Was it murder--or something serious?
Philip Marlow in Murder, My Sweet

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sonnet of the Sphinx Redux

Enigmatic love interest Peter Fox’s past comes back to haunt him. Meanwhile Grace is on the hunt for a lost sonnet by Romantic poet Percy Shelley and the solution to a dashing World War II soldier’s disappearance…


Chapter One


“Old King Tut was a wise old nut,” Grace Hollister read aloud, selecting a sheet of music from the stack beside her. She was sitting Indian-style on the floor of Rogue’s Gallery, surrounded by neatly sorted books and papers.
“Possibly a wise young nut. Though not wise enough to keep himself from getting clipped.” As Peter Fox’s mocking gaze met hers, Grace was reminded of a line by Thomas Moore: Eyes of unholy blue.
“That’s right; some scholars now believe Tutankhamen was murdered, don’t they?” She studied the crimson-and-sand-colored illustration of a cigar-smoking pharaoh peeking out from behind a pyramid. This King Tut looked more like a Vegas mob boss than Egyptian royalty. Not that Grace had much experience with Vegas mob bosses—or any mob bosses. Until recently she had led the life of a sheltered academic teaching Romantic literature to the privileged young ladies of St. Anne’s Academy for Girls in Los Angeles.
“They do. A three-thousand-year-old cold case.” Peter lifted a wooden writing box out of its wrappings. He opened it, picked out assorted pen nibs, old-fashioned paper clips, and a winged dagger cap badge for the 22nd Special Air Service. Peter studied the badge, set it aside, and made a notation on his clipboard. “Who Dares Wins,” he murmured, and his thin mouth curled in an odd smile. “Very nice.”
Summer was the height of tourist season in the English Lake District, and so naturally the busiest time at Rogue’s Gallery. Between customers, they were still working their way through the boxes and crates that had been delivered two weeks ago from Mallow Farm. The new owner, Mr. Matsukado, was a wealthy Japanese businessman. The Shogun, as he was referred to locally, had decreed all of the seventeenth-century farmhouse’s original furnishings unsuitable. Peter had bought the lot, much to the chagrin of his local competition. Much of the haul had turned out to be of the pink china roosters and bronzed baby shoes variety.
Grace adjusted her reading glasses and brushed back her hair, which had deepened to sorrel while away from the California sun.
“Why, Valentino as a sheik, he wouldn’t last half a week in old King Tut-Tut-Tut-Tut-Tut-Tut-Tut King Tuttie’s day.” She checked the date on the music. “Nineteen twenty-three. A year after Carter discovered Tut’s tomb. Had they even opened the burial chamber yet?”
“February 1923.”
She selected a faded brochure in red, white, and blue. “The Maid and the Mummy. A musical farce in three acts. This is an oldie—1904.”
“Something of a theme, no?” Peter was making more notes in his own personal hieroglyphs.
A thin slip of yellowed paper slid out from the musical brochure Grace held, and she unfolded the paper. It was a letter. The date at the top read October 8, 1943.
“Listen to this,” she said.

Dearest Girl,
It’s difficult to know what to write. I’m a devil to treat you so. Oh, I know it too well, and to wrap it up in thumping philosophy only cheapens…

She broke off. “I can’t read the next few lines.” She squinted at the lines long ago dissolved by…a watermark? Tears? Gin?

There’s a kind of high comedy in our breathless obsession with tetchy old Fen’s verdict, while half the youth of Europe is churned to powder in the cogs of this mechanical slaughter of modern warfare. And yet if our little discovery should turn out to be one of Shiloh’s poesy, then there is a rightness to it, a queer poetic justice. I must let this go. One day, I suppose we will look back on this time and shake our wise gray heads over all this doubt and uncertainty.

Goodnight, Dearest. I’m better for loving you so.

For a moment they were silent. The lazy hum of bees and the sunlit fragrance of the garden drifted to them through the open window.
Grace blinked rapidly behind her specs. “It’s signed ‘John.’”
“Helpful,” said Peter. “There can’t be many chaps named John.” He reached for the letter, which Grace held in one still hand.
Huskily, she said, “Nineteen forty-three. World War II. I wonder if—”
He directed a quizzical look her way. “Why, Esmeralda, I believe the heart of a romantic beats beneath that leathered academic hide.”
Momentarily distracted, Grace spluttered, “Leathered hide?”
“Never having had opportunity to fully explore the hide in question—”
“Take my word for it, my hide is perfectly…” She stopped, aware that they were digressing rather wildly.
“Soft? Supple? Silken?” He ran light fingers down her bare arm.
It was a touch she felt in every cell. With great difficulty, Grace ignored that casually seductive caress, holding the letter up and out of his reach. Her brows drew together as she reread the elegant faded hand.
Shiloh,” she said slowly. “Poesy.” She turned to Peter, green eyes bright with excitement.
His thin clever face reflected amusement. “I recognize that feverish expression, if not the cause for it.”
It was absurd, and yet stranger things had happened—and to Grace and Peter.
“The mere word ‘poesy’ conjures his ghost.”
“Surely not.”
He was still joking. Grace was not. “In the still cave of the witch Poesy, seeking among the shadows,” she quoted.
Peter appeared to consult some inner and extensive reference section. “Shelley,” he identified. “Percy Bysshe.”
Shiloh,” Grace agreed triumphantly. “Lord Byron’s pet name for Shelley.”
“Pet name?” he objected. “Must you put it quite like that?”
“Albé and Shiloh, that’s what they called each other,” Grace persisted eagerly. “Byron and Shelley. Two of the greatest poets of the Romantic Age.” Two of the most intriguing, anyway; Grace had a private yen for the bad boys of poetry. The frail, sensitive, and iconoclast Shelley had always proved a huge hit with her freshman and sophomore classes.
Peter was unconvinced. “You can’t be serious. An unknown work by Shelley? Where would this ‘John’ find such a thing—assuming that vague reference to Shiloh is meant to indicate Shelley and not some other Shiloh.”
“What other Shiloh? I don’t think he’s referring to the American Civil War. It’s not exactly a common name. Not even in the 1940s. I mean, there was that Neil Diamond song—”
“If this is a confession,” he interrupted, “I’m not ready to hear it.”
She laughed. “But it was Shelley’s nickname, and a name by which Shelley scholars know him. And just because we don’t know where the letter writer might have found such a work, doesn’t mean the work couldn’t exist.”
Peter said nothing, holding the paper up toward the light streaming through the front window. His black-winged brows drew together. Turning, he flattened the letter on the counter behind him and studied it closely.
“What do you think?” She joined him at the counter as he studied the yellowed paper.
“Even if this bloke managed to get his mitts on an original work of Shelley’s, this was written over fifty years ago. The item, whatever it might have been, is long gone.”
“But it might not be!” Grace gestured to the boxes still unopened, the stacks of partially sorted papers. “And the clue to its whereabouts might be here, maybe in another letter. It looks like some of this stuff hasn’t been gone through in decades.” The layers of magazines, newspapers, bills, circulars, letters, and other assorted paperwork formed a kind of pulp strata.
“My dear girl.”
Dearest Girl…
Who was John? What Mallow daughter or sister had been his “dearest girl”? Grace adored the riddles of the past. Her idea of a good time was exploring an old churchyard or whiling away an afternoon in a library archive. Maybe that was why she was pushing thirty and still unmarried.
“It’s not that far-fetched. There was a lost Mary Shelley story discovered in a wooden chest in Tuscany a few years ago. And what about back in 1976, when that trunk was opened in Barclays of London and a slew of previously unknown works by Byron and Shelley were found? It’s not impossible.”
“Mary Shelley lived in Tuscany,” Peter pointed out. “And the Barclays trunk belonged to Scrope Berdmore Davies, who was a friend and confidante of Lord Byron. Correct me if I’m wrong, but did Shelley ever visit the Lakes?”
“I don’t see how that matters. Thanks to Wordsworth and Coleridge and Southey, the Lake District was the center of the Romantic Movement, and Shelley was a huge admirer of Wordsworth. Perhaps he made a trip that no one documented.” It was difficult to imagine that such a meeting wouldn’t be recorded in those days of fanatical journal and letter writing, but it was possible.
“Or perhaps he mailed a copy to his idol,” he suggested blandly.
“Yes! Or no.” She saw that this brought them back to the original problem. If a poem had been mailed to Wordsworth or another literary figure, it would surely have turned up in someone’s papers. Even in their own lifetimes, the most casual writings of these men had been valued and preserved by their friends and family. “It doesn’t matter how it got here—assuming it is here.”
“Here?” He seemed to consider the idea for the first time. “But the item, whatever it is, appears to have been in John’s possession, and for all we know, John may have lived in London. Or Tuscany.”
The man was most aggravating when he was right. But Peter wasn’t finished dashing her dreams. “Has it occurred to you that perhaps this is too much of a coincidence? A letter hinting of a work by Percy Bysshe Shelley just happens to turn up in an antique shop where you, a scholar of Romantic literature, just happen to work?”
Grace was to appear as guest speaker at the annual Romantic literature conference held at Amberent Hall in Carlisle. Nearly two years earlier, she and Peter had been involved in the search for a lost work by Lord Byron. She had written a book on their adventures, which had sold to an obscure press back in the States. Though the book was not yet published, word rippled quickly across the academic pond Grace paddled in, and she was basking in her fifteen minutes of fame.
As much as she disliked the notion, Peter had a point. “You think someone is…salting the mine?”
“I should be very skeptical of any unknown works by long-dead literary giants that mysteriously turn up on your doorstep,” he said dryly.
The bells on the gallery door jangled, and Grace guiltily snatched at the letter. She was not quick enough. Unhurriedly, Peter slid it beneath the leather blotter on the countertop.

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