

  ‘You might as well,’ he agreed. ‘That is different from making a scientific announcement that one knows cannot be implemented.’

  ‘It will be implemented if they demand it loudly enough.’ She paused. ‘No, you’re right, Francis, it will be more effective if you come in later – but I have offered.’

  ‘I won’t forget, Diana.’

  ‘In a little while I’ll brief my nine hundred and eighty ladies more thoroughly, and turn them loose to fight. I don’t see them taking the threat of suppression quietly.’ She paused again, and then laughed. ‘What a pity my militant Great-Aunt Anne can’t be here. She’d be in her element. Hammer for the shop-windows, petrol for the letter-boxes, scenes in the House! She’d enjoy that.’

  ‘You’re looking forward to it,’ Francis told her, disapprovingly.

  ‘Of course I am,’ said Diana. ‘Strategically, I could still do with more time, but personally – well, if you’d spent twelve years working for it, embroiled in a pink-shaded, flower-scented, soft-carpeted, silk-bowed, Cellophane-protected dreamland populated by purring, scheming, hardeyed, grasping, cynical, retractible-clawed bitches who support themselves by assisting other women to employ their secondary sexual characteristics to the best advantage, you’d welcome pretty nearly any kind of change, too.’

  Francis laughed.

  ‘But I’m told you’re no mean businesswoman,’ he said.

  ‘That side of it can be tolerably amusing for a time,’ Diana admitted, ‘and profitable, too. But as I do provide something that my rivals only purport to provide, I could scarcely go wrong, could I?’

  ‘And the future? – After all, you’ll have quite a lot of future.’

  Diana said, lightly:

  ‘I have my plans – Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. Now that’s enough about me. I want to know what’s been happening to you, and to Darr, all this long time….’

  PART THREE

  9

  DIANA paused as she passed through the outer office, on her way to her own.

  ‘Good morning, Sarah. Is there anything special today?’

  ‘Not in the mail, Miss Brackley,’ Miss Tallwyn told her. ‘But there’s this. I don’t suppose you’ll have seen it yet.’ She held open a copy of The Reflector. As usual, it looked more like a printer’s pie than a layout. Heavy crossheads dominated a jumble of boxes and fancy rules littered with a dozen different faces and sizes of type. In contrast, the quarter-page advertisement indicated by Miss Tallwyn’s thumb attained distinction.

  ‘BEAUTY!’ it announced. ‘Beauty that lasts! Beauty that is more than skin-deep! From the sea, the great mother of all living things, we bring you new, deeper beauty – beauty with GLAMARE! GLAMARE is glamour fetched from the sea to your own dressing-table. You’ll find the true, tangy, exciting astringency of the sea-wind in GLAMARE!

  ‘Out of all the substances held in solution in the sea, just one particular sea-plant selects, absorbs, and concentrates those which hold the secret of lasting, deep-reaching beauty. Thanks to the work of skilled chemists and eminent beauticians the miracle essence of this plant, hitherto the costly prerogative of a world-famed luxury beauty salon, is now available to YOU…

  ‘GLAMARE is not superficial. A sense of inner beauty will…’

  ‘Ah, well,’ said Diana. ‘Just about a month from the starting pistol. Not at all bad going.’

  ‘According to my information all Galway seaweed is still tied up while the Irish government tries to find out which is the important kind of weed, and to decide how much export duty to levy on it,’ said Miss Tallwyn.

  ‘Sarah, dear, how long have you been in this enterprising trade?’ Diana inquired.

  ‘I am not in it,’ said Miss Tallwyn. ‘I am your secretary.’

  ‘You’d not be interested in a bet that two days after the ban is li
fted there’ll be another lot along claiming to use only genuine original Galway weed?’

  ‘I never gamble,’ said Miss Tallwyn.

  ‘Lots of people think they don’t,’ Diana told her. ‘Well, now, anything else?’

  ‘Miss Brendon would like to see you.’

  Diana nodded.

  ‘Tell her to come up as soon as she’s free.’

  ‘And Lady Tewley wishes to make an appointment.’

  ‘But – oh, with me personally, you mean. Why?’

  ‘She said it was a personal matter. She was very insistent. I arranged provisionally for three o’clock. I can cancel if you like.’

  Diana shook her head.

  ‘No. Confirm it, Sarah. Lady Tewley wouldn’t insist without good cause.’

  Diana went on into her own office. She busied herself there with several letters Miss Tallwyn had left ready. After a quarter of an hour or so Miss Brendon was shown in.

  ‘Good morning, Lucy. Sit down. How is the Brendon Secret Service going?’

  ‘Well, Miss Brackley, one of its interesting discoveries is that it isn’t the only secret service you operate here. I think you might have told me about that – or them about me. It’s been awkward, once or twice.’

  ‘Oh, you’ve run across Tania’s network, have you? Don’t worry, my dear. Their function is different; more of a C.I.D. nature. But I’ll have a word with Tania. We don’t want you wasting your time investigating one another. But what else?’

  Miss Brendon frowned a little.

  ‘It’s not easy to sort it out,’ she said, ‘so many people seem to be interested. There’s the man Marlin from the Prole. He cropped up again and has offered me fifty pounds if I can get him a specimen of the actual seaweed we use….’

  ‘He’s getting rash,’ Diana put in. ‘How would he be knowing it wasn’t any old kind of weed?’

  ‘Well, in his place, I’d get to know just what kinds are found in Galway Bay, and what kinds are common elsewhere. That should narrow it down to just a few possible kinds, anyway. And if I were to give him any other he’d know right off it was an attempted bluff.’

  ‘Yes, I’ll think about that. Go on,’ Diana told her.

  ‘Then, from him, I learnt that the police are interested. There’s been an inspector asking him questions about us, and making inquiries from that allergy woman, Mrs Wilbery, too. His name is Averhouse, and according to the Prole’s crime reporter he’s usually to be found on narcotics cases. Also, he was accompanied by a Sergeant Moyne – and it happens that Averil Todd who works on the ground floor has been taken up by a young man called Moyne, who says he’s in the Civil Service.’

  ‘The Prole, and the police. Who else?’ Diana asked.

  ‘The man from the Radar, Freddy Rammer, is still working on Bessie Holt who can’t tell him anything, but is still hopefully stringing him along, and getting free dinners out of it. Several other girls have acquired new boy-friends, some of whom are definitely connected with cosmetics firms, others may be, but no details yet.’

  ‘What a hive of curiosity we are,’ said Diana. ‘All of them out to identify the particular seaweed?’

  ‘Most,’ agreed Miss Brendon. ‘But I don’t quite see why the police should bother about that. And, by the way, a day or two after Inspector Averhouse called on her, Mrs Wilberry went to a man in Harley Street, apparently for a check-up.’

  ‘The dear police, so conventional. However, I don’t think we need to worry about peddling. We put the fear of God into the girls over that kind of thing, as you know, and Tania’s lot watch for any sign of it like hawks – and not only among the staff.’ She paused. ‘On the other hand, there is just a chance, I suppose, that they’re imagining something else than dope this time. If you can find out what they’re after, and it isn’t dope, I’ll be glad to know.’

  ‘I’ll do my best, Miss Brackley,’ said Miss Brendon, preparing to get up.

  Diana checked her with a gesture. She looked at her long and thoughtfully until Miss Brendon went a little pink.

  ‘If there’s nothing more –’ she began.

  Diana cut her short.

  ‘There is, Lucy. Something important. The time is coming when I shall need someone close to me whom I can trust. I’m going to make you an offer. I know quite a lot about you, more, probably, than you imagine. You told me why you came here; and I have, I fancy, a pretty good idea what you think of this place. Now, I want to tell you some things that no one here knows about, no one but me, and then make you a proposition.’

  Diana got up and slid across a small bolt on each of the doors. She went back to her desk, and picked up the telephone.

  ‘No calls until I tell you, please, Sarah,’ she said, and put the receiver back.

  ‘Now…’ she began….

  ∗

  Promptly at three o’clock Miss Tallwyn opened the door to announce: ‘Lady Tewley, Miss Brackley.’

  Lady Tewley entered. She was tall, slim, and elegant in a soft leather suit of a delicate grey. Everything from the points of her shoes to the crown of her small hat was carefully considered in each particular, other than cost, and she did credit to all her producers, including Nefertiti Ltd.

  Diana waited until the door closed. She said:

  ‘Janet, my dear, you disturb me. I have only to see you, and I begin to wonder whether I don’t make some slight contribution to an art-form after all.’

  Lady Tewley wrinkled her nose at her.

  ‘Coming from you, Diana, that’s close to fishing. But it really is rather nice, isn’t it?’ She looked down at herself with approval. ‘And, after all, the unemployed must occupy themselves somehow.’

  She sat down gracefully. Diana offered her the cigarette box, and flicked the table-lighter. Janet Tewley blew out a plume of smoke, and leant back a little. They looked at one another. Janet Tewley chuckled.

  ‘I know what you’re thinking. Diana, and it’s very flattering of you to look so smug about it.’

  Diana smiled. She had indeed been thinking of their first meeting, ten years ago. The Lady Tewley who had looked at her across this same desk then had been very different. A tall nervous girl of twenty-two, with good looks, a lovely figure and limbs, no idea of dress, a sketch of a make-up, an utterly unsuitable hair style, and a disposition to gangle like a sixteen year old. She had looked at Diana solemnly and carefully, and ended by saying: ‘Oh, good,’ apparently to herself, and with a slightly surprised air. Diana’s mouth had twitched a little at the corners as she raised her eyebrows.

  The girl looked somewhat confused.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘I didn’t mean to be rude. But I’ve never been in a place like this before,’ she added ingenuously. ‘I had an idea it would be run by someone about sixty with tinted hair, an enamelled face, tight corsets, like a sort of toughened-up Queen Victoria.’

  ‘But in spite of that, you came here,’ said Diana. ‘I’m glad to be a weight off your mind. Now, what do you want me to do?’

  The girl hesitated briefly. Then she said:

  ‘A sort of Pygmalion thing.’ Confidingly she went on:

  ‘You see, I’ve – I’ve taken on the job of being Lady Tewley, and it’s only fair that I should try to do it properly. It isn’t the kind of thing I ever expected, so I need help. I –’ she hesitated again, ‘I don’t much care for the kind of help I’ve been offered. So I thought I could get it from someone who is professional, disinterested –’ She let the sentence hang, unfinished.

  Diana had a brief vision of sisters-in-law, and aunts-in-law applying themselves to the work with little tact. The girl added: ‘I can learn, and I think I could look right, but I haven’t had the right kind of apprenticeship. It isn’t a thing I ever had time to bother about much.’

  Diana told her frankly:

  ‘You could certainly look right. I can see to it that you do. I can recommend you good guides and tutors, too. How much you learn from them will be your own affair.’

  ‘I can learn,
’ the girl repeated. ‘What I need now is a good grounding in the grammar of it. And if I can’t soon beat some of these nitwits at their own game, then I’ll deserve what I get.’

  Diana nodded slowly.

  ‘I understand you,’ she said. ‘But you mustn’t underestimate them. They’re on their home territory, and they are pretty single-minded about their social lives – after all, they’re all they’ve got. It’s one thing to do your job, but you’re not doing it well if you break your heart.’

  ‘I shan’t break my heart. I’ve no ambition to climb. If I had, I’d use it on something worth climbing,’ the girl assured her. ‘But I took this on, and it’s up to me to be an asset, not a liability, that’s all.’

  She spoke with a touch of bitterness. Diana noticed that her eyes had become a little shinier than before. She asked, curiously:

  ‘What were you doing before?’

  ‘Six months ago I was a fourth-year medical, living in a bed-sitter in Bloomsbury,’ Lady Tewley told her. ‘I knew the requirements there. I didn’t know these would turn out to be quite so different.’

  Diana had speculated for a moment on the circumstances which lay behind the girl’s thorough change of milieu. She said forthrightly:

  ‘I see no reason why you should not make a success of it. In fact, I am sure you can if you set your mind to it. But you will find that it isn’t cheap.’

  ‘I didn’t suppose so,’ Lady Tewley replied. ‘That’s one of my early lessons – you owe it to your self-respect to spend a lot of money on yourself, not to do that is bourgeois.’

  ‘Very well, then,’ Diana agreed. And they had gone ahead.

  Seeing the impeccably dressed, carefully mannered, and assured Lady Tewley before her now, she smiled a little at the recollection of the girl who had come asking her help.

  ‘Smug, is the wrong word,’ she said. ‘Pleasurable satisfaction – and admiration – would be nearer.’

  ‘I take them in,’ conceded Janet Tewley, modestly. ‘Though I say it myself, I can give a pretty good imitation when required.’

  ‘But it remains an imitation? No mutation?’

 
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