The Great Western Railway in Miniature
I can still remember coming home on those spring nights through the glitter of shop windows in Knightsbridge. Despite the depression that remained in full force in 1936, that part of London was very rich. There remained many people who lived only for their amusements. In Beauchamp Place I would encounter gay parties of three or four couples going into fashionable restaurants. The women, often beautiful, would toss their heads and chatter mindlessly in wonderful accents as they bounced lightly up the short flights of steps in their high heels. Walking through it all, I had the conceit that I, a well-dressed and rather elegant person, could have joined in. Flushed and stepping briskly, I would turn confidently into Walton Street. Even there on my own street, without front gardens but so close to the glamourous world, there was a certain excitement. It was only when I trundled up to my bare bed-sitter that I realized that the outside world wouldn't have me.
Some people in those circumstances might have acquired a pet. But they are lonely, and I am only solitary. I have never wanted to have anything snuffle around my ankles. Instead, I wanted something that would make my lodgings more interesting, and would make me anxious to return to them. In the end I chose a model railway.
The impulsive railway modeller generally constructs some sort of table, and then begins to frantically lay track. As his railway grows, he extends the table and lays more track. Soon, it becomes necessary to crawl or climb in order to cross the room. Later on, doors must either be removed or left permanently open in order to accomodate main lines, goods yards, and locomotive facilities.
From the beginning, I was determined to combine civility with a proper appreciation of the requirements of my miniature railway. Since the ceiling was high and there was a good deal of waste space, I decided to put it to good use. I therefore acquired a step ladder, and, using brackets, circled my single large room with boards attached to the walls just above the level of the doors and windows. Since my workmanship is good, I anticipated no objections from the landlord. Indeed, even before I laid track, the carefully joined and finished shelves improved the appearance of an otherwise rather squalid room.
Since my system could be properly viewed only from the control position half-way up the stepladder, I was creating a miniature scene which was largely hidden from lower altitudes. This, in itself, added to the attraction. One had to make some effort to get within view of it.
In the course of the program of construction, I frequently visited the many model railway shops in London. These tended to be located near the great terminal stations, each shop with a bias toward its respective railway. For example, Hamblings, off the Charing Cross Road, was located near Charing Cross Station, and thus favored the Southern Railway. Bassett-Lowke, up on the Euston Road, tended toward the old LNWR, with its attendant station at Euston. As a long-time habitue of Paddington, my choice was almost necessarily that of the Great Western. I was thus drawn irresistibly to the nearby establishment of Walker and Holtzapfel in Paddington Street. I had been there many times before I wandered in one day and, to my great astonishment, found Ralph Wambsganss behind the counter.
According to my original plan for Ralph, there could hardly have been a better outcome. I wanted him to be with the sort of down-to-earth and unpretentious people who were fascinated by railways. Even though there might be an occasional duke among them, he would be the right sort of duke. If I had been God, I would, very likely, have given Ralph precisely this part-time job. I would also have had him meet Muggs, but would certainly have kept him away from Jane.
After congratulating Ralph on his wisdom in taking such a job, I remarked that I had never heard him speak of railways at all. He replied,
"I had quite an extensive layout at home, and I've been poking around railways ever since I arrived here. I guess I didn't mention them since you didn't seem to be a railway sort of person."
I quickly disabused Ralph on that point, and we fell into quite an animated conversaion about my layout. When another customer eventually appeared and required Ralph's attention, he wrapped up my purchases and suggested that I join him for a drink later at the Park Lane Hotel.
As I left the shop, I was puzzled anew. The Park Lane Hotel was an expensive one on Piccadilly, particularly favored by American tourists. I have always found it embarrassing to be around most Americans in England. The combination of being on vacation and feeling the need to alter their ordinary behavior causes normally rather sensible people to behave in ways that incline one to pretend to be Canadian.
Since Ralph was at least as sensitive as myself, I would have expected him to cringe at the thought of entering the Park Lane. Then, too, since a shop assistant could easily spend a whole week's salary in an hour at the hotel, it was probable that no employee of Walker and Holtzapfel had ever gone there. I knew that Ralph wasn't dependent on his salary, but, even so, a rather puzzling young man came to be yet more puzzling.
When, a few hours later, I penetrated to the lobby of the Park Lane, I had a feeling briefly reminiscent of that meeting with Ralph and Brenda at the Plaza in New York. I had called that meeting to settle the future, and, while I hadn't called this meeting, I sensed that there was something in the air. Ralph popped up, seemingly in a carefree way, but, as it turned out, with an agenda in mind. Without warning, I was led over and introduced to a visiting American family.
The Sattells consisted of a grandmother, aged seventy or so, two daughters of some forty summers, and the son of one of the daughters. He looked younger than Ralph, but turned out to be almost the same age.
The introductions were a little awkward because the daughters were confusingly named Ellen and Helen. I did, indeed, confuse the names, and thought that they had the same one. Then, when I got that straight, the names suggested that they might be twins, and that their mother had tried to be cute. If these ladies were twins, they were certainly not identical ones. Both were good looking, but in quite different ways.
Ellen was tall, with flashing black eyes, and looked athletic. Helen, whom I later discovered to be older, was smaller and much more feminine. Without her son, she could have passed for thirty. I wondered if Ralph were interested in either of the sisters, but then dismissed that thought. Despite his interest in older women, he had both Jane and Muggs, each in their separate ways, and must be presumed to be fully occupied. Was he then a friend of Helen's son, the boy whose name was Howie? That also seemed unlikely. Although they might have a good deal in common, there was one great difference. Ralph was absolutely and totally on his own, while Howie was just as thoroughly under the thumb of his family. Some gulfs can be bridged, but I couldn't imagine how the different outlooks, necessitated by these different circumstances, could allow of any palpable degree of intimacy.
In such a situation one must always grope a little at the beginning until one discovers, not to put too fine a point on it, which ones are worth talking with. It was obvious that Mrs. Sattell expected me to talk with her, and it was she who explained to me the circumstances of her family. Her husband had just passed away after a long illness, and she thought the family needed a change. She also thought that their conversation had gone dull, and that they needed something new to talk about. This was said, not as a joke, but with perfect seriousness.
Along with the naivite and vulnerability, there was also about Mrs. Sattell a touch of pretentiousness. The English have a real talent for making fools of such people, and I, not usually very charitable, was glad that she was likely to meet only Americans. There was something nice, and a bit pitiable, about her. It would have been indefensible to ridicule her. On the other hand, Mrs. Sattell was not one with whom one wished to converse at any great length. I thus turned to her daughters.
It became evident that this was a family with a definite pecking order, one that was set, dim as she was, by Mrs. Sattell. Occupying first position, in front of Mrs. Sattell herself, was Miss Ellen Sattell. She was supposed by her mother to be beautiful, and also the most amusing, entertaining and desirable member of the family. I could see that undiscriminating people might indeed have thought that. She looked, and later turned out to be, a fine athlete. She was still full of what one might call bright animal spirits. I don't know that she looked sexual exactly, but she looked active, vigorous, and ready for fun. She was also relatively uninhibited, and was a good mimic. On the other hand, I failed to detect in her any signs whatever of intelligence. She could certainly be the life of a party, but it would be a rather dull party.
When I turned to Helen, more specifically, Mrs. Helen Warner, I could easily detect her mother's disapproval of my action. I was supposed to be captivated by Ellen. Helen, on the contrary, was a forbidden plum. Although she was Howie's mother, she didn't seem to be married. She wore no ring, and there was never a mention of a Mr. Warner. I found her quite fascinating, and, having made that discovery, I looked at Ralph to see whether I was encroaching on his territory. It seemed not. Ralph had played golf with Ellen, but had evidently never gone anywhere with Helen.
The fact that Ralph was hardly more than half Ellen's age didn't seem to deter Mrs. Sattell. She wanted Ellen to be admired by men of all ages, even ones that were too young to marry her. Ralph spoke enthusiastically of Ellen's golf. Not being an athlete myself, I don't really understand how a person such as Ralph could fill an afternoon with someone like Ellen. Apparently there is an athletic comraderie which fills the gaps in the conversation. There is also all that talk of birdies and bogeys, and of mashies, niblicks and cleeks. At any rate, some of the words have intriguing sounds. If only they had more interesting meanings, they might be used in poetry.
Ralph then turned gently to Mrs. Sattell. That was actually rather funny. Hardly months away from being a gawky teen-ager, he was developing a manner that could almost be called suave. Moreover, he was now practising it on Mrs. Sattell with considerable success. I asked myself why.
By this time, the conversation had split into two groups with Ralph, Ellen, and her mother in one and Helen, Howie, and myself in the other. Helen and Howie constituted a family within a family, and, by the look of it, one that had second class status. I gathered that Helen had made a disastrous and fairly short-lived marriage, one that her mother still remembered vividly.
Helen did, in the course of the conversation, make some reference to the goodness of her parents in taking back Howie and herself. I took this as meaning that she had been allowed to come back from her fiasco of a marriage with her baby on condition that she not compete with Ellen for available men. Of course, it was now much too late for Ellen, but it seemed that her mother would never give up hope.
Another odd feature of the situation was that the submerged half of the family was much the more intelligent. Helen accepted this position with fairly good grace, but Howie was inclined to sulk. As nearly as I could make out, he was excruciatingly embarrassed by almost everything his grandmother and aunt said or did. I could sympathize there, and led him into a discussion of his studies at Harvard. Howie was majoring in philosophy, but had come down with yellow jaundice at the beginning of the spring term. Still recovering, he was looking forward to starting his senior thesis. He had arranged to go to Oxford in two weeks, where he would have the use of the Bodley Library. Whether it was his enthusiasm for work or his desire to get away from his family that came uppermost, he was certainly anxious to get there.
We were seated in such a way that I had both Howie and Ralph in view at the same time. Howie, much thinner and younger in appearance, was obviously bright, perhaps even as smart as Ralph. It also seemed that he was about to enjoy at least some of the independence which had transformed Ralph so markedly. Perhaps they would shortly have a good deal more in common than I had imagined. Even so, that didn't explain the fact that Ralph had allowed himself to be virtually adopted by this family. I consequently asked Helen how they had met. She replied,
"Ralph rescued us. Howie and I were on a bus on our second day in England. When the conductor came around to collect our fares, I couldn't understand anything he said. I suppose he must have been a Cockney. To be on the safe side, I pulled out a pound note and handed it to him. He got very angry and started shouting. It turned out later that our fare was only four pence, and he didn't think he ought to have to change a pound."
"He may not have been able to. It's too bad he didn't just ask you for something smaller."
"If he did, I couldn't understand. I think he probably also thought that my pulling out a pound was a piece of American bravado, perhaps implying a contempt for English money. Anyway, I was thoroughly confused by this time, and I thought he wanted more. So I produced a five pound note and offered him that."
Helen and I were both laughing at this point, but Howie definitely was not. She continued,
"I really thought the conductor was on the point of apoplexy. However, just as he was about to throw us off the bus, Ralph appeared and paid our fares. So, of course, we brought him back for tea."
I could easily imagine Ralph being gallant and saving the day in these, or, indeed, in much more demanding circumstances. I was also quite sure that he liked Helen better than Howie. How, then, had he got himself stuck with Ellen and Mrs. Sattell? A few months earlier, I would have thought that it was simply another case of people imposing on Ralph's good will. But I had since learned better. Ralph didn't do things he didn't want to do. He had previously given away money because he hadn't been comfortable as a wealthy young man about town. But, now, having found his niche, it would be an extremely lucky tramp who engaged his generosity to the extent of much more than haypenny farthing. Ralph might still be generous with his friends, but there was no longer any danger that he would give away his remaining capital.
On leaving the Park Lane, I collared Ralph directly.
"Helen is charming, but I can't imagine what you see in the other Sattells."
"Howie's all right. He's an interesting guy."
"He probably will be in a few years, but he's a child compared to you."
"I certainly wouldn't like to have his grandmother. She even tries to tell me what to do."
"That leaves Ellen, then. You evidently enjoy playing golf with her."
"She's a good player, and good to play with. She doesn't get mad when she hits a bad shot, and she plays quickly without any irritating affectations."
"I see. I suppose she will consequently make you a good wife."
I had caught Ralph. He actually recoiled from me enough to almost bowl over a passing city gent. When he had finished apologizing, he rejoined me and began to explain.
"Well, actually, Giorgio, you know the one ..."
I replied that I did indeed know the one. Ralph then spoke with somewhat more self-possession.
"He's awfully keen, you know, on finding a wife, particularly an American one. Then he could go to America. He's over thirty, and I did think that perhaps Ellen ..."
"Why are you so keen on match-making for Giorgio?"
"He is a friend, perhaps not a terribly close one, but both Jane and Brenda want me to find someone for him."
Knowing that I was on to something, I persisted,
"I've discussed Giorgio with Brenda, and I doubt very much that she's sufficiently fascinated by him to go to elaborate lengths to assure his future happiness."
"Well, you see, it's a special case of something larger. Virtually all the soccer chaps want to find wives, and we thought we might start out with Giorgio to see how it goes."
"I'd suspect that Brenda was going into the business of finding wives for illegal immigrants if they had money to pay for such a service. But aren't they all practically penniless?"
"They work very hard, and I've picked up a few things when we go out to a pub after a game. They mostly don't speak English very much, but I gather that they're quite entrepreneurial."
After a good deal of badgering, Ralph allowed that the soccer players were entrepreneurial in quite particular ways. Some were expert pick-pockets. Others smuggled, and still others engaged in burglary. I rejoined,
"I can imagine Giorgio, up on a ladder, forcing open locked windows with his bare hands and arms."
"Well, they aren't just thieves, you know. Some Robin Hoodism is involved, and they pool the proceeds. Quite substantial sums are available for worthy purposes."
"The worthiest purpose being the finding of wives."
"It would certainly rank high, and it's generally agreed that Giorgio is first in line. Brenda and Jane are likely to play roles later on, but, in the meantime, I came across this possibility."
"Have you introduced Ellen and Giorgio yet?"
"No. But they're both so interested in sports that they might get on well. It's a pity that Giorgio doesn't play golf."
"You could teach him."
Ralph replied affirmatively, but without enthusiasm. I then realized what it would be like to introduce Giorgio into the highly mannered atmosphere of an English golf course. There would be shouts that turned heads. Balls would whizz in all directions. I could even imagine Giorgio, club in hand, threatening anyone who took exception to his activities. I saw what Ralph meant. He then suggested,
"In the meantime, we might have a little party."
I said nothing, but Ralph gave me a playful nudge that almost put me into the gutter as he said,
"At Brenda's we might get overwhelmed by the other soccer players, but your place would be ideal. I'll help you get your railway ready for the occasion."
I was certainly not in the least enthusiastic, but Ralph was so good-natured that it was hard to deny him. Moreover, I doubted that my railway would ever be fully operational without some expert help.
The night of the party duly arrived, a week later. People had been told that they'd have to sit on the floor to drink, and then climb the stepladder to see the railway. These ideas, needless to say, were Ralph's rather than my own. However, despite the likelihood of undignified proceedings, I didn't object. I hate parties as a general thing, and this one at least promised to be different.
The guest list started with the Sattells. I expected the old lady to beg off, but Ralph said that she made a particular point of accompanying her daughters wherever they went. Then, of course, Giorgio would be coming, in attire I hardly dared imagine. He would be accompanied by Brenda and Jane. I was glad that my railway was mounted well above even her level. Otherwise, I could easily picture her sweeping whole trains on to the floor with a carelessly swung elbow.
I had urged Ralph to invite enough people so that our guests wouldn't form one of those awful conversational circles, the sort reminiscent of a seminar where people speak, by turns, to the group as a whole. We wondered about inviting Muggs. Our doubts had nothing to do with her auxiliary profession. On the contrary, both Ralph and I were delighted with the thought that Mrs. Sattell might well find her the most civilized and gracious person present.
Our reluctance was entirely due to the fact that Giorgio might marry her, and thus deprive us of her services. However, we concluded that Giorgio, despite his many virtues, would fail to find favor in Muggs' eyes. We accordingly invited her.
The remainder of the guest list consisted of some people from the American Embassy whom Ralph had met playing, not soccer, but football. One of the unfortunate things about Americans abroad is that they go to parties attended only by other Americans. We were perilously close to giving such a party, but would be saved by Jane, Muggs, and Giorgio.
Apart from Ralph, the first arrivals were Lt. Arnold Buckmaster, the assistant naval attache, and Mr. and Mrs. William Wilson, also from the Embassy. My first thought was that Buckmaster was the American version of Cedric from the Mauretania. This man was, in fact, even bigger and bluffer, and his self-confidence appeared to be very nearly infinite. He greeted Ralph quite effusively, and I saw that we were in for one of those distasteful sessions of sports comraderie. Buckmaster had played football at Annapolis, and was presumably more expert than Ralph. It was thus all the more extraordinary that he and Ralph had been, quite literally, banging their heads together without even the helmets that are customary in such encounters. Buckmaster joked about a purplish contusion which, he said, had been caused by the top of Ralph's head. The latter explained,
"The first few times I tried to block Arnold, he was past me and after our tailback while I lunged into empty space. Now, I bang my head into his the minute the ball is snapped. That allows me to stay in contact with him for two or three seconds."
Wilson also played football with them, but evidently with a somewhat different spirit. He waved at the head knockers and said,
"I try to keep as far away from both of them as I possibly can."
I detached the rather attractive Mrs. Wilson from the sports conversation and asked her if it was really as insane as it seemed. She, oddly enough, took me for an Englishman. She then attempted to explain the American male to me. Amused, I thanked her for the compliment and told her that her lucid account was true of a large percentage of the American male population. I then added,
"But, still, there are degrees. Your husband seems to have more grasp of the ordinary principles of bodily self- preservation than the other two."
"Yes, I'm glad he does. But he also went to one of those dreadful boarding schools, and so he still has to play football. They're not as bad in England, are they?"
"In some ways they're worse, but the level of purely physical violence may not be quite as high."
I like the sort of pretty woman who can be led off to the corner with moderately serious talk, and was somewhat pained to see Ralph ushering in all four Sattells. Apart from having to share Mrs. Wilson with the general company, I would have to go through two Sattells before getting to Helen. Even then, I might also have Howie on my hands.
Ralph introduced Howie to the football group, and it was suggested that he join them in their weekly game. I was certain that they would half kill him, but I offered no objection. Then, as I was doing my obligatory stint with Ellen, I just heard Ralph saying to Mrs. Sattell, evidently in reply to a question,
".... and then we'll be joined by an Italian gentleman visiting from Venezia."
What a way Ralph had come! Venezia indeed! More likely the slums of Naples. Still, he almost conjured up in me an image of a reserved and austere Italian count, an ascetic aesthete of the old school, who had come to bid on a painting at Sotheby's. One almost felt sorry for the impressionable Mrs. Sattell.
It wasn't long before a familiar tread sounded on the stairs, and I took particular pleasure in introducing Miss Delphinia Muggs to Mrs. Sattell. Apart from the irony of the situation, I was happy that the older woman would have the opportunity of a pleasant chat with at least one genuine English person during her stay in the country. Jane might size up the situation and sweep imperiously away, but Muggs would be nice. I could vividly imagine Mrs. Sattell as she told her neighbors at home about the charming and aristocratic Miss Muggs, a lady who, on the Sattells' next visit, looked forward to having them all stay with her at her father's home in the country. Subsequent accounts might easily have Lady Delphinia Muggs inviting them to stay at her castle.
The party was well and noisily under way. The football players were slapping each other's backs with Ralph deftly moving back and forth between that group and the one comprising the female Sattells, Mrs. Wilson, Muggs, and myself. Knowing how Mrs. Sattell must be regarding Muggs, I had a new look at Muggs myself. A rather small girl with dark straight hair, I had always thought of her as one who could pass unnoticed through the streets of a great city, good spy material in fact. Tonight, however, she had left her glasses in her purse, and was wearing a new silk dress. This one fit properly, and showed her slim figure to advantage. She now had on shoes that didn't wobble on her feet, and a little unwonted make-up made one realize that her facial features were also good. She even flirted gently with both Ralph and myself, something I had never seen her do. She would, indeed, make a perfectly good Lady Delphinia.
I found in myself a definite desire to remove Lady Delphinia's dress and kiss her bare shoulders. Failing that, I desired to tell either or both Helen or Mrs. Wilson that she was my mistress. That desire, scarcely more acceptable, was also successfully resisted. In compensation, I downed another glass of the fortified wine punch Ralph and I had concocted that afternoon.
I was beginning to wonder if our remaining guests were really coming when I remembered that any group which included Jane would surely be late. In the event, they were not so very late. As they burst in, Jane and Brenda made much more noise than a surprisingly restrained Giorgio. Wearing a dark suit of respectable cut, he shook hands all around in such a way that one felt that he might actually remember the rush of names with which he was besieged. Jane obviously wouldn't, but, after a few humorously disparaging remarks about my abode, she quickly established her connection with Ralph. Although Jane would never have admitted it, I was sure that this act was partly motivated by the presence of Muggs, of whose existence and function she had been informed.
When a party has no hostess, every woman present becomes a bit of a hostess. Even Mrs. Sattell began to ask solicitously whether various people were properly supplied with food and drink. Several women seemed to simultaneously decide that the football players had been at it long enough. Brenda led Howie off to the punch bowl while Mrs. Wilson directed her husband to the Sattells. Muggs then drifted over to the now isolated Lt. Buckmaster. Meanwhile, Helen and Jane approached me as if I were a guest in my own home.
While it may have been slow going for Mr. Wilson, it was quite nice for the other males. Howie was obviously thrilled. He was the sort of boy who would have trailed after girls, being barely tolerated only until they found someone adequate. I was sure that no one like Brenda, now laughing at some witticism of his, had ever approached him voluntarily.
Lt. Buckmaster was being more than adequately entertained by Muggs, now being, not Lady Delphinia, but a sophisticated young London intellectual. And, of course, with Jane on one side and Helen on the other, I was perfectly all right. As difficult as I knew Jane could be, I had never underestimated her as a woman. She might be inches above me and strongly inclined to scoff at any man so uncouth as to want to touch her, but she was an excellent woman to observe closely so that she might later be made the object of one's fantasies.
Helen, diminutive beside Jane, was smart enough to make interesting and incisive remarks, but silly enough to flirt. She, so to speak, operated on both sides of Jane. She also caused Jane to take me more seriously than she would otherwise have done. Helen was, if one liked, the clever lady-in-waiting manipulating a man with whom she might later dally in such a way that he would now make a favorable impression on the queen. I was wondering whether Helen could be pried loose from her family, so that she could dally sooner rather than later, when I was aware of Giorgio at my elbow.
I realized immediately what had happened. He had looked over the Sattells and had decided that Helen was preferable to Ellen. He was now waiting for a chance to get started with his courting. In my distraught state, it occurred to me that Ralph hadn't explained the dynamics and pecking order of the Sattell family to him. It was Ellen who had been put into the expensive glamorous dress, probably under protest, and Helen who was wearing something much less ostentatious. That seemed to make no difference with Giorgio. I had badly underestimated him. While I would have chosen that he not appear at this juncture, one had to admire his taste. Moreover, there was none of the "da-focka-da-wife" business. While his English was still heavily accented and less than fluid, he not only kept it clean but was able to communicate ideas. It turned out that he was opposed to Mussollini, and had left Italy for political reasons.
When Jane asked him if a politically suspect person was really forced to drink a liter of castor oil, Giorgio handled a highly undignified subject in a quite dignified way. He had himself been a victim of this practise. As we gasped, he explained that it did great violence to the digestive system. It had even killed some people. Fortunately, he had a strong constitution. He had, however, wished himself dead for some hours. Jane was still curious and pressed him further. The real point, he explained, was humiliation. If one could have gotten home in time, it wouldn't have been so bad. However, one was held in the police station until the distress began, and then flung out into the street. But, he concluded with a smile and a wave,
"Another day comes and a you forget."
Helen replied that she wouldn't forget for a great many days if anything like that had happened to her. Giorgio then put his arm conspiratorily around her shoulders, gestured at Jane, and stage-whispered that he had not yet discovered what the English did to their political enemies.
As Giorgio continued to score points with Helen, I racked my brain to find some way of informing him of the true state of affairs. I caught Jane's eye, and she also looked puzzled. She knew that Giorgio was to be paired with Ellen, but I doubted that she realized what Mrs. Sattell would do to Helen if she came away with Giorgio.
Ralph inadvertantly saved the situation by announcing that it was time to run some trains. As Ralph climbed to the control position, I was able to have a few words with him, seemingly about some details of the operation. He, in turn, left me in control, and was able to say something, I knew not what, to Giorgio. It must have been to the point because, very soon afterwards, Giorgio was standing next to Mrs. Sattell.
Ralph, more adept operationally than myself, came back to the control position, freeing me to comfort the now deserted Helen. When I approached, she laughed in a knowing way. I don't think she could really have appreciated the situation, but she knew that something was going on, and had been amused at the rapid change of partners and positions.
In order to see very much, it was necessary for the shorter spectators to get up on the folding wooden chairs I had borrowed from a nearby undertaker. Lt. Buckmaster scooped Muggs effortlessly on to one, and then stood beside it so that, teetering on the unsteady chair in her high heels, she could hold on to his shoulder. The other women, with the exception of Mrs. Sattell, climbed up themselves with some assistance from the men. Skirts had to be lifted, and it was, withal, an enjoyable spectacle.
I stood beside Helen, her head above mine, with her hand on my shoulder and my arm around her at the level of her hips. In fact, my hand came precisely at the top of her hip bone on the side away from me. It is not, generally speaking, the part of a woman's body which a lover strives to touch, but I found it quite exciting. Helen didn't have on much under her dress, and, by moving my fingers ever so slightly, I could gently caress her. Far from recoiling, she talked cheerfully, even, at one time, placing her hand humorously on the top of my head.
The great problem with model railways is that they work less well the greater the audience. Ralph, however, soon had the expresses from Paddington ripping past the village platforms at Little Doing and Much Gossip, stopping only at the market town of Great Snoring. All three towns were served by reversible push-pull trains for local passengers and goods. They used a second track parallel to the single- tracked main line, but, in order to pass each other, they had often to briefly cross on to the main. It took some skill to organize the various train movements.
Soon, there were gasps as Ralph narrowly averted a high speed collision between an express and a local. He then cleverly stopped the demonstration just before people got bored. Those who were interested continued to run trains, but the women got down from their chairs and the party continued.
There were now some changes of partners. Buckmaster was with Brenda. That, I thought, was inevitable. He had spotted her as the most desirable woman present, and he took it for granted, as Cedric would have done, that he was most deserving of her. Brenda had resisted Cedric, but I wasn't so sure in this case. Buckmaster was bigger, even more masculine, and, I gathered, quite intelligent. The navy might also appeal to Brenda until she found out more about it. Finally, there was the name. How would she like to be Brenda Buckmaster? In a way it sounded silly. On the other hand, I doubted her resolve to keep away from men, and people have often married for just such things.
Muggs was now with Howie. It was quite a night for Howie. Brenda had consorted with him, certainly out of pity, and now there was Muggs, possibly with business in mind. I had to admit that it was a good idea. Howie was most assuredly not syphilitic, and he would have spending money. Distasteful though the idea was to me, he would round out her custom quite nicely.
Giorgio was now sitting with Mrs. Sattell and Ellen. The daughter was obviously unhappy, but the mother was beaming. I found out later that Jane had whispered to Mrs. Sattell that she thought Giorgio was really an Italian count who preferred not to use his title. That poor old lady was gullible beyond belief, but something would have to be done about Ellen. I, having wined too much, put my arm around Helen's waist and whispered to her,
"How can we make Ellen like Giorgio?"
She slid partly out of my grasp, saying that she had to be careful in front of the others. She then answered my question.
"Ellen doesn't like men much. Mother is always trying to match her, but Ellen sulks and drives them away."
"Giorgio won't easily be driven away."
"You mean because he wants to marry an American?"
I was beyond all caution, and answered affirmatively. Helen replied,
"He shouldn't have difficulty finding someone. He's an attractive man."
"What would happen if your mother more or less ordered Ellen to marry him?"
"I don't know. She and mother have horrible fights. They had one tonight just before we came."
I had, by this time, lost, not only caution, but tact. I asked,
"What was it over?"
Fortunately, Helen had also had some wine. She giggled as she replied,
"It was over whether Ellen would wear a bra. She usually wears just an undershirt, and mother thinks it isn't very feminine. Ellen got all dressed, but mother came in with a bra for her. She made Ellen take off her dress, but she still wouldn't put it on. Ellen was crying and furious, and mother wouldn't stop. It bothered me at the time. I left in protest."
"Does she have it on now?"
"I'm not sure. Can you tell?"
Just then, Ellen got up and walked over to look at one of the trains. From the back I could see clearly outlined the straps of her bra. Helen saw too, and remarked,
"Mother usually does win. It would be terrible if she forced Ellen into marriage, though. That couldn't possibly work."
I sensed that Helen, despite her words, really had quite mixed feelings. I gathered that it would simplify her life if Ellen did marry and move out of the house. Indeed, she went on to suggest,
"If you want to get them together, it had better be at golf or some sporting thing. That's where Ellen is at her best."
"I thought that myself. Ralph says Giorgio doesn't play golf, and he didn't seem to want to teach him. I think he was afraid that it might be embarrassing to get Giorgio on a golf course. He's usually less inhibited than he is here."
"Ellen wouldn't mind that. She likes anything that draws attention to her. You'd better have her teach him."
"It sounds to me as if you could manage your mother reasonably well if Ellen weren't around to worry her and fight with her."
Helen looked at me sharply.
"I might as well say that Giorgio would have quite a problem on his hands. But it would get him to America, and there's money involved. He'd be well rewarded."
I looked over at Giorgio, still chatting with Mrs. Sattell, and answered,
"He doesn't need to be bought. He finds Ellen attractive, and she's an American citizen. That's enough for him. The money might even bother him. Oddly enough, he'll marry for citizenship, but I think he'd find it dishonorable to marry for money. That should be played down."
"I certainly don't have any influence over Ellen. Unfortunately, the person who does have influence over her would surely object."
"Who is that?"
"A very common little woman who works in a factory at home. Ellen didn't want to come here because of her, and sometimes writes to her three times a day."
The rest of that evening is distinctly blurred. I do, however, remember one incident clearly. I was running a train with my best express engine at high speed. I had put in a switch on the main line at Great Snoring with the intention of adding another platform at the very edge of the shelf. I had not, at that time, added the track.
Somehow, in my befuddlement, I must have thrown the switch. To my great horror, the train, travelling at a scale 110 miles an hour, shot off the shelf into space. The engine had been an expensive one to begin with, and I had spent many hours filing the side rods to a perfect fit. Then, having painted it, I had spent many more hours with a tiny brush lining it out in the correct Great Western livery. What happened then was almost a miracle. Giorgio, who had been watching, calmly caught the engine and tender with his great hands. Cradling them gently, he returned them to me absolutely undamaged. The coaches did smash on the floor, alarming everyone, but they happened to be cheap ones which could easily be repaired.
Giorgio had had the wit to catch the right part of the train, and thus gave me absolution for my sin, the sort of thing that has cost many hundreds of lives in the railway disasters of the last century. My gratitude was unbounded. I was more determined than ever to bring his affairs to a satisfactory conclusion.