The sum of money from Mrs. Sattell came at a critical time. Brenda had been buying residential property, and was poised to buy a great deal more. But an odd omen occurred as the four of us were having dinner one night at Brenda's flat. Having just finished the main course, we heard an assortment of toots, whistles and sirens coming to a stop almost in front of the house. Rushing to the window, we saw that it was the fire brigade. There were vast volumes of smoke pouring upward from a point somewhere to our left. Jane was first down the stairs, with the rest of us in close pursuit. It was the house three doors down on the other, or downhill, side. It was a detached house standing in its own modest garden, and the smoke lifted so sharply in the westerly breeze that we could approach closely.
In my previous experience of fires, one generally saw a good deal of smoke, but little, if any flame. It was different this time. Flames were leaping out the upstairs windows in front, and we could even see them above the roof line. The firemen, already in action, seemed intent on saving the house next to it, and were on the rooftops pouring water into the flames from opposite sides.
The neighbors were all gathered in the street, including the unfortunate inhabitants of the burning building. They had been visiting down the street, and had hardly arrived before we did. It was only a rented house, but, between fire and water, it was doubtful if any of their possessions at all would be saved. They were being extremely good sports about it. While the woman had an extraordinarily set look on her face, the man spoke deprecatingly about their losses. Thus reassured, I, for my part, settled down to watch a good fire.
At a certain point, after the fire was more or less under control, but far from extinguished, I noticed Brenda in conversation with a small man who seemed very near to literally gnashing his teeth and tearing out his hair. I naturally supposed him to be the owner, and drifted over to speak comforting words.
It developed that the man was an estate agent who managed property for others. What exercised him wasn't the near-total destruction of the house, which was insured. The owner, it appeared, wouldn't come out with any very substantial loss. But the difficulties for this man were, he said, enormous.
There would be endless negotiations with the insurance company. The fire brigade had its own bureaucracy, which wasn't easily satisfied. If there was an arson investigation, it would be even worse. In any case, it would be his responsibility to settle any claims the tenants might have, or perhaps take action against them for negligence. There would have to be an inventory, very likely made out by himself, of anything that might be salvaged. Demolition would have to be arranged, and there would then be the problem of selling the land itself. This man, much more visibly upset than the tenants, wailed like Job of the curses that can be inflicted on one who manages property. He made a strong impression on Brenda.
As we walked back to the flat, Brenda said,
"You know, anyone who owns much property is going to have a good deal of this sort of thing. If it isn't fire, it'll be vandalism, broken pipes, and hillslides."
"One hires a man to tend to the unpleasantness, doesn't one?"
"That would be expensive. As far as rental property goes, it would just about absorb the profit margin."
We chatted in a desultory way about other things until Brenda, her mind still on the fire and its sequel, announced,
"I'm going to hurry things up, make my pile, and get out of this business within a year."
Jane and I made approving noises, little knowing what our own roles in this exit from the real estate business would be.
Brenda explained her idea to me a couple of days later. It was fairly straight-forward, and it hinged on Smith. He was the acknowledged leader of the little community, and was the president of the Pilgrims Lane Association. If he sold his house to Brenda at a ridiculously low price and admitted as much publicly, the panic which had just started to take hold would be greatly accelerated. He would, of course, have to be rewarded.
While the scheme was simple in itself, the execution wasn't. None of our group but myself were on speaking terms with Smith. Moreover, Jane would set her face strongly against any mechanism which would reward him.
Brenda began by convincing Jane that she shouldn't abandon her former house to Smith. She might have flung out of it saying that she'd never enter it again, but those words weren't legally binding. Now, Brenda pointed out, if Jane wanted to get at Smith, nothing could be more effective than to claim the house as part of the divorce settlement. Jane still wanted nothing to do with Smith, but, of course, the whole thing could be mediated by lawyers. Better yet, I might be able to negotiate something out of court with Smith.
It was also agreed that the house would end up in Brenda's name, Brenda paying Jane for it in installments over a long period of time. At that point, I was called in, Jane giving me authority to negotiate for her. Later on, I had another talk with Brenda. I was to negotiate for her too, this time in a more complex way.
Smith knew, in general terms, what Brenda was trying to do on Pilgrims Lane. He had spoken to the neighborhood association, and to many of the homeowners individually, urging them to stand fast and refuse all offers. He allowed to me, however, that such a defense is always problematical. There are always weak links, people who'll take the money and run. Running is contagious, and even the strongest will realize that the last to run will be hurt the most.
There was an understanding between us that made such admissions possible. Smith knew that I was fated to trail Brenda, but he also knew that I wouldn't betray secrets to her. I told him that I thought she'd win in the end. Then, before stating Brenda's offer, I put forward Jane's. She would settle for two thirds of the value of the house. I could tell from Smith's reaction that he had already consulted his solicitor, and that this was a fair offer. Smith, however, was far too canny to accept on the spot.
I thereupon stated Brenda's far more complex offer. It was rather generous. If Smith agreed to it, he would get something like fifteen per cent of Brenda's profits from Pilgrims Lane without himself taking any risks. He said only,
"Everyone else on the lane would interpret my action as a stab in the back. I'd be hated."
I didn't deny it. I replied,
"I'd be inclined to chalk these events up to experience, leave Pilgrims Lane, and start anew."
"It's really Jane who's putting Brenda up to most of this. I don't know what possessed me to marry Jane."
"She's a fascinating woman. Also, unfortunately, an impossible one."
Smith gestured with his hands and agreed. According to the scheme, Jane would legally give up all rights to the house. Smith would, at the same time, sell it to Brenda at one third its current value. No one would know that he was actually being paid only for his interest in the house. Nor would they knew that Brenda would eventually make payments to Jane for the rest. Still less would they have any idea of the payments Brenda would later make to Smith. Most important, Smith would tell the neighbors that he had sold his house for a pittance, and the documents of the sale would be a matter of public record. He would tell everyone that the interests behind Brenda were too strong to be resisted.
Most of these arrangements couldn't be the subject of enforceable contracts. But, as I told Smith, he could rely that Brenda would send him cheques for "consultant fees" as she sold the houses she had acquired at a profit. The whole thing would be a gentleman's agreement between Smith and myself. He needn't even speak with Brenda, and Jane would know nothing about the latter stages of the agreed procedure.
As with most of Brenda's projects, the execution was rapid. Two days later, Smith and I were standing outside his house beside a removal van as men loaded his possessions on board. Our joint presence there was calculated to be a disturbing one. I was known to be associated with Brenda. I was therefore an evil person, a person to whom no right- thinking resident would address a civil word. The other symbol, the blue removal van with a large red sign emblazoned on it, needed no explanation.
At first, no one approached us. We saw faces at windows and faces peeping over gates, but, as if in fear of contamination, no one ventured into the lane. Then, from the house directly opposite, there was, first a disturbance, and than an appearance through the gate of a woman shouting in French. I drew several inferences. First, this would be the woman Jane had desribed as her husband's French slut. Second, he hadn't given her advance warning of the sale of his house. Third, she owned the house in which she lived, and her feelings as a property owner far outweighed any feeling she might have for Smith.
I was glad that most of the vituperation was aimed at Smith. The lady advancing on us was decidedly attractive, but she had long red nails which she brandished in a way that was frankly rather threatening.
Smith's attempts to quiet his erstwhile mistress were not at all successful. However, since she was wearing high heels, it was obvious that he could out-distance her in the last resort. As it was, he back-pedaled slowly around the van while the tirade, entirely in French, increased in volume.
There were, I sensed, some belittling, and perhaps abusive, remarks addressed at me, but I could only think that, if there were ever to be a confrontation between this lady and Jane, it would be worthy of Agincourt.
Smith came through his encounter physically unmarked, and he also escaped the humiliation of having to run down the lane with the lady in pursuit. On the other hand, he had lost a good deal of what the ancient Chinese would have called his "ch'i". This concept, literally referring to one's breath, had an extended meaning with implications for one's self- confidence, one's sense of well-being, and one's physical presence vis-a-vis other persons in the environment.
As a general thing, Smith had quite a lot of ch'i. Anyone married to Jane would need it. Moreover, it was what enabled him to be successful in his business. However, as the French lady left, addressing contemptuous remarks to us over her shoulder, I could tell, simply by Smith's posture, that he had been defeated. I could understand hardly a word of what had been said, but Smith evidently understood enough French to know that he was a markedly inferior specimen.
The French slut emboldened the others. They had all been watching and listening, and they now drew up to us in twos and threes. Being British, they didn't crowd around us shouting abuse. They formed an orderly queue, starting with Mrs. Dunphy, a middle-aged woman who had been one of Smith's main supporters in the neighborhood association. She asked him,
"Have you sold your house, Mr. Smith?"
"Yes, to Miss Sanderson."
"I see. May I ask how much you received?"
Mrs. Dunphy was a well-bred woman who, in ordinary circumstances, would never have asked such a question. She did it now in a quiet hostile tone. When Smith named the figure, she sucked in her breath and hesitated, obviously thinking what to say. As she did so, I could hear the answers Smith had given echoing down the queue. As it turned out, Mrs. Dunphy said nothing at all to Smith. She instead turned to me and said,
"I believe I know who you are. You are not, I think, guiltless."
With that, she marched off down the lane. The process that followed was a little like people going down a receiving line. As Smith and I remained standing, the others filed by us, each speaking briefly. Those that followed Mrs. Dunphy weren't nearly so restrained verbally. Each had something to say, generally rather short, but always poisonous in tone.
Mid-way through this process, I found that I rather enjoyed being excoriated. The standard procedure was for each new person to speak first to Smith. Then, when he or she approached me, I would bow gravely and be told, more or less, what sort of snake I was. I enjoyed it, I believe, because the barely suppressed passion expressed in shaking voices was a measure of how much I had helped hurt these people. I don't now enjoy hurting strangers indiscriminately, but, at that point in my life, I had received from others a good deal more pain than I had given. These things must be balanced out, and it was good to feel all that impotent fury float safely past me.
In reply to these various remarks I said nothing, only swaying back on my heels and sticking out my stomach in a ridiculous manner. Toward the end, I also let my mouth hang open while producing a glazed pop-eyed look. The last woman in the queue began to speak to me, but then turned on her heel in mid-sentence. I felt really rather wonderful, and it occurred to me that the ancient Chinese had been in error. One's ch'i needn't be stored in the chest, that is, in the lungs. One can also ward off attack by becoming something of a troglodyte and sinking into one's stomach.
I was attempting to explain this discovery to Smith when I realized that he was muttering to himself in a way that seemed hardly appropriate. I suggested to him that he was in need of strong drink. I happened to have a flask in my pocket, and, as we walked briskly down the lane in the direction of the pubs at Belsize Park, we took turns sipping from it.
Having decided not to put Mrs. Sattell's money into real estate, Brenda began to look for the best alternative investment. Then and later, people continued to talk of her phenomenal luck. It was really more than that, though there was always a strong fortuitous element that seemed to overshadow anything that could be called wisdom, or even skill.
In an earlier age, Brenda would have been said to be a favorite of the gods. No more explanation would then have been demanded, or even deemed relevant. Whatever power stood behind her, it always seemed to supply the right advisor at the right time. In this instance, it was Lt. Arnold Buckmaster.
Buckmaster, in addition to trailing after Brenda, kept track, not only of naval affairs, but of military and air ones as well. When Brenda asked him what companies might be expected to profit from the current defense build-up, he immediately mentioned the Supermarine Spitfire.
When we now think of the greatest fighter aircraft of all time, it's hard to realize how little the name meant then, or that the original Spitfire was a delicate little plane into which Supermarine's chief test pilot, Joseph "Mutt" Summers, had barely been able to stuff his large body. Even the name seemed inappropriate, and the designer, Reginald Mitchell, had remarked, on first hearing it,
"That's the sort of bloody silly name they would choose!"
That first aircraft had first flown in March, just five months previously. The flight was a success. Mutt Summers, on landing, said,
"Don't touch anything."
The Royal Air Force testing was also successful, and three hundred and ten Spitfires were ordered during the summer. Still, it was only one fighter among many, and most observers thought that it was less useful and reliable than its main competitor, the Hawker Hurricane. Buckmaster thought otherwise.
The problem was that the Supermarine Company, formerly a builder of racing seaplanes, had been bought out by Vickers, the great munitions maker. No matter how successful the aircraft, the price of Vickers stock wouldn't thereby multiply. Similarly, the Spitfire engines were made by Rolls Royce, another large company with too many other concerns. It was necessary instead to find a small company which made some essential Spitfire component.
Brenda put these matters to Buckmaster, and his eventual choice was an odd one, hinging as it did on the Spitfire's only real weakness, its landing gear. On most fighters, such as the Hurricane, the landing gear hinges were in the wings, with the wheels folding up and in toward the belly. When the wheels were down, they were far apart, giving a good wide track to provide stability on take-offs and landings. On the Spitfire, the wheels instead folded outward when retracted. When lowered, they came close together, resulting in an aircraft which flew beautifully, but was difficult to land. The situation was so bad that, when taxiing over rough ground, a man had to walk holding each wing-tip to keep a Spitfire from toppling over.
These landing gear were made by a small firm, J. D. Detlinger of Southampton, near the Supermarine works. The gossip was that Detlingers had been chosen mostly because they were close at hand. After the first batch of Spitfires had been produced, Vickers would replace the landing gear with something better, probably manufactured by themselves.
Buckmaster reasoned otherwise. The creator of the Spitfire, Reginald Mitchell, was dying of cancer at the age of forty one. His heir apparent was his chief assistant. In this atmosphere, changes in the aircraft were unlikely. Moreover, the landing gear couldn't be made to fold the other way without entirely re-designing the wing. Buckmaster didn't think the assistant would dare attempt it.
The Spitfire was the only aircraft in service at the beginning of the war which was still being produced at the end. It was eventually modified in almost every other respect, but that wing, the prime exemplification of Mitchell's genius, remained inviolate. To the end of their days, Spitfires teetered along on those narrow-tracked undercarriages.
The very day after she had talked with Buckmaster, Brenda called me early, and asked if I would like to go to Southampton for the day. We met at Waterloo, she having most of Mrs. Sattell's money clutched, so to speak, in her purse.
Neither of us had been back to Southampton since our original arrival some seven months previously. It was an oddly symbolic journey with, I suppose, as large an element of romance as was possible for either of us. Brenda was full of fun and gaiety. She was going hunting, and she wanted someone there to share her good feelings.
Southampton is a great port, but a relatively small city. As with most ports, the water isn't visible from most points in the town, but, unlike any other, ocean liners, looking firmly rooted in the ground, dwarf all other structures. It is as if a mad architect, let loose from Colney Hatch, had created massive hotels of bizarre design.
In bright sunlight and drifting smoke from trains and ships we began our search for Detlingers. Finally, in a back street near the waterfront, we came upon a placard that directed us through a narrow passage between old stone walls. At the end was what looked like a builder's yard with heaps of sand and gravel. On one side there was an old warehouse of modest size, and, elsewhere, a few temporary buildings and sheds. Most striking, two little knots of men were kneeling and tinkering intently with objects on the ground. As we approached one group, I noticed a large rubber tyre. I said to Brenda,
"They're assembling landing gear out in the yard! There must be no space left inside."
"That's what happens when a little company gets a big contract."
No one paid the least attention even to Brenda as we walked to the main building. When we were about to go in, a tall sandy-haired man rushing out almost knocked her down. As he apologized, I felt certain that it was Detlinger himself.
J. D. Detlinger looked to be in his middle thirties. Obviously a mechanical man, he also had an abstracted and rather intellectual air. As soon as he found out what Brenda wanted, he took us to his "office", a tiny cubicle in the corner of the building. He began by forewarning her.
"Of course, we need money for expansion in the worst way, but I really can't advise you to invest."
He went on to explain the shortcomings of the Spitfire landing gear, concluding,
"I objected to Reg Mitchell a number of times, but he insisted. It had to do with keeping the heavier members supporting the landing struts in close to the fuselage. The wing has a little more resilience that way, permitting a slightly tighter turn. Anyhow, now that he's very ill, I've been expecting them to re-design the wing and terminate our contract. Vickers are perfectly capable of producing their own landing gear."
We then asked about their other products, all of them aircraft components of one sort or another. Detlinger described them in detail, sometimes with satisfaction. I couldn't follow everything that he said, but it wasn't hard to size up the man. A perfectionist, he seemed hardly to take in Brenda as a woman. He wore a wedding ring, but it was difficult to imagine that his family competed very successfully with the business for Detlinger's time. He was an inventor of considerable imagination, all of it focussed narrowly.
The deal was struck quite casually. Brenda offered what seemed to him a vast sum of money. She suggested that he would want to remain the majority shareholder and added,
"How about a third share for me?"
Detlinger nodded and replied only,
"I hope you won't come to regret it."
Except for signing the documents which were soon drawn up, that was all there was to it. There was no haggling whatsoever. That, too, was characteristic of Brenda. She thought always in terms of tripling her money. It was never worth worrying about a few thousand pounds.
As Detlinger walked us out through the yard, we stopped momentarily to look over the shoulders of a working party. I was standing back a little, and took in the sight of Brenda, her elegant summer dress fluttering in the breeze as she took an intelligent interest in landing gear. Detlinger, seeing us off, pointed to the men and said,
"Now I can buy a large umbrella to hold over their heads when it rains."
As we proceeded in the direction of the town center, Brenda remarked,
"I hadn't realized that there was a whimsical side to him at all."
"He's sure of himself and more relaxed than most people would be in the circumstances. He can afford a few little jokes."
Just then, we passed a Chinese restaurant. They were quite rare in England at the time, and Brenda, delighted with what really amounted to a little piece of America, couldn't be restrained. The interior was red and gold, as ugly as only an American-Chinese restaurant can be. The food was truly dreadful, but it didn't dim Brenda's mood. I was mindful of the fact that she had just put her money into a business which, according to the proprietor, might collapse at any moment. But I put aside my fears and joined in her jollity. At the end of the meal, there were, of course, those execrable fortune cookies. Brenda insisted that I open mine first. It said,
"You cannot be considered an extremely lucky person, but you save for rainy days."
I harrumphed grumpily about the cheek of pseudo-Chinese fortune writers while Brenda cracked open her cookie. She laughed, looked at me pityingly, and reached over to kiss me. The little strip of paper said,
"He loves you all he can, but he can't love you very much."
It wasn't the fortune that mattered. Who, after all, cares about such things? It was Brenda's reaction. I could see that she thought it true.
We went from the restaurant to a pub. I got very drunk. I can only vaguely remember undignified scenes at the Southampton station, and again at Waterloo.
Vickers did take over the manufacture of the Spitfire undercarriage, but they used a design Detlinger had produced to Reginald Mitchel's specification. In fact, it was a re- design he had used Brenda's money to finance. It was still within the original restrictions, and the wheels still came down the "wrong" way to provide a narrow track. But the gear was more stable and capable of absorbing more shock more smoothly. Since the last Spitfire to be built weighed almost twice the first one, this development turned out to be essential.
At the same time that the landing gear was being improved, Detlinger's inventive ability and his firm's increased production capabilities resulted in a number of other improved Spitfire components. Even apart from the mounting of ever more powerful engines, the speed of the aircraft was increased by a few miles an hour every few months, keeping it ahead of the ME 109s.
Financially, the real reward for both Detlinger and Brenda came from the royalty agreements. When most of these agreements were signed, it was supposed that something like eight hundred or a thousand Spitfires might eventually be built. No one even imagined that there would be twenty two thousand.