James Trenchard was sitting at a particularly fine Empire desk with ormolu mounts in his office in the Gray’s Inn Road. On the first floor, above a firm of solicitors at the top of a sweeping staircase, it was a large panelled room, with some serious pictures and impressive furniture. Without ever saying it, James had a sort of vision of himself as a gentleman- businessman. Most of his contemporaries would have thought of this phrase as an oxymoron, but that was his view and he liked his surroundings to reflect it. There were drawings of Cubitt Town on display, carefully arranged to advantage on a round table in a corner of the room, and a beautiful portrait of Sophia hung above the fireplace. Painted during their stay in Brussels, it captured his daughter at her most beguiling; youthful and confident, staring straight at the onlooker, she was wearing a cream dress with her hair arranged in the style of that time. It was a good likeness, very good really, and a vivid reminder of the girl he knew. Probably for this reason, Anne refused to hang it in Eaton Square as it made her too sad, but James liked to look on his darling lost daughter; he liked to remember her in moments of rather uncharacteristic quiet solitude.
Today, however, he found himself contemplating the letter on his desk. It had been delivered when his secretary was with him, but he wanted to read it in private. Now, he turned it over and over in his plump hands, scrutinising the florid script and the thick cream paper. He did not need to open it to know who it was from, as he had received an identical letter to tell him he was on the application list for the Athenaeum. This would be the answer, from Edward Magrath, the secretary of the club. He held his breath – he so desperately wanted to be accepted, he scarcely dared to read it. He knew the Athenaeum was not most people’s idea of a fashionable club. The food was notoriously bad, and in Society it was seen as a London stopping place for an assortment of clerics and academics. But it was still a place for gentlemen to meet, no one could deny it; with the difference that, under their slightly revolutionary rules the club also admitted men of eminence in Science, Literature or the Arts. They even had members in public service, without significant birth or educational requirements.
This policy made the membership far more diverse than the clubs of St James’s. That was how William Cubitt had been accepted, and hadn’t James helped him and his brother to build half of fashionable London? Wasn’t that a public service? William had put him up for membership months ago and, when they’d heard nothing, James had pestered him to chase the nomination. He knew he wasn’t ideal member material, even given their more liberal rules – to be the son of a market stall trader was not the sort of lineage much admired by the bastions of the Establishment, but would God be so cruel as to deny him? He knew he would never have a chance of joining White’s or Boodle’s or Brooks’s, or any of the other really smart places, but didn’t he deserve this? Besides, he’d heard that the club needed cash, which he had, and plenty of it. Of course there was a risk he would be snubbed and sneered at, and Anne would never understand what such a place could give him that his home did not, but still, he needed that sense of belonging to the Great World, and if all he had to offer was money, then so be it. Let money be enough.
In fairness to him, there was a part of James, if a small part
admittedly, that knew his ambitions were nonsense. That the grudging approval of fools and dandies would add nothing of real value to his life, and yet … He could not control his secret passion for acceptance. It was the engine that drove him, and he must travel as far and as fast as he could.
The door opened and his secretary came in. ‘Mr Pope is outside, sir. He would like the honour of an interview.’
‘Would he? Then bring him in.’
‘I hope I don’t disturb you, Mr Trenchard,’ said Charles, walking briskly round the door, ‘but your Clerk said you were in and I have some news.’ His smile was as warm and his manner as charming as ever.
‘Of course,’ nodded James, putting the letter down on his desk. He stood to shake the young man’s hand, wondering at the pleasure it gave him just to look upon his grandson. ‘Won’t you sit down?’
‘I won’t, if you don’t mind. I’m too excited.’ ‘Oh?’
‘Lady Brockenhurst has been kind enough to write and tell me how much she and her husband wish to invest. And I believe I have all the money I need.’ He was obviously near to bursting, but he restrained himself. He was a fine young fellow, no doubt about it.
‘Nobody has all the money they need.’ James smiled, but he was very torn....