The Further Adventures of Janice and Mel
THE XENA KORE
by Judy (Wishes)
Janice and I have bypassed the chauffeured limousine and come to Temple Street
by bus. It's mid-morning, but the streets are still crowded with civilian and
military vehicles, with pedestrians and bicyclists. Traffic thins out as we
approach our stop. This is a warehouse district, although
not at all rundown. Still, the driver looks at us questioningly as we prepare to alight. Janice ignores him, but I smile reassuringly as I step into the street. Janice, carrying her knapsack over one shoulder, is already checking numbers and pointing out the correct building.
Although as high as most of the surrounding buildings, the appearance of the windows suggests it is only two stories high. Elaborate scrollwork covers the windows on the second floor. "Are you sure this is just a warehouse?" I ask.
Following my gaze, Janice says, "I don't think the Victorians were capable of building an outhouse without that kind of ornamentation." I'm always impressed with both Janice's knowledge and her elegance of expression. She gives me a sharp look. "What are you giggling about?"
"Nothing," I say. "Just happy." She shakes her head as if she'll never understand the workings of my mind.
The outside door is locked but gives easily to our key. On the main floor,
a few boxes and crates lie dusty and apparently forgotten. Janice and I climb
a flight of stairs to a broad landing and use the key again to open another
sturdy door. The lock and hinges are old and slightly rusty, and Janice points
this out before we enter. Inside the door is a different world from the warehouse
below. There is a large open space made light within the limits of what passes
for sunshine in London. This illumination
is provided by large skylights and by floor to ceiling windows along one whole wall. The iron bars that line each window do little to hamper the passage of the light, but might prove discouraging to burglars. The skylights are a good forty feet above the wooden floors.
"Why put bars on the inside of windows?" I ask. "Shouldn't they be on the outside protecting the glass?"
"The decorative scrollwork on the outside. When these were added to the
original Victorian structure, the owner probably didn't want to ruin the look
of the building." Janice grasps a bar and attempts to shake it. "Solid.
Whoever broke in here had no choice but to come in through the
one end of the studio is furnished as an office, with a desk and typewriter,
an artist's drawing board, and a gray steel safe. the other end resembles a
comfortable sitting room with slightly modernistic
furniture. There's an oriental rug over the wooden floor in that area and artwork on the walls.
Janice immediately walks to the safe. Hunkering down, she spins the lock on
the door and laughs. "This does a whole hell of a lot of good, doesn't
it?" she asks. I see her point. The front of the safe is intact and looks
quite impressive with its big double dial and heavy door. The left side of the
safe is simply peeled back, as if by some giant can opener. Janice peers into
the opening in the side and, evidently unable to see into the interior, takes
a flashlight from her knapsack and shines that through
the hole. "Nothing," she says. "Either the burglars took everything, or Mother cleaned out what was left."
Straightening, she suggests, "Let's check the desk." She opens the middle and top drawers and finds mostly office supplies. She pauses to study the white typing paper she finds. "What do you think?"
I glance at it and touch it. "No," I say. "This is better quality than what was used for the notes." Janice nods and returns the paper. In a lower drawer, she seems to find what she is looking for. It's a small bundle of the typing paper tied together with a thin ribbon. Janice unties the ribbon and holds up the top sheet so I can read it.
"Tempered by the Fire." She holds up the next page, and it is a dedication. "For those who survived the Blitz--and for those who survived only in spirit."
Janice pages through the sheets until she seems to find what she's looking for. "Here's a list of photographs," she says. "And here are the captions. They're referenced to the list. Now we'll have some idea of . . . . Wait. Look at this."
I peer over her shoulder and read the captions she is pointing out. "Orphan Relief Society and spouses at fund raising dinner, April 1938, Greyfriars Hall." The other: "Greyfriars Hall, October 1940."
I shake my head, not getting whatever Janice seems to understand.
"Read the next two," she directs.
"Friends and supporters at Grace Gallery opening, Hanover Square, February 1936." And "Grace Gallery, September 1940." Without the photographs referenced, I still don't get it.
"The photographs are before and after shots," Janice explains. "If
you look down the list and the caption, you'll see they're all this way. There's
a photograph of some society or artistic event at a place and then a photograph
of that same place after German bombs have destroyed or
damaged it." I run my eyes down the lists and see that she is right. "Those two photos that came with the extortion notes must have been a pair of these. I wonder which ones."
"That's what your mother's book consists of?" I ask. "I'm surprised she would even be allowed to publish a book like this."
"She might not be able to publish during the war," Janice agrees,
"unless it's seen as propaganda for the British government, not against
it. You know, how the Germans tried--and failed--to destroy a lot of London's
most important institutions. The title would seem to hint at that." She
through to the end of the manuscript, skimming as she goes. "Here's some text from near the end: 'The lightning that tried to destroy the spirit of a people could, in the end, only temper it and make it stronger.' "
I nod, agreeing with those words and remembering the power of the London Blitz photograph Amanda had shown us.
Janice has turned back to the first two captions again. "I wonder if the first two photos that were sent are the first two described here. The descriptions seem to fit." Janice sticks the papers into her knapsack and looks through the other contents of the drawer. "Something is stuck," she says, and she pulls the drawer harder. Finally, she pulls the drawer out completely and reaches to the back of the resulting space.
"What is it?"
"There's something there, but I can't reach it well enough to pull it out," she says. "You try."
She moves, and I kneel and reach into the drawer space. I feel paper, and I pull. There's a single folded sheet of paper, and inside it is a photographic negative. Janice takes the negative from my hand. "That's funny," she says.
"This is a small format negative." She holds it up toward the skylights.
"Why is that funny?"
"Well, Miss Photographer, if you would study up on your trade, you would know that this is from film like an amateur would use. Those pictures my mother showed us were made with professional equipment and large format film."
"So your mother didn't take this photograph?" I ask.
"I'm not saying that. I'm just saying she wouldn't use something like this in her book. The resulting photograph or enlargement wouldn't be sharp enough." Janice hands me the negative, being careful to touch only the edges. "What do you think it is?"
I study it as she has done. "It looks like a woman, maybe a woman dancing." I say, knowing that is not quite right. I return the negative to her, and she returns it to the paper that had protected it, then stows both in her knapsack.
Janice and I take a quick look around the rest of the studio, including a darkroom that has been built in one corner of the loft. There is dust on everything, and it looks like it hasn't been used in several weeks. "Mother probably hasn't worked here since the burglary," Janice observes.
We are leaving the darkroom when I smell smoke.
"Janice," I begin, but she is already running to the door. Why am I not surprised that it won't open? Even though she clearly didn't lock it when we entered, she tries the key nevertheless. I hear the bolt engage and then disengage as she turns the key the other way.
"Help me," she orders, and we start pushing on the door. Although the door opens outward and should give to our weight, it doesn't budge. After a few minutes, Janice calls a halt. Dark, acrid smoke is curling in under the door, and I can feel heat on my hands where they touch the top panel. "I don't think we want to go out that way anyway," Janice comments.
"Someone will come," I say. "We're in the middle of London. Someone will notice that a building is on fire."
"Did you see any people when we crossed the street? Or when we entered the building?" Janice asks. "We're all we can depend on." She begins looking around the studio.
"We'll call for help," I say. Janice looks surprised, and I realize
she hasn't noticed the telephone on the desk. It's behind the tall Remington
typewriter, so I can't blame her for missing it. I walk confidently to the desk,
lift the receiver, and hear. . . . nothing. "Is there some special
trick to calling in London?" I ask, knowing there isn't.
Janice takes the receiver from me, listens, and says, "Disconnected. Or cut." Then she gets THAT look, and I know the fire may be the least of my worries. Taking a large pocketknife from her knapsack, she cuts the thick phone cord close to the instrument and again where it enters a hole in the floor. The piece from the floor is looking a little melted, and she trims it. While I watch in trepidation, she gives one end a sharp crack, and the other end responds much like the whip I saw her use in Greece. Now THAT look has become THAT smile, and all I can do is wait for what will come next.
Janice grabs my arm and pulls me with her to the wall of windows. I'm hoping she is about to show me a fire escape when, instead, she points straight up. I start to back away, and she tightens her grip. "Look," she says, "these bars and the horizontal reinforcing pieces are just like ladders. All we have to do is climb up them, swing across to a skylight, and crawl up onto the roof."
"That's all?" I try to picture myself accomplishing the series of actions my friend has just described. All I can imagine is the floor getting closer as I fall toward it. "Even if we get to a skylight, how will we open it? I don't see any latches or anything on this side."
"Let me worry about that. Come on!"
"No, someone will come." Just then, as if punctuating my words, a
tremendous explosion rips through the floor. A barrel, trailing smoke and fire,
blasts toward the ceiling, to be followed closely by a second one. Janice shoves
me against the bars and holds me there. I hear a roar,
followed by the sound of glass shattering and then splintering as it showers on the floor below. I look up just in time to see the desk and safe disappear through the enormous hole opened by the barrels. Looking into that hole is like looking into the fires of Hell.
"That's one problem solved," Janice yells, as she starts climbing
the bars. She doesn't turn, knowing I have no choice but to follow. Except for
the glass that continues to rain down, climbing the bars is, as Janice has said,
little more difficult than climbing a ladder. The rungs are farther apart, but
this presents less difficulty for me than it does for my shorter companion.
We are soon at the top of the chamber, some forty feet above what is left of
the floor. At intervals, we hear additional explosions,
and choking smoke is starting to roil up from the lower level of the warehouse.
As we reach the ceiling, I am able to shout, "What do you suppose is in those barrels?"
"I don't know," Janice answers, "but I hope the War Department has some."
There is a gap of about five feet from the top bar to the closest skylight. The glass, of course, is gone, but this leaves only the metal frames that had held the panes. Some fresh air is reaching us, but both Janice and I are starting to cough, and I'm feeling a little dizzy, whether from the fumes or from the height, I'm not sure. Janice touches my hand and smiles just before she snaps her makeshift whip. The far end of the cord wraps neatly around a strut of one of the metal frames. "It won't hold," I say.
She shrugs. "It has to." Then she is kicking off the bar she has been standing on. With that momentum, she starts a wide arcing swing that carries her out and up. I think she is going to make it all the way through the opening in the skylight, but then she falls short and is dangling near the end of the length of telephone wire. I lean out, but I can't reach her. If I jump and can grab the skylight frame. . . .
"Don't jump," Janice shouts. Then she is pulling herself up, hand over hand. Her knapsack is hanging from one elbow, hampering her movements.
"Drop it!" I scream.
Janice lets go with one hand long enough to push the knapsack back up on her
shoulder. My heart stops while she hangs there; then she is moving again and
grabs a crossbar of the skylight. She pulls herself through the frame like a
child playing on monkey bars. Leaning her head and shoulders
back through the skylight, she yells, "Forget the cord. Just jump for the frame. I'll help you."
I glance downward in time to see the rest of the floor fall into the inferno
below. Flames are now reaching almost to where I perch. Black smoke roils in
thick, oily plumes, making my eyes tear and my lungs strain for every breath.
For a moment, I get a clear look at Janice's face, light eyes and white teeth
showing in her soot-covered face, and, in that instant, I jump. My left hand
grips the frame solidly, but my right can't find it. I fumble for it, and then
a smaller hand is on mine, guiding it
to the bar. With both hands holding firmly, I pull myself up as I've seen Janice do. There are helping hands under my shoulders.
Lying side by side on the roof, we take a few gasping breaths. Then we are up and running. I barely have time to cry, "Oh, no!" before I follow Janice over the edge of this roof and onto the lower one of the next building. I lean over to look at the four feet separating the two buildings. I grab Janice by her collar and shout, "Are you crazy?"
"Yes!" is her joyful reply.
We run to the other side of this roof and find a fire escape to the alley below. We are in the alley and trying to straighten our clothes and wipe our dirty faces when we hear the first sirens. I tell my friend, "I told you someone would come."
Janice suggests that we try to sneak in through the kitchen entrance, but I
know there is no way to sneak into a house with servants. We go up the main
walk, and Margaret meets us at the door. Not a flicker of surprise crosses her
placid face. "Good afternoon, Miss Janice, Miss Melinda. Most
of the family is out. There's a bit of excitement."
"Thank you, Margaret," Janice says, not bothering to inquire about the excitement.
Margaret follows us across the entryway. "Will you be wanting a bath drawn?"
"We'll manage, Margaret," Janice says and, rather more dismissively this time, "Thank you."
As we approach our room, there's a noise, and Janice pushes me behind her.
Although I haven't said a word since we entered the house, she motions for quiet
and creeps forward. The bedroom door is open about an inch, and Janice nudges
it with the toe of her boot. The contents of the top drawer
of the dresser are scattered on the polished top, and a slight figure is hunched over the second drawer.
"Lose your pet?" Janice asks loudly. "Or leaving another?"
The figure jumps and turns. A small notebook is in her hand.
"Flora!" I breathe. The young girl tries to squeeze between us, but Janice turns her around and firmly pushes her back into the room.
"Let me go!"
"Sit down on that chair," Janice orders. When Flora tries to push past again, Janice yells, "Sit!" Flora sits. I almost do, too.
"Did you come here for a little reading material?" Janice asks. She takes the notebook from Flora's hand, opens it to the first page, and gives it back to her. Flora glares into Janice's eyes in a battle of wills before curiosity gets the better of her, and she drops her gaze to the page.
"It's blank," Flora remarks.
"Wrong notebook. You aren't very good at this spy stuff, are you? Or is sabotage more your style?"
"I'm not the spy," the girl says. "You want to catch a spy, you go after Kate the Nazi."
"I thought Kate was your friend," I say.
"I don't have friends," Flora says proudly. "Don't need them. I keep my own secrets and take care of myself."
Janice takes the new notebook and throws it into the open drawer. "You'll find that's a lonely way to be," she says softly and sits on the bed facing her young stepsister.
I go over and sit wearily beside Janice before asking, "Why do you call Kate a Nazi?"
"Because she is," Flora says. "Well, her father is at least. He's in Hitler's army. Kate's mother was English. A Jew. She was a good friend of Amanda's."
"Was?" I ask.
"Kate's mother died after the war started." Flora seems to reflect for a moment. "That part about Kate's father. No one is supposed to talk about that, all right? It's bad enough she's a Jerry. Part Jerry."
"Isn't your King part German?" Janice asks. "But don't worry. We won't say anything. A person can't help who her father is."
"May I leave now?" The voice is humbler, but the set of the chin is not.
"Sure, go on." Janice waves her hand, and the girl disappears.
"Abracadabra," I comment.
"You want the first bath?" Janice asks.
"No, I want to soak for hours."
"The water will be cold."
"I'll make it quick." I stand and grimace. "Will you take the glass shards out of my back first?"
She turns me around as if expecting real wounds. "There's nothing there."
"I was afraid of that." I limp a little as I make my way to the bathroom. Janice laughs, probably figuring it is for effect.
The water that issues from both taps is cold, and I don't linger long. As I towel my hair, Janice makes a quick foray to the tub. "You used up all the tepid water," she complains. "All that's left is cold and ice cold."
"Sorry," I call. My hair is still damp, but it will soon dry if I leave it down. I finish dressing.
"Aren't' you going to ask me who tried to kill us?" Janice's voice has a hollow quality as it issues from the big claw-footed tub.
"You mean the fire? Do you know?" I find I'm no longer surprised by the idea of someone trying to kill me. I don't even seem to take it personally any more. Comes of hanging around Janice. I replace the contents of the top dresser drawer.
"No. Not yet. It had to be someone who knew where we were going or who followed us from here."
"So what's next on the agenda?" I look at Janice's boots and get my shoe brush back out of the drawer.
Janice emerges from the bathroom looking less like a chimney sweep. "I like this robe," she says of the thick white terry cloth she is wearing again.
"Good," I say. "Keep it. The Ritz probably already added it to the bill."
Janice slips into slacks and a clean shirt. She leans down to pull on her boots. You didn't have to do that," she comments, and I respond, "You're welcome."
"I want to see a man about a picture," she says when she straightens. She mumbles something else.
"What? I didn't hear you."
"Never mind." She gives an impish grin. "Bring your camera along. Even the little pieces."
I look around the small room crowded with desks and typewriters. And very few people.
"I've never been in a real newspaper office," I say.
"You still aren't," Janice answers. "This is a press office for foreign new services. The guy we're going to see is with SEPNA." At my raised eyebrow, she adds, "Southeast Pacific News Agency. He's a New Zealander by the name of Hank Ryan. And I don't see him."
Just then Janice is whirled off her feet. The tornado that has her is taller
than the door frame behind him and almost as broad. At first, I think he is
bald, but then I realize that his hair is white-blond and
cropped close to his head. He wears what looks like an army uniform. What army, I'm not sure.
Janice is beating on the shoulder of that uniform, and her feet are finally allowed to touch the ground. The round face, which is, unbelievably, almost a foot above mine, turns bright blue eyes on me, and I take a step back. "Mel, my old buddy and partner in crime, Hank Ryan. Hank, my friend Mel."
A meaty hand enfolds mine in a surprisingly gentle handshake. "Good onya, Mel," I think he says.
"My pleasure," I respond.
"My office, ladies," he says and leads us to a desk in the corner
of the common room. He gallantly steals two chairs from neighboring desks and,
after we are seated, folds himself behind his own desk. He can't seem to take
his eyes off Janice's face. "You're a sight for sore eyes, Jannie.
And you're looking a lot better than the last time I saw you. You learned yet not to get into places they don't want you?"
"It isn't the getting in that's the problem, Hank."
He turns to me. "She ain't changed any, has she?"
Considering my short acquaintance with Janice, I'm not sure how to answer that question, so I try, "I imagine not."
"I heard about a mutual friend of ours just a couple of weeks ago," Hank informs Janice.
"Who? Not Tereise?"
"Nah. I haven't seen her since you was getting over that little border dispute with the Jerries." He waits.
"Hank, just tell me, okay?"
Janice's face goes from impatient to stoney. "Not in London?"
"France. An RAF crew that was shot down was helped by the Underground. And Zepp was one of the contacts." Hank sits back to enjoy Janice's reaction. "Can you imagine Zepp as a Freedom Fighter?"
Since Janice isn't talking, I put in, "Are you sure it was Zepp?"
"The man who interviewed the crew--off the record by the way--was sure.
They said that Zepp was quite open with his name, seemed to be taking more than
his share of chances to get them out safely. Right out from under the Nazis'
noses." He shakes his head in wonder. "Wouldn't have thought it of
Zepp. I know he was a good friend of yours, Jannie, but the guy always gave me the creeps."
"Did he tell the crew why he was with the Underground?" Janice finally asks. "I mean, he isn't even French."
"Yeah, and this is the really good part. Get this. He told one of the
RAFguys that he had a lot to make up for--and not very many places he was allowed
to do it. What do you suppose he meant by that?" He shakes his head again
and then seems ready to dismiss Zepp from his mind. "Now, what
can I do for you, Jannie?"
Janice hands him the negative we removed from her mother's studio. "We need to get this printed. Fast."
"When did you ever want something slow?" He takes the negative and
holds it to the light. He looks at me and at the camera I carry. "Well,
you didn't take this with that camera. Real amateur stuff. Kodak Brownie would
be my guess, 127 film." He gets up and lumbers through a door at the
back of the room. He's back in a couple of minutes. "Joe will develop and enlarge it. It's gonna be a little blurry, I think. You want to tell me what this is all about?"
Hank laughs. "Fair enough. I guess. What else can I do you?"
"You got any good contacts with the local press?" Janice asks.
"I got contacts. Good? You'd have to ask their mamas."
Janice pulls from her knapsack the papers taken from her mother's desk. She shows Hank the list of photos and says, "The Orphan Relief Society and spouses. I want to know who that would have been. They attended a fund raiser at the Greyfriars in October 1940."
Hank copies the information in a small notebook. The notebook and pencil are almost lost in his huge hand. "I have a friend at the Times. He should be able to get that from the society pages for that month. Got the exact date?"
Janice shakes her head.
"Well, it still should be easy enough." He looks down the list. "That the only one you want?"
"I wonder. . . .Yes, I want this one, too." She points at the third item on the list and reads, "Grace Gallery Opening, February 1936. I guess the owners and anyone else prominent who attended."
"I'll say anyone mentioned in the society page article about the opening. That it?"
Janice points toward me and my camera. "One other thing. My friend has a new camera, and she could use some help with it."
"Sure thing." Hank reaches out, and I hand him the camera. And the little pieces. He quickly restores them to what seem like logical places and focuses the camera at various things around the room, mainly Janice.
"Hank was a press photographer before he became the guy who sends other people after stories," Janice explains. "He was one of the best."
"The best," Hank corrects. "Still would be if I could fit into the belly of a bomber or into a tank." He finishes his inspection of the camera and rattles off his findings. "Graflex, Revolving Back, 4 by 5, Series B camera. SLR, has the newer thread mount lens instead of the fixed mount. You got a flash attachment in that bag?"
"Yes." I start to take it out, but he stops me with a motion of his hand.
"You know anything about cameras or photography?" he asks.
I shake my head.
"You traveling on press credentials?"
"Janice, Janice, Janice, what are we going to do with you?" My friend
looks innocent, but Hank's expression shows it's no sale. He opens his desk
drawer and takes out a small silver camera. It's about a fourth the size of
the Graflex. I think it's beautiful. "Leica SLR," he names it.
"You mind a German camera?"
"Okay. Look through here. Push this button down. What you see is what you get." He demonstrates and hands the camera to me. "Here's the manual that came with it. Tells about focusing and settings. Read it. Any questions?"
"Do you want to trade or what?" I hold the little silver wonder and don't want to give it up.
"Sure. You're getting totally. . . ." Janice gives him a stern warning
look. "It isn't a fair trade, but at least you'll have a camera you can
used." He looks in his desk drawer again and pulls out a flash attachment
and gives that to me, too. Although it's impolite, I'm already reading the
An older man enters with a small photograph, still wet from the developing
solution. He lays it on a sheet of white paper on Hank's desk and leaves without
conversation. "Let's see what we have," Hanks says. "Yep. It's
a little blurry. Camera shake." He studies the photo while Janice is
practically climbing over his desk to take a look. He finally hands it to her and says to me, "Is this some kind of a joke? You pose for this or what?"
Janice hands me the photo. At first, I still think it's a picture of a woman. A naked woman. Then I see that the woman is standing on a table, and that a man's pocket watch is beside her, probably to reference her size. The picture is of a small statue or figurine. And the statue looks like me.
Margaret having informed us that the family is "taking tea in the garden,"
Janice and I walk through the house to the Regents Park side. There is a small
terrace that overlooks the park and, on a lower level, a small lawn and a formal
garden screened from public view by a high yew hedge. Amanda
and Gareth are seated at a small white table on the terrace, and Flora and Kate are standing at the near edge of the lawn.
Amanda jumps up as Janice leads the way onto the terrace. "Janice," Amanda cries, "I was so worried. To know that you had gone to the studio and then receive the call about the fire. . . . If Gareth had not been home to accompany me, I don't know what I would have done." She tries to embrace Janice, who does her patented sidestep.
Janice looks at the tea service and at the liquid in Gareth's cup. "Is that really tea?"
Gareth laughs. "Your mother's is."
"I'll have whatever you're having. No ice. Mel?" As Gareth gets up, she sits and indicates an empty chair for me.
"Tea please?" By the time Amanda has poured my tea, Gareth has returned with a decanter of nearly clear liquid. He freshens his drink and fills Janice's cup.
"No ice," he repeats. "Not usual for an American."
Janice sips and nods approvingly. "I've lived most of my life where there wasn't any refrigeration."
"Or electricity. Or sanitation," her mother adds. At Janice's glare, she changes the subject. "Were you in the building when the fire started? Margaret said your appearance suggested you were."
"Margaret's a wealth of information," Janice comments. "She should work for MI6."
"We were leaving as the fire trucks arrived," I say, answering Amanda's question. "The firemen had their hands full, so we didn't linger." The evasion rolls off my tongue easily. I have definitely been hanging around Janice too much. "Was there much damage?"
Amanda defers to Gareth, fires evidently being a male province. "The building was completely destroyed. It looked like a bomb fell on it. Luckily, the firemen were able to keep the fire from spreading to the adjoining buildings. The nearest is only about four feet away, you know."
"The firemen said that flammable liquids were stored in the warehouse," Gareth continues. "They don't know yet what ignited the fire, but those liquids were why the building went up so fast."
"So you can see why we were worried until we learned you had returned to the house after the fire," Amanda explains. "Now, my dears, if you'll excuse me, I need to talk to Cook. You young people enjoy yourselves." She pats Janice's hand and, with a smile at Gareth and me, goes into the house.
I've been watching Flora and Kate, and I finally have to ask, "Are they actually. . . . sword fighting?"
Gareth chuckles. "Fencing. Kate is giving Flora a lesson. Kate is quite
an expert, but I'm afraid Flora shows no promise at all." Kate and Flora
are both dressed from head to toe in white uniforms that appear to be padded.
They hold, but aren't wearing, masks that look like tightly woven
screens. Each wields a thin blade with a large bell-shaped guard that appears to protect her hand.
"What kind of swords are those?" I ask, wondering if Janice's and my ancestors used something like those. They don't look as impressive as I've imagined swords to be.
"Epees," both Janice and Gareth answer. Gareth indicates by a gesture that he'll defer to Janice, and she continues. "You can tell that they're epees because of the thin, stiff blades and the large guards."
"Do you fence?" Gareth asks Janice.
"I've done a little," Janice answers, "but mostly with a foil."
I laugh and quote one of my favorite lines from one of the Xena scrolls, "She has many skills."
Janice chuckles, too, but Gareth just says, "I'll remember that."
Kate and Flora climb the steps to the balcony, and Flora is red-faced and perspiring. Glowing, as we say back home. Dramatically, Flora throws herself into a chair. "I'm bleeding from a dozen wounds!"
"More like two dozen," Kate corrects. "Maybe you would concentrate more if the touches were real punctures. I wish there were a way to demonstrate to you how to anticipate the attack. You need to parry before the blade is inside your defense."
Eyes twinkling, Gareth says, "Janice fences. Maybe Flora would get the idea if she watched you two."
"Oh, no," Janice says, "I haven't fenced in a long time. No one should watch me to learn."
Flora, who has been gulping, rather than sipping, tea, finishes the cup. "Come
on, Janice. Do it. It would really help me. Here, you can wear my padded vest
and glove." Jumping up, she removes her vest and hands that and her glove
to Janice. "I'll carry the epees and masks," she says and,
taking those, runs down the steps and onto the lawn.
Janice is already up and donning the equipment. She's only a little smaller than the young girl, and the fit seems fine. Because Janice's shoulders are narrower, the jacket bunches a little at the neck.
"Is this safe?" I ask.
Kate answers. "There are buttons on the points of the epees. And, since only the points are sharp, you can't get wounded."
"Then why all the padded clothing and the glove and helmet?"
"Mask. The epee is fairly stiff, and a hard touch can bruise or even raise a welt," Kate explains. "The equipment softens the blow. But don't worry, Mel, we're just going to do some half-speed drills. That way Flora can get the idea of anticipating the attack."
Janice is ready, and I can see from her expression that she's excited. I realize
that Janice has been cooped up lately and probably needs the physical activity.
I just wish she were taking a brisk walk instead of taking part in a sword fight.
Janice and Kate descend to the lawn and put
on the helmets. . . .masks. Flora hands each an epee.
"Janice really will be fine," Gareth says softly. "Kate knows what she's doing, and she'll take it easy."
"I know, but will Janice?"
We watch as Janice and Kate step forward and backward, touching epees and then disengaging. It looks like an old dance, a minuet or something like that, and I start to relax. I can faintly hear Kate's voice as she instructs Flora while she and Janice demonstrate.
"My stepsister really can fence." He seems surprised.
Stepping forward on her right foot, Kate lunges at Janice. Janice's sword is there before Kate's touches her chest. Janice's sword point seems to deflect Kate's upward and away. I don't see how such a thin object can do that. "Is that what Kate called a parry?"
"Yes. That's a particular kind called a capture. You run your point around your opponent's blade while pushing upward. If you do it correctly, which Janice did, you gain control of her blade. If you don't, you run the risk of the opponent's blade following the line of yours right into your face and chest." We watch Kate and Janice do the same maneuver, Janice again "capturing" Kate's blade. "Of course, they're only fencing at half-speed, as Kate said, so it's easier than it would be in a match."
"You seem to know a lot about this. Do you sword fight, I mean, fence?" The words are barely out of my mouth when I remember and blush. "I'm sorry."
"Don't worry about it," Gareth says easily. "Yes, I used to sword fight, I mean, fence. As a boy, I was an excellent athlete."
Now Kate attempts to strike Janice's legs. Janice brings her blade downward sharply and knocks Kate's toward the ground. "Is Kate allowed to do that? Isn't she supposed to try for just the chest?"
"In epee, you can score a touch anywhere on the opponent's body. Janice's slacks will be protection enough." He smiles. "Kate isn't really trying to get through her defense, you know. It's all a demonstration for my little sister."
We watch for a few more minutes, with Gareth explaining the finer points of attack and defense. Finally, he says, "You can ask about it, you know."
"How were you injured?"
"I joined the RAF the day we declared war on Germany," he answers.
"Father didn't want me to, said he could get me deferred because the factory
did essential production. Said as the heir, it was my duty to protect the bloodline.
Father is big on protecting the line. But I knew where I
belonged, in the air. I qualified in Hurricanes and was assigned to an air group in the north."
"Were you shot down?"
"Yes," he says, "I ditched over the channel and was picked up just a few hours later. My leg was shattered, and they had it off before the end of the day. Damned efficient."
"Oh, Gareth," I say. "I didn't know. Does it still hurt a lot?"
"It aches," he says, "especially the part that isn't there. But you know something about pain yourself, don't you?"
"What do you mean?" I ask. Forgetting about Janice and Kate, I look into sympathetic blue eyes.
"You're in pain right now, aren't you?"
I nod. "A little."
"It's your back. And not a little."
"How did you know?"
"When you spend months in military hospitals, you learn the different
kinds of pain." He gestures toward Janice, who seems to be taking a break
while Kate talks to Flora. "How can she run you around the way she does?
Knowing you're in pain?" Something in my expression tells him. "She
I shake my head. "And she's not going to. Not until she gets things worked out with her mother. Then we'll go home, and I'll get this. . . . thing taken care of."
"You're a good friend, Mel Pappas," he says.
My attention is drawn back to the little group on the lawn. "What are they doing?" Kate and Janice have assumed a formal stance, and I hear a voice say what sounds like "On guard."
"It looks like they got tired of half-speed," Gareth says. "This looks like a real contest."
"You mean a duel?" Before he can answer, Kate lunges, and the "contest"
is on. Janice "captures" Kate's blade, and then the attacks and parries
are too quick for my inexperienced eye to follow. The movements are now less
like a minuet and more like swift ballet steps. A risky pas de deux.
Flora, whom Gareth says is acting as the "jury," follows them back and forth and jumps up and down excitedly.
Suddenly, Janice's blade flies out of her hand to land several feet behind
her. Kate drops her own blade, glove, and mask and steps toward her, I figure
to tell her "good match" or whatever fencers say after defeating an
opponent. Instead, Kate pulls off Janice's mask and seems to be touching
the side of her neck. As Gareth and I stand, Kate barks an order at Flora, who has been standing as if frozen. Flora sprints for the terrace and grabs one of the white linen tea napkins. Kate and Janice have reached the steps by now, Kate still pressing her fingers against Janice's neck. I see
a bright splash of scarlet on the white padded jacket and run to help Janice up the steps. "I'm all right," she protests, but I still help, and she doesn't shake my arm off her shoulders. Flora hands Kate the tea napkin, which she presses firmly against the wound. Janice sits down, and
I think she looks a little pale.
"What happened?" I demand. "I thought this was perfectly safe." I take the napkin from Kate and hold it in place.
Flora is shaking and paler than Janice, and Gareth pushes her into a chair. Kate looks ready to cry. "My blade broke," she says. "Right at the foible, the weakest part. I can't believe it. I didn't realize it was broken, and, when Janice tried her capture move again, I ran my blade right up hers. The jagged point slid in between the mask and jacket. Oh, God, Janice, I'm sorry."
Blood has soaked through the first napkin, and, when Gareth hands me another, I slip that on top of the first. "Call a doctor," I tell him.
"Don't need a doctor," Janice mumbles, but Gareth ignores her and disappears into the house. He's back in a few minutes. I've added a third napkin, but the bleeding is not slowing.
Amanda is calling a doctor, a friend of the family," he informs us. "He lives close by." At my raised eyebrow, he adds, "Don't worry. She's good in an emergency. She'll wait to have hysterics later."
Flora, apparently deciding not to wait, bursts into tears and runs into the house.
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