Art Pact 219 - The door in the east wing


"Let me be blunt," she said imperiously. "This business has become completely untenable."

"What?" whispered Dent.

"She means it's got out of hand," I explained, apparently not quietly enough, for the Duchess stared me down. "Sorry Grandmama."

"Hmm. As I was saying, this business has become completely untenable"--she fixed Dent with a gimlet eye as she pronounced the word--"and I for one think it is time that certain irresponsible members of the family curtailed their ridiculous gadding about through time. Why only last week I was looking through the diary of my wedding day and I realised with some shock that the mysterious guests who turned up must have been none other than Cousin Cyril and young Lady Frightweather." She drew herself up to her fullest seated height, and cleared her throat. "It it with that in mind that I am having Carruthers seal off the east wing entirely. We have no need of the rooms during the winter season, and at any rate it will save on polish and wear and tear on the servants." She laughed at her little joke - her only joke - but it was a slight laugh since none of us had joined in politely as we usually did. We were all too busy staring angrily at Cyril, who was standing in the midst of the assembly with a ridiculous top hat clutched in his mitts. He had the decency to look ashamed, although he also threw back a few accusing glances as if to assert the argument that it was our fault as well.

"And it's no use you all blaming Cyril," the Duchess said. Cyril perked up. "Although he is an idiot." He perked down again. "You only have yourselves to blame if you think you're being hard done by. When I was born the east wing was just that, an east wing. I grew up without the benefit of a mysterious portal into the past, and if any of you thinks that not having access to bygone times might be harmful to your prospects, just consider me in admiration and reflect on how it was I got to my current position. Not by gallivanting around in the past, I can assure you! By hard work."

"By not dying as easily as her sisters," Dent whispered. I tried to lean away, so as not to be implicated if the Duchess's disapproval fell on him, but he kept leaning until I was on the point where leaning any further would cause me to topple over sideways. I chose surrender rather than indignity, although there is of course a limit on how much dignity one can reserve by leaning sideways at a forty-five degree angle while one's brother-in-law spits into one's ear. "By nagging her elder brother into an early grave."

His insinuations were true, but they were insinuations that it was the family's business to insinuate, not that of some jumped-up tradesman who my sister had formed a romantic attachment to. I frowned at him, causing him to withdraw slightly.

"I know some of you will come to me," the Duchess continued, "asserting some right or another which you think makes it appropriate that you should have access to the east wing because you have duties or special agreements in the past which it is vital for the family's fortunes that you should maintain. But my talks with Professor Woolcroft have reassured in me a suspicion that I have held independently for some years, namely that our current position was predestined, that none of the ridiculous meddling you have engaged in in the past has had any material effect on the current state of affairs."

The room erupted into a babel of indignation at the Duchess's statement - or rather, at the soft-headedness of Professor Woolcroft, since it was perfectly acceptable to attack the ruminations of an academic, whereas to suggest that the Duchess might be wrong about the matter was tantamount to familial treason. Her position, like that of the Catholic Primate (we did not say the P word, for obvious reasons), rendered her infallible in the aspects of family law. Woolcroft, however, had committed the unforgivable sins of firstly offering advice to the Duchess in the mistaken belief that his particular discipline of muddle-pated thought had some validity without the walls of his ivory tower, and secondly of having the disgraceful bad taste and lack of ambition to turn down the bribes that various of us had offered him to ensure his absence. For someone so obtuse in matters of grace and taste and as socially adept as a foxhound, he did not lack perspicacity when it came to spotting a bribe, either, since no matter how subtly I had proffered the money (as a donation to a favourite charity, as an endowment towards a scholarship fund in his name, as a chair bought at the university), he had seen through it to the root of it, and politely rejected it, asserting that independence of thought could only come when one was in no way at all beholden to the object of that pondering.

"Quieten down! Cease this childish caterwauling at once!" the Duchess demanded. "This is my word on the matter, and my word - as I'm sure you are all very much aware - is final. The east wing will remain closed over the winter, and when the new year comes I may consider allowing one or two of you to travel through. Even then, though, your argument will have to be particularly compelling, and I will hear most sympathetically Professor Woolcroft's counter-arguments."

Well that really was intolerable. Of course, Woolcroft would want any trip into the past to be part research, and he would blackball any excursion which did not take along one of his army of blank-faced post-graduates. The thought of going about my business with some dullard intellectual looking over my shoulder was enough to make me shudder. There would be no privacy, and hence no fun.

I would have to break into the east wing before it was sealed. I began to carefully move my way to the back of the gathering.

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