This is the story of Lady Jane and two accidents. I shall let you be the judges in this matter, but would ask only that you keep an open mind, for this story is far from commonplace, as you will see.
There are many places in which this tale might commence and even now, in my dotage and with the benefit of hindsight that stretches back a full three-score years, I am not certain that I know them all. And so, I shall start at a point that might seem arbitrary in the grand scheme of things, but which, for me, was a place and time that altered the course of my personal history. It was, of course, the day that my eyes first beheld sweet Lady Jane.
She arrived at my offices on a fine May morn, unannounced and equally unexpected, and were it not for the letter of introduction from none other than the redoubtable Miss Fotheringale herself, I should have turned my visitor back into the street. My thirtieth birthday was still fresh in my mind, and my business -- the agency that still bears my name -- was in its infancy. I was neither seeking to employ new staff and nor did I have a need for more hands on my particular deck -- the success which is now, of course, legendary was still many a year in the future.
Nevertheless, Miss Fotheringale was not the type of lady that one could ignore, and if she saw fit to send along a young woman then I was certainly not going to turn her away before I had at least perused her credentials. I summoned a little chivalry and ushered the young woman into my office, where I settled her in the client's chair while I went about the business of breaking the seal on the introductory missive and scanning the contents.
One of the few benefits that arrive with great age is the ability to be honest without attracting displeasure or criticism, and so I will admit to you now that I scanned not only Miss Fortheringale's elegant copperplate, but also the face and form of my visitor. And I will admit, also, that I found the letter of far more interest than the young woman herself.
Although we had entered the third decade of the twentieth century, she was attired in fashions more suited to the early Victorian era, and, dare I say it, the drabness of her appearance was exacerbated by the severity with which her dark-brown hair was pulled into a tight bun, and by a pair of black-rimmed spectacles that appeared to threaten the integrity of her nasal bones. My junior partner, Thomas Greenhorn, was once given to remark of Lady Jane that "were she not to move, you would never know she was there" -- and whilst there is an element of hyperbole in his observation, it is not without a grain of truth.
I should interject at this point in my narrative in order to reassure you that the story of Lady Jane and the undetermined number of accidents will not descend into cliché. You will not read of me taking a shocked, deep breath and uttering "But my dear, without those spectacles you are beautiful!" Indeed not. This is not that kind of story in the slightest.
For one thing, it was clear to me from that very first morning that Lady Jane, underneath the stiff cottons, high collars, and monochromatic raiment, was a fine looking woman. She was slight of build, taller than most ladies, and moved with a grace that the best of her efforts could not conceal. The features of her face were fine and evenly proportioned, her cheekbones high, eyes large and the palest shade of blue, her lips full and yet capable of thinning at the slightest provocation. And yet...
And yet, there was nothing about her that you actually noticed. Nothing which caused the slightest of pauses for thought, nothing that made you think for a fraction of a second that here was an attractive woman. Lady Jane could blend into her surroundings so effectively that you would be hard pressed to say for sure that a human being was present, let alone a potentially beautiful female.
Miss Fotheringale was, however, entirely unconcerned with Lady Jane's appearance as was made plain by her letter. She requested 'most humbly' that I might consider offering the young woman a junior upon my staff. Given that the redoubtable Miss F was not given to humour of the more ribald type, I took this to mean that she wanted me to employ this young woman. As I have already mentioned, I was not at that time precisely flooded with work, but now that Miss F has mentioned this possibility (she would never have lowered herself to write anything as demeaning as an outright request), I took to consideration of the matter.
I had heard word at my Club that a growing number of the more youthful and thrusting professional types were taking to the new-fangled American concept of keeping a personal aide at their side, and the idea held appeal. Unfortunately, many of these young, thrusting types were considerably better financed than myself, and I had rather imagined that a personal aide would be beyond my pocket.
I read the letter once more, this time paying considerably more attention to the detail. The young woman's real name was Jana Safina, and she hailed originally from Moscow. She was the daughter of an exiled family and had been technically orphaned at the age of 15, some eight years previously, when the French farmhouse they had been staying in was shelled during the last year of the Great War. Although Russian, she was extremely well-versed in the English language, took shorthand, and typed at an impressive one hundred words per minute. All of these facts were vouchsafed by Miss F, who further attested to Miss Safina's honest, hard-working character.
Perhaps most significantly, Miss Fotheringale advised that 'were you to consider the young Russian for your employ, then you would be well-advised to offer terms more suited to a junior than to an accomplished employee, since Miss Safina's expectations are very low in this regard'. This was by the way of being Miss F's very own brand of shorthand -- in this instance meaning that the girl would work for the proverbial peanuts.
It took me but a minute to link my desire to embrace the modern trends in company affairs with the prospect of a low-cost solution, and I set down Miss F's missive and turned to face Jana Safina.
"Miss Fotheringale speaks very highly of you, my dear, and I confess that I have recently entertained the idea of... how shall I put it? ...adopting a more modern approach to the affairs of my company."
I paused to see how the young woman would react and was rewarded with little more than a politely raised eyebrow -- barely visible behind the thick, dark frame of her spectacles. I was however, offered a clear view of her blue-grey eyes as they widened a little, and I was struck by their clarity.
I continued, "The agency has become increasingly busy of late and I have new clients arriving daily. If the rumours of talking films prove to be more than mere penny paper puff, then this trend will no doubt only accelerate. I am therefore faced with the prospect of a vastly increased workload and in particular the need for someone to assist me with my appointment book, and help with letters to clients and the production companies. In short someone to manage my time for me. Of course, much of this is supposition based on rumour and so on, so I wouldn't be in a position to offer more than a basic salary at first-"
"I would be very happy to become your assistant, Mr Barclay."
I am still not sure to this day whether I was more surprised by Lady Jane interrupting me, agreeing to take the position, or the beautiful, musical lilt to her voice. Whatever the reason, I was unaccountably flustered, and were I but to know it, this would certainly not be the first time that I was wrong-footed by her.
I found my voice after a moment or two, "Well... if you're quite certain?"
"I am, Mr Barclay. Miss Fotheringale was very... informative and I felt sure that I would want to work for you before I even stepped foot in the door."
"Very well, Miss Safina. And may I say that your English is every bit as proficient as Miss Fotheringale described. I feel sure that you be an asset to the agency." I told Lady Jane to report for her first day of work on the following Monday and then escorted her from the building. She had been in my office no more than a quarter of an hour, and that was all the time it had taken for my life to change forever.
In the intervening days before Lady Jane started in my employ, I often found my attention wandering to her. There was no one thing about her that captivated my attention so, but rather it was a constellation of impressions and shuttered memories from that first meeting. As I've already said, Jana Safina was not an obvious beauty -- but that is not the same thing as not being beautiful. I do not think it is pride that has me saying now -- as I've said so many times over the years -- that I was one of the few that could see through her disguise, could discern the real woman beneath that mask of dowdiness. I think, maybe, that by the time her first Monday at the agency rolled around, I was already more than a little in love with the mysterious Russian.
Her performance in her new role did nothing to negate the positive thoughts that I was harbouring for Jana, and she settled in to her tasks with seemingly consummate ease. Not only was her English proficient beyond the reach of many a native-speaker, but her organisational skills were nothing short of incredible. Before two months were out, she had organised my time so marvellously that I scarce realised that business had begun to boom in a way hitherto for unknown.
To cap it all, Jana proved to be a most popular addition to the staff -- at least, among the womenfolk. Of my ten staff, the seven were ladies and they welcomed Jana with open arms; seemingly genuinely fond of her in no time at all. The three men, however, appeared to find her unremarkable and even aloof. It was they who began referring to her as Lady Jane, and only much later did I discover that this was a reference to Lady Jane Grey -- a place on words that embodied Jana's haughtiness and choice of attire.
For my own part, I soon began to enjoy her company in my cluttered office, and her lilting voice with its trace of soft accent became the music which accompanied my days. She was reticent around me in those early months, and only ventured to speak when she was called upon to do so through necessity. Any attempt on my part to birth a conversation relating to matters outside of work was swiftly, but politely, brought to a premature end.
Working in such proximity to Jana was something of an emotional paradox for me. As the weeks and months passed, I became more than ever enamoured with this Russian who I knew to be beautiful. Although no more than her hands and face were ever in plain sight, I could tell from every movement that Jana made that she possessed a lithe grace which spoke of a slender, athletic form. But there was something more than the physical attraction developing.
I often paused to watch Jana with the other women and even on their darkest days, I could see the smiles gradually spread among them as Jana talked. And I felt more than a little of that magic myself whenever we conversed. Even the mundane became something new and special when Jana spoke of it. There was a certainty about her words that, when coupled with the intensity of her oh-so blue eyes, brought about a calmness in the listener. There existed, too, a depth of character that spoke of hidden knowledge and an empathy that was never far from the surface of her words. In short, Jana captivated my emotions.
I should point out at this juncture that I was a single man at that time, a reasonably successful professional who was becoming more successful by the month. I owned a modest townhouse in Bloomsbury, and small country retreat in Kent, and my prospects were, to use a phrase from those times, top hole. I was good looking, if not exactly handsome, and I was fit. In short, I was considered something of a catch.
Thomas Greenhorn had spent much of the past couple of years encouraging me to 'settle down', as he termed it -- by which he meant that I should choose one of my more respectable lady-friends and marry the girl. Before Jana's arrival my objections to this stratagem has centred on the fact that I was far too busy building my agency and that in any case London was awash with young women who had but one aim in life -- to enjoy themselves. I meant to help them achieve their goal, and was considered, if I may so say, something of an expert in this matter. However, Jana changed all of that.
I realised very soon after her arrival that Thomas, however misguided his intentions, was right in one regard. I was ready to settle down -- but only with Jana. I took every opportunity to sow the seeds of my interest in her, made as plain as I dared that I looked upon her as more than a mere employee, mentioned time and again that I valued her as a person first and foremost...
Jana rebuffed these gentle advances with a politeness and, dare I say it, with a level of care and tenderness that fair broke my heart.
By the summer of '27, with economic ruin just around the corner for so very many but with my business reaching unprecedented levels of success as Jolson shocked audiences across the globe, I had made absolutely no progress in my quest for Jana. It was fully nine months since she had arrived on my doorstep and I knew only the sketchiest details of her private life. I knew, for example, that she was single in every sense of the word, that she lived alone in a small apartment in Kensington, and that she passed her evenings reading assiduously. I knew nothing, however, of Jana Safina as a person outside of the office walls.
To say that I found her rejection, no matter how gentle, frustrating in the extreme is an understatement of gargantuan proportions. Such was my attraction to this fine lady that my body responded without my will whenever she walked into the room I occupied. This was far more than mere lust, though, and the feeling was quite intoxicating. I was also becoming hopelessly obsessed and, whilst Jana's efficiencies ensured that this did not infringe upon the success of the agency, my behaviour was becoming something of an irritant for those with whom I socialised. Matters came to a head one evening that July.
I had accompanied Thomas Greenhorn and Alexander Buchanan, an old friend, to a dance somewhere in the West End. It was a private affair but large enough to warrant a band, and the guest list seemed to comprise half of London's young, female socialites. Everywhere one looked nubile young women were dancing and cavorting in dresses that would raise an eyebrow or two even in these liberated days. Alcohol flowed freely and as the evening progressed, a Bacchanalian air began to permeate the hall.
I stood aloof, my mind elsewhere, as all around me the lascivious suggestions of the dances of that time were taken up by those performing them. As the clock struck eleven, within a dozen yards of where I stood, a young gentleman was performing cunnilingus on a clearly drunk and deliriously happy flapper, and two couples were actually copulating at the edge of the dance-floor. Elsewhere, women's dresses were slithering down arms as they danced to reveal pert young breasts, and only slowly pulled back to their more modest positions -- if, indeed, they were not left bunched around slender waists.
Thomas staggered up to me at some point shortly before midnight and berated me for not partaking of the manifold pleasures on offer. He broke off and pointed to a young woman, naked but for a pair of elegant earrings, who was sitting just beside me, "There, you see? James, you fool, you're wanted."
I turned and studied the young woman, my eyes taking in her narrow shoulders, full breasts, her flat belly, the tiny plume of fine, curled hair between her thighs, the long legs, and her eyes -- eyes that implored me to join her. Even looking at her made me feel as if I were cheating on Jana, as ludicrous as that sounds.
I turned my back, "Not tonight, Thomas. Not any more, in fact." I grabbed my topcoat and headed for the door, determined now, that I knew what I needed to do. From behind I heard Thomas's voice as he tried to call me back to a place I no longer belonged.
"James! James! Barclay you are a total oaf!"
"No longer, my friend," I muttered as I headed into the blessedly sober air of the street.
The following day I called Jana into my office and closed the door firmly once she was seated. I could see a flash of concern as she regarded my face and its determined, yet apprehensive, look. To spare her any anxiety -- and to ensure that my tongue did not glue itself to the roof of my mouth -- I wasted no time.
"Jana, I would like very much if you would consent to dine with me this evening. But not just as my guest."
I took a deep breath, "I would be honoured if you would dine with me... as my fiancée."
For the first time since I had known her, Jana's features creased into a frown as she tried to work out my meaning. Light finally dawned in her already brilliant eyes and at first I thought the look that settled on her face was one of shocked delight. I was, of course, completely wrong.
She stood suddenly and stared directly into my hopeful eyes, "James... Mr Barclay. I am very honoured, truly, but I am sorry. I... I cannot accept your offer." It was her turn to take a deep breath, "I beg of you not to ask me for reasons, but hope that you will understand me fully when I say that I simply cannot and will not... become that which you wish of me. And that I am truly sorry."
"But why ever-"
"Mr Barclay, please! Do not ask this of me. I am sincerely grateful to you, but it must be this way. If you cannot accept this then I will, of course, leave the agency and-"
"No!" If I had though the heart-wrenching disappointment of rejection was bad, the thought of Jana leaving me altogether was agonising. I modulated my tone, and tried to sound reassuring and compliant, "No, that really won't be necessary. I... I'm disappointed of course, but I'm sure we can continue to work together. Of course, it would be of great help to me personally if you could at least tell me why-"
"I beg of you, please do not ask! Respect my wishes on this matter or I really will have to leave this place."
Her words chilled me. Not just for their import which was fearsome enough, but for the alien tone in which they were delivered. It was a tone that brooked no argument; that spoke nothing but a fundamental truth. It was also a tone that was as cold as the grave.
I apologised, of course, and assured Jana Safina that I would not mention this matter again. I gave her my solemn vow as a gentleman. At that moment in time, it was the truth as I saw it -- but it was a vow that I was to break before the year was out.
My accident happened two weeks before Christmas. I left the agency a tad after seven, wrapped up as warmly as I might against a truly frigid night, tired and not a little downcast even five months after being turned down by Lady Jane. My mind was, it must be said, occupied with a hundred thoughts and not one of them in any way related to the street I walked along. At the junction of Oxford Street and the Charing Cross Road I stepped from the kerb with barely a glance, and failed to see the Bentley rushing towards me. I heard the screech of rubber, saw a flash of light, felt a sudden dull pain in my left leg, and then merciful darkness descended. I was lucky, or so I was told. The driver of the car had swerved sufficiently that I was caught a glancing blow by the wheel arch rather than being flattened by the car's enormous grill. The blow had pin-wheeled me across the pavement and head-first into the granite wall of a confectioner's shop where I apparently lay for some half an hour before an ambulance arrived and carted my sorry self off to St. Bartholomew's.