Today's Reading



Two days earlier. Thursday, 17 December, 1914

'Splendid. Yes. Very good, Cavendish.'

Sir Aidan Fonthill, seated at the Danemann grand piano in the room he liked to call his studio, held a fresh proof of the concert programme at various distances from his nose to try to bring it into focus. He did possess a pair of reading glasses but didn't like to wear them, not in front of other people, especially not those who were younger than him. Most particularly, not in front of young ladies. But also not in front of younger men, such as Cavendish.

In truth, he did not know for sure that Cavendish was younger than him, but suspected he was. Cavendish was one of those chaps who seemed to have been born middle-aged. Bit of a stuffed shirt, truth be told. A stickler, you might say. Sir Aidan supposed it went with the territory. Accountant. Clever with numbers, but dull. No imagination. The balding head didn't help. Sir Aidan thought proudly of his own full head of sand-coloured hair. He sported a foppish fringe that had to be repeatedly swept from his eyes. He eschewed facial hair too, believing a clean-shaven face suited the varsity look he was trying to cultivate. It was his little weakness that he could not pass a mirror without looking into it. Not as gratifying an activity as it once had been, he had to admit, but it was generally enough to reassure him that he still had it.

Sir Aidan rose from the piano and transferred to his desk, on the grounds that it had more light being situated beneath the window. In truth there was not much light to be had anywhere today. Sir Aidan glanced up to take in the view of the garden. It was not looking its best at the moment. The wind and rain had given the stark wintry plants a battering. He placed the programme down on the green leather-topped desk and twiddled distractedly with a signet ring on the little finger of his left hand. The signet itself was of a trefoil or shamrock, a reference to his family's Irish origins. It was a habit he had, this obsessive turning of the ring, whenever he was preoccupied.

A lot of the younger chaps had signed up, which was dashed inconvenient as it left the tenors and basses severely depleted. But one could hardly blame them. The call to arms was hard to resist. So perhaps Cavendish wasn't as young as all that. Or perhaps he was a coward. You would have thought he would have been glad to get away from that wife of his. Of course, she was always very pleasant to Sir Aidan, even if it was in that dreadful, simpering way she had. He winced a little at the thought of her and gave Cavendish a quick, pitying look. By all accounts, she made Cavendish's life hell.

But the man had a decent enough voice, and so Sir Aidan was grateful for whatever it was that kept him out of the army.

He liked to think that, had he been a younger man, he would have applied for a commission himself. But it remained a hypothetical question. He was honest enough to acknowledge that he was relieved, rather than frustrated, that it need never be put to the test. He felt that he had work to do, important work, which was best done in a civilian capacity.

He read the front of the programme and nodded approvingly.

'And how are ticket sales going, do we know?'

Cavendish's answer was to clear his throat, a curiously despondent sound, similar to the sound of the rain hurtling into the windowpanes. He stood by the fire, on the other side of the piano, half-hidden by it, warming the filthy weather out of his trouser legs.

Tea had been brought. On a silver tray—another mirror for Sir Aidan's opportunistic vanity, to go with the large one hanging over the mantelpiece.

'We are virtually sold out.' Cavendish's tone was inexplicably morose.

Sir Aidan put the programme to one side and looked round at the treasurer from his green leather-topped desk. 'Splendid.'

Cavendish grimaced. 'Is it?'

'Of course it is! Why would it not be? We want to sell as many tickets as possible, do we not? To raise as much money as possible for...' Sir Aidan consulted the programme again. 'For the refugees.'

'Yes, the last rehearsal...'


Sir Aidan wished Cavendish would stop pulling those faces. 'Are you quite all right, Cavendish? You look like you're suffering from indigestion.'

'We sounded awful,' said Cavendish bluntly. 'It doesn't help that we're missing so many of our best singers. There are all the men we have lost. And Miss Seddon, of course. The sopranos are certainly feeling her absence.'

Now Sir Aidan was the one to grimace. 'There's still work to do. I grant you that. But it will all come together. It always does.'

'It certainly is a shame about Miss Seddon, though.'

Sir Aidan's expression settled into a frown. What the devil was Cavendish getting at, bringing up Anna like that? He let it go, however. The fellow's impertinence did not merit a response.

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