There was a loud knock on the door. It was not the postman, as it was night, and he always used the bell. The footman was out, so I opened the door myself and saw no one. I looked right and left to check whether some urchins were playing 'knock down Ginger' and almost tripped down the five stairs to the pavement, over a black leather handbag. I recognised it immediately and didn't need to go to Victoria Station to find it. It had been delivered. I daren't open it for fear what might be inside. But I already had an awful inkling and could not resist in case the infant inside died of suffocation. I unclipped the somewhat tarnished brass lock and pulled the sides apart. There was a howl, and I quickly closed the bag again, looking left and right to see if the neighbours had heard. No curtains flickered; no lamp light appeared at a window. I opened the bag a crack and crept, bottom first, into the hall, turned and used a heel to close the door.
Now what? I checked the bag's lock and sure enough, engraved on it were my initials. I had placed them there after I had reached my majority and Mr Cardew had presented me with the bag and explained my origins to me. I had been found on his doorstep in this vey bag. Those initials were a relief as it meant that I was not in some sort of time warp in which I was both baby and adult. But who was this child? I placed the bag on the table under the chandelier and opened it wide. The baby looked less than a year old and while it was dressed in white, the trimmings were pink. It/she was almost certainly a girl. More proof that she was not me. But again, who, from where, and delivered by whom?
I was in mourning, and I was a man, what was I to do with a baby girl? Miss Prism, now Mrs Chasuble immediately came to mind. She and Dr Chasuble lived close and we were still in touch, in fact we were grieving together. I had lost my Gwendolen on a month's Mediterranean tour by land and sea. She had disappeared as the lighter in which we were being taken from the ship to shore, in Morocco, capsized. It was dusk, as we were visiting in the evening. By the time the search was abandoned it was pitch dark. Two other ladies had also been lost in the chaos.
Miss Prism, bless her, agreed without hesitation to act as nursemaid for the foundling. Moreover, she and Dr Chasuble also agreed to come and live in the Annex until we had sorted out something more permanent. Early next morning the pair came bursting into my breakfast room.
'Look, see what we have found! Gwendolen is alive but captive! We must go and rescue her. She has given instructions! This message was hidden inside the baby's wrappings, "Come to Bar Tangerinn, near the harbour in Morocco. Enter as a customer. Bring at least £100 and two pistols, one small the other large. I will probably be serving behind the bar. Come soon. Many kisses, G.'"
There could be no delay. Dr Chasuble insisted on accompanying me. Miss Prism supported him.
'You must have backup,' She said. And she would stay and look after the child. We booked by train to Gibraltar and then caught the first ferry available. While it took us three days, it seemed to me, that one day we were in London and the next, on the ferry in the fading Mediterranean sun We again arrived in the dark. This brought back awful memories and I started to shiver as the lighter approached.
Dr Chasuble stretched his arm across my shoulders, 'Come, come Earnest we've an important job to do and must be firm. God will see us through.'
This would be straight to the task. No resting and planning in a hotel beforehand. Our map showed that the Tangerinn was just cross the square from the quay-side. Dr Chasuble went ahead and sat at a table near the entrance. He placed his silver topped walking stick across the table and ordered a coffee and a glass of Absinth. The place looked respectable enough. There were several customers, singles, couples and small groups drinking and chatting happily outside. I ignored my friend, as I walked towards the two burly bouncers guarding the entrance. They gave me only a cursory glance as I passed in. In the gloom, there was dancing, and, as customers went in and out of a door at the rear, one could see that gambling tables were active. The place was illegal, but not blatantly so.
My heart stopped. There was my Gwendolen beyond the dancers, behind the bar, pouring a customer a drink, her décolleté unseemingly low. She saw me, flushed, and immediately looked back at her customer. I approached the bar and ordered a glass of red Moroccan wine from the other girl serving. She did not quite understand which gave Gwendolen an excuse to translate. I had not sat for long before a greasy, toughy came alongside.
'You want a girl?'
'Perhaps, how much?'
'European or Moroccan?
'This one?' I said pointing at Gwendolyn
'Not for sale.'
'Why not? Looks perfect to me.'
'She's special. We're saving her.'
'OK. how much for a special?
'She looks fresh and can understand me. I like to talk dirty.
'Alright £2 for two hours.'
'Whew that's steep but I've got it, so deal,' and I shook his hand, trying not to show the hate in my heart, and handed over the notes.
He faced her, 'English, business for you.'
'No, no,' Gwendolen protested, ' Not straight away. You promised I could stay at the bar.'
'Money beats promises. Take him to the back and give him what he wants.'
He took her first by the arm, then by the back of her neck and pushed her through the door beside the bar. He glanced at his watch and waved me through.
'I'm timing you from now, so don't waste it.'
I followed Gwendolen into a corridor, illuminated in an eery, supposedly erotic, red light. She listened at two doors and, then after putting an ear to the third, tapped with her knuckles, checked inside, and pulled me in.
She grabbed me close and whispered. 'They will be watching and listening so we must be careful. Give me the small pistol.'
I reached to my inside pocket and slipped the pistol into her hand as we hugged. She hid it in the waistband of her dress.
'First you must try to buy me and if that does not work we will shoot our way out,' was her next whisper. This was madness. Something I just could not imagine myself doing.
'Now shout for the Saïd, say you need to talk to him.' She ordered.
I opened the door and shouted, 'Boss, Saïd, we need to talk.'
I shouted twice, the second time louder. He then came, striding quickly down the corridor with a scowl on his face and with both fists clenched.
'Is she giving trouble? I'll teach her.' He barged into the room, grabbed an arm with his right hand and put his face to her's, 'Well?'
He turned to me with a questioning look.
I held up my hands, 'No trouble, no trouble, but I'd like to buy her. How about £100? That's a lot of money.'
He was clearly tempted and hesitated but said, 'No. She's too valuable.'
'£150.' He shook his head.
'Last offer, £200.'
He again shook his head, saying quietly but with increasing intensity, 'Non, non, non!'
I could see from his eyes that my bargaining was having the opposite effect to what I wanted. The higher I raised my offer, the more valuable he decided she was.
I jumped as a bang filled the room. He yelled and jumped around, clutching at his right hand. Gwendolen held a smoking pistol in her hand.
'Quick,' she shouted and pushed me in front of her through the door.
We ran out, barging through the startled dancers. The bouncers at the entrance could not stop us, as I waved my pistol in their faces, and ran straight past Dr Chasuble. He ignored us but managed to trip the two pursuing bouncers, 'by accident' with his stick. We were quickly in the square and among everyday tourists. We forced ourselves to stroll. There were uniformed gendarmes walking in pairs who made us feel safer. We settled on a bench by the Quay-side, to wait for the ferry, while keeping half and an eye on the happenings outside the Tangerinn.
There we could see frenetic activity, with much waving of arms and a pointing in our direction. Dr Chasuble was apologising to the bouncers, while their boss was berating them for not stopping us. It seemed the bouncers desperately wanted to come after us, but the boss could not risk a public scene. Things quietened quickly when a pair of gendarmes arrived to enquire what the problem was. As explanations were made, Dr Chasuble separated himself and walked calmly to the quayside to sit on a bench a little way to the right of us. I quietly praised God when the ferry arrived in under an hour.
As we cast off a jaunty Dr Chasuble joined us at the rail, , 'Well that was dramatic! Now Mrs Chasuble, my dear Miss Prism, will have a story to tell that a publisher just can't refuse.'
£100 in 1920 is equivalent in purchasing power to about £4,600 today.
They called their daughter Cecily.