My Fanny was calling out to me.
That was how it began.
“Squire Fortesque,” she cried, “have you seen Primrose? I can’t find her anywhere.”
Primrose, I should point out, is Fanny’s pug.
Not a proper dog in my view, in that it can’t hunt, point or retrieve.
Fanny, however, is besotted by the brute and has it with her almost all of the time – though I have banned it from the marital bed – at least while I am in it.
Anyhow, there ensued a good deal of searching and shouting as Fanny, John our faithful factotum and I scoured the house and grounds in pursuit of the recalcitrant pooch to no avail.
There was not hide nor hair of the hound.
By this time Fanny was close to having the screaming habdabs, which is not something a chap wants to live with.
“Be calm, my love,” says I, “I don’t doubt that Primrose will be back come suppertime.”
“Oh, Squire,” says she, “whatever shall we do? I could not live thinking that dear Primrose was lost.”
“She is not lost, Fanny dear, she is merely mislaid. I’m sure all will be well.”
Well, for all my confident tone that turned out to be one of my less accurate prognostications.
I need not tell you that the dog did not reappear that night; nor indeed at any point during the next day, as John reported to me on my return from shooting.
Furthermore, there was no sign of Fanny either.
I wandered around the house looking for her but there was not a trace of her.
I assumed she might yet be looking for her pet about the grounds and so I took a turn about the demesnes and policies.
Eventually I called for John and demanded of him the whereabouts of the missus.
“I couldn’t say, sir,” says he. “I served her ladyship tea in the withdrawing room at about four o’clock and then I delivered a letter that had been left an hour or so later. I cannot say that I have seen her ladyship since.”
“A letter,” says I, “what sort of letter?”
“A letter type letter.” John can border on the obtuse at times. “Folded, sealed, addressed to her ladyship. Someone must have popped it through the pantry door. I found it on the table and delivered it to her.”
“In the drawing room?”
“Aye, Squire. In the drawing room.”
I went to the drawing room where the fire had burned down in the grate and the tea-tray still stood on the side-table.
There was the letter laid among the crockery and a half eaten muffin.
I picked it up and scanned it.
“If you wish to see your pet again, come to the ruined abbey this night. Come alone.”
I looked at the note for a while.
It was odd.
There was something about it which was not altogether tickety-boo.
The paper was of good quality and the hand clear and refined and in ink.
This was not the ransom note of a common dog snatcher.
Quite apart from anything else, there was no mention of any ransom, which rather undermines the central purpose of the exercise.
It was fishy, right enough, but it explained, nonetheless, the absence of the wife of my bosom and, more precisely, her whereabouts.
Armed and dangerous
I did not follow her immediately.
You may think me a poor man and a poorer husband but one of the reasons I am as old as I presently am is because I do not go scampering off to ruined abbeys without first thinking the thing through and making certain preparations.
Step one was to pop into the gun room and pick up a pair of pistols.
Which is not to say a pair of pistols but two pistols.
I loaded and capped my old Boss howdah blaster for a start.
Not by any means the most accurate of pieces but if it will stop a wounded tiger in its tracks then it will get the job done in a ruined abbey, I reckon.
Then I slipped a Derringer into my waistcoat.
You may wonder what a chap is doing with a Derringer in his gun room but that is another story altogether which I will share with you one day if we’re spared.
Thus equipped I showed John the note and told him that I was heading off to the abbey to find Fanny and that if we were not back in an hour he should rouse the district and come after me.
Then, pausing only to take a swig from the decanter on the sideboard – against the chill, you understand – I set off into the dark.
I should say that the ruin in question is no distance from the towers.
Time was when the abbey flourished and very largely picked the surrounding country clean.
The monastery was duly sacked in due season and great-great someone or other picked up the estate from the hand of a grateful monarch.
But enough of the family history.
Put short, the ruins are no more than a brisk stroll across the meadow beyond the ha-ha.
So I strolled briskly across the meadow beyond the ha-ha, the frost crunching under my feet, until the shadows of the abbey loomed into view in the gloom.
A hostage situation
From the gloom there emerged a flickering light.
There was a lantern.
Keeping a part of the great wall between me and the glow I stole forward into the shadow until I could spy through a gap in the masonry.
Fanny was huddled in her furs on the foot of a broken pillar cradling Primrose in her lap.
Squire Fortesque’s beloved wife, Fanny, was in deep trouble.
She looked pale but resolute.
And opposite her, equally huddled in a heavy tweed travelling coat was a swarthy figure whom I recognised at once as one Demetrios Paphides, who just happened to be chairman of a major Greek bank.
I had shot with him only recently.
He was known as a roisterer of the first water, forever entertaining the great and the good and mingling with the plungers who populated the fringes of the crowd surrounding the Prince of Wales.
He broadcast invitations wholesale both in town and about the country, houses at Ascot, yachts at Cowes and was never seen with a bottle when a magnum would do.
I didn’t like him – never had – but he was not the person who sprang to mind where dog-napping was concerned, I must say.
Nonetheless, I cocked my pistol before I stepped into the light.
Paphides sprang to his feet and whipped a pistol from his pocket to cover my Fanny.
“Squire Fortesque,” he cries, “here you are at last. We have been waiting. Iss so cold. I am froze to my bones. But you have come. This I know.”
“What the devil is this about, Paphides? What do you mean by this?” I snapped, feeling my pistol heavy in my hand in the tail of my coat.
“Ah, Squire,” says he, “iss a sad thing. Iss unfortunate. But iss fate, perhaps, yes?”
“Fate be damned! Why are you threatening my wife? I’ll see you run out of the country, you swine.”
“This I doubt, Squire. I am also attaché at my embassy. I am diplomatic, yes? I have immune. Still, is academic. No harm will come. All will be well, sure. To be certain though please drop the pistol you have in your coat. Is not safe, yes?”
I raised my hand and dropped the pistol onto the frosty turf.
I hoped it might go off and shoot him in the knee but it didn’t.
Still, it might have shot Fanny – or me – so perhaps just as well, actually.
“Splendid. Now all is good. So.”
“All is not good, Paphides. Get to the point. What are you after?”
Paphides kept his gun covering Fanny and with his other hand pulled a document from within his coat.
“I need your signature, Squire, on this document. That is all. Then I will leave and you and Lady Frances will be free to go. With my apologies.”
“If that’s all you want, why not just ask? Why all this malarkey? What is the damn thing?”
“Iss a small thing,” says the slimy brute. “Iss a little guarantee thing. For my bank.”
“Are you mad? You want me to guarantee your bloody bank? Why me? I don’t have that sort of money. You need a Rothschild or one of the bloody Barings for that sort of thing.”
“Iss not possible, sadly. They will not agree. They are – how to say? – concerned with some of my loans.”
“You mean you’re broke.”
“Not broke. Exactly. Iss a credit issue. There are rumours. Lies. All lies. But credit is everything and where credit is concerned, yes, I have some, shall we say, deficit?”
“You’re skint. And everyone knows it. The chancellor himself couldn’t shore you up. What the devil do you think my name will do for you?”
“Your name, Squire? What will your name not do for me? You are Squire Fortesque. You are the sportingest man in England. With your name on this guarantee, my bank is safe. The chancellor has only the Bank of England behind him. Pah! I shall be able to say that I have the squire. No one will doubt me. It cost you nothing and give me everything.”
“Well, frankly, you can whistle for it. I won’t do it. So there.”
He who steals my purse definitely steals bugger all but I was not having my good name associated with any Greek bank.
Or any blood bank.
I remember what happened when the railway shares debacle hit the buffers.
“Then, Squire, I shall have to, perhaps, persuade you?”
And he moved across and put his pistol against Fanny’s head.
And cocked it.
“Are you persuaded, Squire?” says he.
Fanny shows her true colours
This was a poser, for sure, but I doubted if he was serious.
I took a desperate gamble.
I could always agree to sign later if he turned out really to have the spirit for it.
“You won’t do it,” I said. “If you do, I’ll kill you with my bare hands or die trying. So you lose either way. Take yourself off, Paphides, and don’t threaten better men than yourself. You know who I am. Do your worst.”
“I have a pistol at your wife’s head, Squire, and you seek to bluff me?”
“He’s not bluffing, you oily oik,” interjects Fanny.
She stood up with his pistol in her face – damn I was proud of her then – dropped the dog from her lap and gave it to him straight, “he is Squire Fortesque and he will kill you with his bare hands if you touch a hair of my head. He’s done it before and I trust him to do it again. Take your shot, you worm, and you will reap the whirlwind.”
I swear he actually shrank before her stare.
“You are both mad,” he shouts, as I felt for the Derringer in my waistcoat pocket.
Fanny was magnificent in her fury.
“Not mad, you Mediterranean moron,” she says, “we’re British. And that’s enough to deal with the likes of you!”
At which point several things happened extremely quickly.
Primrose, turfed off her mistress’ lap and distinctly peeved at this unsavoury man threatening her mistress, jumped up and sank her teeth firmly in Paphides arse.
And if you think a snub nosed dog can’t bite and breathe altogether then you haven’t seen an angry pug in action.
With a squeal Paphides turned and tried to draw a bead on the pug dangling from his buttock.
I pulled out my Derringer and prepared to shoot the bastard but before I could do so Fanny had waded in.
Left heel hard onto the instep, right knee up into the essentials.
Left forearm smash across the throat and a straight right hander smack into his swarthy Greek chops.
They teach more than petit-point at girls’ academies, I can tell you.
Paphides went down as if poleaxed with Primrose still attached to his backside, Fanny preparing to start laying into his ribs with her boot and me covering him with the Derringer.
I let the girls worry at him for a bit and then called them off.
Paphides was battered and bloodied and bust.
I could have shot him – no jury would have given it a second thought – but it wasn’t worth the fuss.
He was finished, in any event.
While he crawled off under his diplomatic rock I walked Fanny and Primrose back to the house, roaring for John and for brandy.
Fanny and I settled ourselves in the drawing room and downed a couple of stiff ones.
Primrose settled herself by the fire.
I took Fanny in my arms.
“My love,” I said, “you were just magnificent tonight. So brave.” And I drew her face to mine and kissed her.
“Squire Fortesque!” she says, pulling away, “what are you thinking? It has been a very trying day. And it is not even your birthday.”
Then she paused and contemplated me for a second.
“Although you too were very brave tonight.”
And then she began to unbuckle my breeches.
“And it is, after all, nearly Christmas.”