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Half a Crown

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Half a Crown

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Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor, 2008
Series: Small Change: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Alternate History (SF)
Alternate/Parallel Universe
Mundane SF
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(29 reads / 17 ratings)


In 1941 the European war ended in the Farthing Peace, a rapprochement between Britain and Nazi Germany. The balls and banquets of Britain's upper class never faltered, while British ships ferried “undesirables” across the Channel to board the cattle cars headed east.

Peter Carmichael is commander of the Watch, Britain's distinctly British secret police. It's his job to warn the Prime Minister of treason, to arrest plotters, and to discover Jews. The midnight knock of a Watchman is the most dreaded sound in the realm.

Now, in 1960, a global peace conference is convening in London, where Britain, Germany, and Japan will oversee the final partition of the world. Hitler is once again on British soil. So is the long exiled Duke of Windsor-and the rising gangs of "British Power" streetfighters, who consider the Government "soft," may be the former king's bid to stage a coup d'état.

Amidst all this, two of the most unlikely persons in the realm will join forces to oppose the fascists: a debutante whose greatest worry until now has been where to find the right string of pearls, and the Watch Commander himself.


Chapter One

A week before she was due to bring me out, I overheard Mrs. Maynard saying I was "not quite..." That’s just how she said it. "Elvira’s not quite..."

When she let her voice trail off like that I knew precisely what she meant. I knew it in the pit of my stomach. I had been coming down the stairs to join them in the drawing room when I heard her speaking, and stopped dead, clutching the handrail in my left hand and the bunched seersucker of my skirt in the other. It was 1960 and skirts in the spring collections were long enough that they had to be lifted a little to avoid stepping on them on the stairs.

Mrs. Maynard’s friend, Lady Bellingham, made a little sound of inarticulate sympathy. There could be no question what Mrs. Maynard meant, no way that I could think—or that anyone could think—she meant not quite ready, or not quite well, though I knew if I challenged her that’s what she would say. "Not quite out of the top drawer" is what she really meant; "not quite a lady." I was still "not quite up to snuff," despite eight years in the best and most expensive girls’ schools in England and a year in Switzerland being "finished." At eighteen I still had two distinct voices: the voice that went with my clothes and my hair, the voice that was indistinguishable in its essentials from Betsy Maynard’s, and then the much less acceptable voice of my childhood, the London Cockney voice. My past was never to be forgotten, not quite, however hard I tried.

"Then why ever are you bringing her out with Betsy?" Lady Bellingham asked, her voice positively oozing sympathy the way an éclair oozes cream.

"Well her uncle, you know," Mrs. Maynard said. "He’s the head of the Watch. One doesn’t like..."

Spending time with Mrs. Maynard, you get used to trailing sentences with everything explicit but nothing spelled out. I could have run down the stairs and pushed into the drawing room and shouted that it wasn’t anything like so simple. Mrs. Maynard was bringing me out because her daughter Betsy had begged me to go through with it. "I can’t face being a deb without you!" she had said. Betsy and I were friends because, in the alphabetically arranged classroom at Arlinghurst, "Elizabeth" and "Elvira" happened to fall next to each other, and Betsy and I had both felt like misfits and clung to each other ever since. I didn’t give more than half a damn about coming out and being presented to the Queen. What I wanted was to go to Oxford. You may think it was an odd ambition. Half the people I met did. Going by my born social status rather than my acquired one I couldn’t even hope to be admitted. Still, I had been interviewed and accepted at St. Hilda’s and had only the summer to wait before I went up. It was April already. Most girls I knew would have hated the idea of grinding away at their books, but I’d always found that side of things easy; it was parties that bored me. But Betsy and Uncle Carmichael had set their hearts on my coming out, so I had agreed I would do that first.

Besides all that, Mrs. Maynard was bringing me out because my uncle, who wasn’t really my uncle at all, was paying for me and subsidizing Betsy. However County the Maynards might be, they never had much money to spare, at least by their own standards. By the standards I’d grown up with they were impossibly rich, but by those of the people they moved among, they were struggling to keep up appearances. Anyway, people with money are often horribly mean; that was the first thing I’d learned when I’d started to move among them. But, sickeningly, none of that got a mention. Mrs. Maynard’s trailing off made it sound as if she was bringing me out despite my deficiencies because she was afraid of my uncle.

"Might I trouble you for a little more tea, dear?" Lady Bellingham asked.

The banisters were Victorian and rounded, like chair legs, with big round knobs on the newel posts. Between them I could see down into the hall, the faded cream wallpaper, the top of the mahogany side table, and a crystal vase of pinky-white carnations. The house was narrow, like all Victorian London houses. I could see the drawing room door, which was open, but I couldn’t see in through it, so I didn’t know if Betsy was sitting there too. It seemed terribly important to find out if she was listening to all this without protest. I let go of my handful of skirt and slipped off my shoes, feeling absurd, knowing that while I was fairly safe from Mrs. Maynard, the servants could come out of the back part of the house at any time and catch me. They probably wouldn’t give me away, but it would still be frightfully embarrassing. I ran one hand lightly down the banister rail and tiptoed gingerly down the strip of carpet in the center of the stairs to the half-landing, where I could see through the drawing room door if I stretched a bit.

I took a good grip, leaned out, and craned my neck. Mrs. Maynard was eating a cream cake with a fork. She was not seen to advantage from above, as she had a squashed-up face like a pug and wore her graying brown hair in a permanent wave so rigid it looked like a helmet. Her afternoon dress was a muslin patterned with roses, that made her stocky figure look as upholstered as the chair she sat in. Lady Bellingham, on the sofa and reaching towards the tea trolley for a sandwich, looked softer, thinner, and altogether more fashionable. I had just determined to my satisfaction that they were alone, when with no warning at all the front door opened.

Of course they saw me at once. They couldn’t help it. Mr. Maynard, Betsy’s father, took me in with one rapid glance, raised his eyebrows, and looked away. The other man with him was a complete stranger with a dark piratical beard and a perfectly normal bowler hat. I felt myself turn crimson as I pulled myself back onto the half-landing and slipped my shoes back on.

"Ah, Elvira," Mr. Maynard said, with no inflection whatever. I didn’t know him well. He did something boring and diplomatic to which I’d never paid much attention and which seemed to take up a great deal of his time. On holidays I’d spent with Betsy he’d never paid much attention to me. "Sir Alan, this is my daughter’s friend Elvira Royston, whom my wife is bringing out with Betsy this summer. Elvira, this is Sir Alan Bellingham."

"Delighted to meet you," I said, coming down the stairs and extending my hand as I had been so painstakingly taught.

Sir Alan ignored my fading blushes and shook hands firmly. He was almost exactly my height, and looked me in the eye. "Charmed," he murmured. "I don’t suppose you know if my mother is here?"

"She’s taking tea with Mrs. Maynard in the drawing room," I said, blushing again.

"And Betsy?" Mr. Maynard asked.

"I don’t know where she is," I said, honestly. "I haven’t seen her since lunchtime."

"See if you can rustle her up, there’s a good girl. I’m sure she’d be glad to see Sir Alan. You’ll take a cup of tea, Sir Alan, while you wait for your mother to be ready?"

Sir Alan smiled at me. Because of the beard, I couldn’t tell how old he was. At first I had thought he was Mr. Maynard’s age, but when he smiled I thought he was much younger, maybe no more than thirty.

"I’ll find her if she’s at home," I said, and turned and went back upstairs to look for Betsy.

I tapped on her door.

"Who is it?" she called.

"Me," I said, opening the door. Betsy was lying on the bed in a green check dress that looked distinctly rumpled. "Your father wants you to come down and drink tea, but you’d better tidy yourself up first."

She sighed and sat up. "Who’s here?"

"That bitch Lady Bellingham, and a mysterious stranger called Sir Alan who seems to be her son."

Betsy lay down again and put her pillow on her head. "He’s not a mysterious stranger, he’s my father’s idea of a suitable son-in-law," she said, her voice rather muffled. "Do go down and tell them I’m mortally wounded and not likely to make it."

"Don’t be a ninny," I said, pulling off the pillow. "They can’t make you marry a man with a beard."

"Ghastly Lady B. is Mummy’s best friend, and her son’s frightfully rich and doing things with the government that seem likely to make him even more frightfully rich, and powerful as well. And he’s very polite, which makes him perfect in Mummy’s eyes. You don’t know how lucky you are being an orphan, Elvira."

In fact, my mother was alive and well and running a pub in Leytonstone, but I thought it better never to mention her in my daily life. She certainly wasn’t going to interfere. She hadn’t wanted me when she ran off with her fancy man when I was six, and she hadn’t wanted me when my father died when I was eight, so she wasn’t likely to want me now. I hardly remembered her, but my aunt Ciss, my real aunt, my father’s sister, kept me up to date with gossip about her. Aunt Ciss would have taken me in, even though she had five children of her own, but she thought having Uncle Carmichael take an interest in me and offering to send me to Arlinghurst was a great opportunity for me to make something of myself. I’d thought it a funny phrase then, like making stew of a neck of lamb, or a fruit cobbler of two bruised apples and a squashy pear. What they had hoped to make of me was a lady, and I’d been too young to question why anyone thought this would be better than what I would have grown into if let alone. It was only in the last year or so I had wondered about this at all, as I’d grown old enough to consider what they had made of me so far and what I might want to make of myself, given the opportunity.

"Put on a clean dress and come down, do," I said. "I’ll do my best to draw the cross fire."

Copyright © 2008 by Jo Walton


Half a Crown

- spoltz


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