There comes a moment in every child’s life that marks definitively
their transition to adulthood. That time had not yet
come for Pamela Mitford, shivering and peevish on the steps of a
narrow house in Mayfair. The night was crisp and cold but it was
an attack of nerves that was making her tremble. Beside her was
Louisa Cannon, all too aware that fair- haired Pamela was bait for
the lions’ den within.
‘Tell Koko to come and fetch me,’ Pam said, her back to the
door. ‘I don’t want you taking me in. It makes me look like a baby.’
‘I have to. I promised your mother I would chaperone. And
besides, nobody here knows I’m your nursery maid,’ replied
Louisa, not for the first time. The journey from Asthall Manor in
Oxfordshire to London had been a long one, in spite of the familiar
train route and a taxi that had appeared at Paddington Station
almost the instant they stepped out.
‘Please. Go and fetch Koko.’
Koko meant Nancy, the eldest of the six Mitford sisters and
their one brother. Louisa had worked for the family for five
years and could tick off the codenames they used for each other
like a French vocab test. Reluctantly, she rang the bell, and the
door was opened alarmingly quickly by a girl who looked to be
almost the mirror of Louisa: of similar height, with the same
pale brown hair, though hers was pinned up beneath a mob
cap, and a dress that also looked as if it were well made but well
worn, most likely a hand- me- down, as Louisa’s was from Nancy.
Her clean face looked tired but the freckles on her small nose
livened her, somehow. She noticed Pamela’s back turned to her
and the two maids exchanged a look that acknowledged the boat
they both were in.
‘Good evening,’ said Louisa. ‘Could you tell me if Miss Nancy
Mitford is there, please?’
The maid looked as if she might start laughing. ‘I’d better ask
who’s asking,’ she said in an accent that Louisa recognised as
coming from south of the river.
‘It’s her sister, Miss Pamela,’ said Louisa. ‘Only, she doesn’t want
to come in with me and I’m not to let her in alone. May I come in
and talk to Miss Nancy?’
She gave a nod and held the door open. ‘Follow me.’
Along the hall, the girl pointed to a door then disappeared
through another. Louisa thought it was odd she hadn’t been shown
in formally but soon understood why. In a dimly lit sitting room,
two large, shabby armchairs faced a fire that crackled and spat.
From each, a long thin arm stretched towards the other. The first,
a woman’s, was clad in a black silk glove to above the elbow; the
second was a man’s, whose wrist was covered by a stiff white cuff
and the sleeve of a dinner jacket, his hand naked bar a heavy gold
signet ring. The two were playfully entwining their fingers as if
in a sort of Punch and Judy show, the male hand thrusting and
parrying, the female lightly poking and withdrawing, allowing
itself to be easily caught again.
Louisa had been watching this a beat too long when the head
belonging to the gloved hand peered around the side of the chair’s
wing. The shock prompted by Nancy’s bobbed hair had subsided
for Louisa some time ago and now she rather admired it. The face
was not conventionally pretty but it had its charms, with what
moving- picture critics would call ‘rosebud lips’ painted dark red, a
pert nose and big round eyes that were half- closed now, focusing
on their erstwhile nursery maid. Louisa registered a typical mix of
fondness and exasperation.
‘Beg pardon, Miss Nancy,’ said Louisa. ‘I’ve come to let you
know that Miss Pamela is here.’
At this, the man looked out. His face was all angles and planes,
and his hair had been combed so flat and smooth it looked like a
sheet of gold beaten onto the skull. Sebastian Atlas. He had been
down to Asthall Manor with Nancy a few times, in spite of the
fact that Lord Redesdale went puce at the sight of him, much to
his daughter’s delight and his wife Lady Redesdale’s displeasure,
though hers was indicated at a lower register. If Lord Redesdale
hath fire and fury, Lady Redesdale hath ice and ire.
‘Well, why doesn’t she come in, then?’ drawled Sebastian, flicking
Nancy’s fingers away and sinking back into the chair. His other
hand reached out and picked up a tumbler of whisky.
Nancy gave a dramatic sigh and stood up. She shook out her
dress of crumpled silk, weighted at the hem with hundreds of tiny
beads in a black and white zigzag pattern. It was her most, perhaps
only, fashionable dress and worn with a frequency that drove
Nanny Blor to distraction.
‘I’m sorry, Miss Nancy,’ said Louisa, quickly deciding not to
drop the prefix, though that had been their habit not so long ago.
‘But Miss Pamela doesn’t want me to come up. She thinks it looks
childish to have a nursery maid with her.’
Something of Nancy’s old look came back then and she gave
Louisa a half- smile. ‘What a dunce,’ she said. ‘Chaperones are
almost fashionable again, but she wouldn’t know that.’
It was Nancy who had proposed to their parents that Pamela come
to London, join her for a party or two and make herself known a
little, so that they could invite some of them for Pam’s birthday
dance the next month.
‘Otherwise,’ Nancy had spelled out, ‘you’re asking them to come
to a stranger’s party in the sticks and they’ll think it’s because we’re
desperate. It’s not like it used to be. It’s 1925, Farve.’
‘I don’t see what difference the year makes,’ her father had
‘All the difference. You’ve got to be in the right crowd. You can’t
show up for any old thing.’ Which wasn’t, Nancy told Louisa in
confidence, exactly accurate. There was nothing ‘the crowd’ liked
more than turning up for any old thing and every old thing, where
free- flowing wine and the promise of hot dance was on offer. They
knew that they were the beating heart of any gathering and all
others were thrown into darkness by their pulsing light. Louisa
knew it may have been Pamela’s birthday but Nancy planned to
make this her own party.
The plan on this particular night was a dinner at the house of Lady
Curtis, mother of Adrian and Charlotte. Nancy had met Adrian
through Sebastian, in the summer at Eights Week in Oxford,
the annual rowing regatta and the only time the female sex were
admitted as supper guests within the university’s yellow stone walls.
She had taken up the ukulele only a few months before and told
Louisa it had worked a spell on the men there as if she were a snake
charmer in Marrakesh.
Having fetched Pamela from the front steps, the three of them
stepped inside the hall. The maid had disappeared but the sound
of jazz from a gramophone player could be heard drifting down
from up above.
‘Must you come too?’ Pamela whispered to Louisa as they
climbed the narrow staircase carefully, the eldest sister leading the
way. ‘I’m with Nancy after all.’
‘I promised Lady Redesdale,’ reminded Louisa. She felt rather
sorry for her charge, whom she had heard weeping quietly in the
bathroom earlier before finally emerging with a button in her
hand that had come off the skirt fastening. Pamela said nothing
but passed it to Louisa, who stayed equally silent as she fetched
needle and thread and sewed it back on, standing before the gently
As the three ascended Louisa braced herself for what was to come.
The glimpses she had had of Nancy’s friends at Asthall weren’t
the same as seeing them in their natural habitat, free to indulge in the
ways of the New Age. Stepping inside the room felt like disappearing
into the society pages of Tatler, only with colour. It took a moment
for Louisa to adjust her eyes to the blur of young men and women
close together, their features both softened and highlighted by the
flickering flames of the fire and Tiffany lampshades dotted around.
Her eye fell on the detail: a smear of red lipstick on an empty glass;
cigarettes in long holders that threatened to singe the hair of anyone
standing nearby; headbands with elaborate feathers drooping from
them and daring purple socks that showed when a man crossed his
legs. Pamela had been swallowed whole by the crowd, like Jonah
into the whale, so Louisa found a chair by the wall where she could
keep watch on her charge and Nancy’s friends.
Standing by a huge fireplace, his fingertips resting on the
chimneypiece to steady himself, was Adrian, his glass held out for
more whisky, blithely ignoring another young man who poured
it. Louisa knew him from his photograph in the papers, usually
under a scandalised headline about the antics of the ‘Bright Young
Things’, as well as Nancy’s description. His sonorous voice was a
shock; it did not seem to belong to his body, as thin as a grass snake.
His dark, wavy hair had not been entirely tamed by the cream he’d
applied and his light blue eyes, though glassy, paid close attention
to Nancy’s collarbone as she drew nearer. His bow tie was undone
and there was a wet patch on the front of his shirt from a carelessly
handled drink. Louisa knew Adrian was considered the catch – if
he came to Pamela’s party, he was the domino that would make
all the others say yes.
‘Who have you brought for me, darling?’ Adrian asked, talking
to Nancy but looking directly at the younger sister. ‘She looks like
a lamb to the slaughter, the poor dear.’ He laughed and drained
‘This is Pamela,’ said Nancy. ‘She’s still only seventeen, so she
really is a lamb. Do be gentle, A.’ She gave him a look that Louisa
knew to be saying the contrary.
Pamela put her hand out and said in as grown- up a voice as she
could manage, ‘How do you do, Mr Curtis?’ which only made him
roar with laughter.
‘How old- fashioned,’ he said, flapping her hand away. ‘We don’t
talk like that, my dear. Call me Adrian. What can we get you to
drink?’ He turned to tap the man with the whisky bottle on the
shoulder but was interrupted by a groan from a woman sitting
in a chair nearby. She had rather more unruly curls, hers having
been allowed to grow longer and puff out, and though her eyes
were brown, not blue, she shared something of the man’s sulky
lips. She was lean, too, with cheekbones that spoke of centuries of
‘Please ignore my brother,’ she said, ‘he’s a bore and far too rude.
I’m Charlotte, by the way.’
‘I’m Pamela.’ She added nothing to this, and stood silently. Apart
from a few months in France, Pamela’s whole life had been spent
in the nursery, in the company of her brother and sisters, or Nanny
and Louisa. This was uncharted territory.
‘Come, sit down here,’ said Charlotte, as she pulled herself out
of a chair and picked up two drinks from a tray, handing one to
Pamela. Pamela took the glass from Charlotte after thanking her
and swigged, only to start spluttering, and when she wiped her
mouth with the back of her hand it came away smeared with the
lipstick she had daringly put on in the taxi.
‘Oh fiddlesticks!’ she exclaimed, which made Charlotte titter.
‘You’re sweet,’ said Charlotte. ‘Come here, I’ve got a hanky, let’s
clean you up a bit. Do admit, it is rather droll.’
Pamela nodded with relief and a giggle of her own.
Before Charlotte had quite finished dabbing at Pam’s chin,
however, she stopped still and stared at Nancy. Louisa saw she
was winding a carriage clock that had been standing upon the
mantelpiece. ‘Has it stopped?’ Charlotte asked.
Nancy paused and gave her an exaggerated wink. ‘Party time,’
she said. ‘I always put the clocks back half an hour to give us a
‘Funny,’ said Charlotte, and carried on.
Louisa turned from them and was pleased to see Clara Fischer
walking across the room. Clara, referred to as ‘The American’ by
the Mitfords, was closer to Nancy’s age at nearly twenty- one but
was rather kinder to Pamela. The two of them had spent some
time playing with the dogs together at Asthall, chatting easily
about their many and varied canine features and how they wished
animals could talk, speculating on what they would say. Clara was
straightforwardly and enjoyably pretty, with blonde hair tonged
into perfect waves and pink, full lips. She always wore light colours
in flimsy, delicate materials, which made her look as if she could
be unwound like a reel of chiffon ribbon.
She walked towards Pamela. ‘Hello . . . I didn’t know you’d be
‘It was touch and go,’ said Pam. ‘Farve wasn’t too keen.’
‘No, I shouldn’t think he was.’ Clara gave a wry smile. ‘Can’t say
I blame him. Bunch of degenerates.’
Pamela looked around. ‘They don’t look too bad to me.’
‘Don’t be deceived. Here, budge up.’
‘Clara,’ said Charlotte, but there wasn’t much warmth to it.
‘Have you seen Ted? He’s always disappearing to telephone up that
wretched Dolly, isn’t he?’
‘Yes. He’s just over there.’ Clara looked across to the fireplace, a
perfectly plucked eyebrow raised. ‘I wonder what those three are
in such cahoots about.’
Beside Nancy was Adrian and another smaller, darker man with
a long chin and eyes set so deep they could barely be seen. Clara
and Charlotte had called him Ted but Louisa recognised him from
the newspapers as Lord De Clifford. The trio were looking a tad
unsteady on their feet, each one barking with laughter before the
other had finished their sentence. Nancy must have sensed the eyes
on them because she turned around and waved.
‘Come over here,’ she said. ‘We’re plotting the most wonderful
Charlotte walked over though reluctance showed in her unhurried
pace; Clara followed, then turned back to nudge Pamela
along. ‘She means you, too.’
‘Gather round, chums,’ said Adrian. His voice was loud and at
this instruction, Sebastian appeared out of nowhere and sidled up
close to Charlotte, his head in full craning position. He looked
bored but Louisa knew this was something of a default posture for
Nancy and her friends. She stood to listen as they formed a circle
around the fireplace. Adrian’s voice lost no volume but had started
to slow down and slur, like a record played at the wrong speed.
‘Ted’s had the most marvellous idea. We’re going to do a
‘What, now?’ Charlotte’s mouth pulled into an even sulkier
droop. ‘I don’t know why you keep going on like those idiots—’
‘No, not now,’ said Adrian. ‘These things need planning. At
Pamela’s dance next month.’ He grinned widely and threw his
hands up like a circus ringmaster who had just announced that
the tigers would be on after the flying acrobats.
Pamela blanched. ‘Oh, I don’t think that Farve—’
‘Do shut up, Woman.’ Louisa flinched at Nancy’s use of her
meanest nickname, devised years before to tease Pamela about
her prematurely full figure. ‘He doesn’t need to know. We’ll do it
when the ’rents have gone to bed. Then we’ll have the run of the
house, even the village too if we want.’
‘Rather better not to have some ridiculous diary reporter on our
trail,’ said Sebastian, catching Ted’s eye as he did so. The newspapers
always had a field day when a young peer was caught up in
the wild antics of the London treasure hunts. Not that they didn’t
love it: Louisa remembered hearing that Lord Rothermere himself
had printed a clue in the Evening Standard.
Clara clapped her hands. ‘Out in the English countryside, you
mean? Oh, it’ll be pitch black and completely terrifying! How
‘Yes,’ said Adrian, ‘and Nancy tells me there’s a graveyard over
the garden wall.’ He gave a low chuckle and fell slightly backwards
before pulling himself upright again. Nancy laughed at this.
‘No screeching round in cars, either. We’ll do the whole thing
on foot. Everyone can write a clue each, with a common object as
the answer. Do let’s all say yes and then we can work in pairs.’ A
clever plan to bump up the RSVPs, thought Louisa.
‘Who will the winner be?’ mused Clara.
‘Last man standing, of course,’ said Adrian.
And so it was that Adrian Curtis, twenty- two years old, planned
his own death three weeks later.