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Slave to Love

A Novel

Slave to Love by Rebecca Campbell
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Campbell has created a gothic tale filled with dark overtones and overly dramatic characters who are balanced by fey Alice and her very modern friends in their search for love.
Random House Publishing Group;
Title: Slave to Love
Author: Rebecca Campbell
Chapter One
Toffs and Tarts

Alice Duclos walked down a street so grand it made her feel like a child lost in a cathedral. The buildings themselves seemed to peer disapprovingly at her, arching their eyebrows haughtily at the presence of such an unfamiliar creature. Wherever she looked there were shop windows bearing diamonds, rubies, emeralds. Other windows were draped with elegant, sinister furs, some, she saw with a shudder, still in possession of their foxy little faces and shining eyes. The poised and exquisite mannequins gazing out from the fashion boutiques made her feel drab, despite the new suit that had cost more than her total clothing bud- get for the preceding four years. Her mother, Kitty, had found the money somehow—not out of generosity, because that wasn’t Kitty’s way, but because of the shame she would have felt had Alice gone to work wearing her usual ill-matched collection of garments, loose where they should cling, pinching where they should drape.

The men and women in the street all seemed so tall, so important, so confident, shining with the radiance of the rich. They all knew precisely where they were going and what to do when they got there.

For the fiftieth time Alice cursed herself for allowing this to happen. Things had seemed so clear and straightforward at university. She knew what she wanted from life, and she knew how to achieve it. But then Kitty had become increasingly eccentric, impossible, ill. Alice’s dream of research, of islands, of science, had melted away, leaving only the need, for the time being at least, to look after Kitty, and that meant a job, a real job in the real world with real money.

She stubbed her toe on an uneven paving stone. “Drat!” she said, as she saw that she had forgotten to put on her new shoes. She was wearing a favorite old pair—brown, comfy, about as fashionable as cellulite. She blushed slightly, and blushed more because of the embarrassment of blushing in a place like this, a place where people didn’t blush. She put her head down, allowing her thick dark hair to fall over her face, and hurried on.

She didn’t notice the stares of the men that she passed, didn’t begin to discern the complexity of the response she was getting. First the quick glance, poised on the brink of dismissal. Then a longer look as they approached. And then, after they had passed, the pause, eyes wide in something like wonder, something like joy. She did not notice the carpenter, perched high on his scaffolding, who raised his fingers to his lips, preparing a purely conventional wolf whistle, only to leave them suspended there as though eating a slice of invisible cake.

She arrived. Seven steps up to a door high and wide enough to admit a knight on horseback. This was not just a new job for Alice; it was her first proper job, and the fear and excitement tingled like acid rain on her skin.

“Books,” she said, to the cruel-looking woman at reception. “The Books Department. I’ve come . . . I have a job.”

“How nice,” said the woman, a Snow Queen in exile, forced to earn her living. “Second floor. There’s a lift.”

“I know,” said Alice, and took the stairs.

Again she asked herself, as she trudged up a wide staircase designed, it seemed, for a Hollywood musical, what she was doing here. And for the first time another question rose into her consciousness, one linked to the first and yet more resonant: Who am I?

It was a question that was to be answered, at least in part, that very morning by Mr. Crumlish, whom Alice was destined never to call by his first name, Garnett.

Mr. Crumlish was then still part of the ill-defined stratum of middle managers within Books or, to use the full title, Books, Manuscripts, and Other Printed Matter. Books was the smallest department in Enderby’s, the fifth-biggest auction house in London, which is quite as unimpressive as it sounds. The office building, an ornate Florentine palazzo, complete with dirty windows and spluttering drains and a grand statue of its founder, the buccaneering Mungo Enderby (1772–1861) in half-armor, was the one relic of the glory days, back in the 1920s, when Enderby’s was briefly acknowledged as one of the Big Three. But then came the scandals: the famous fraud case, the fake Canaletto, the 1949 public indecency charge against Ashley Enderby. And so eventually the Americans had come, or rather the Americans who ran the business for the Japanese bank that bought, at bargain basement rates, 51 percent of Enderby’s. Ashley Enderby had died without issue, alone in Marrakech, befuddled with intoxicants, and the family share had gone to the Brooksbanks, obscurely related by marriage. The Brooksbanks, whose interests were principally rural, were content for the Americans and Japanese to make decisions while they drew off what they could in the form of profit and prestige. Only one Brooksbank, Parry, was still involved in any practical sense in running the company, and he only in the way that the froth is technically still part of the beer. But he was, at least, a link of sorts with the past.

It fell to Mr. Crumlish to show Alice “the ropes,” a phrase he used with such relish she assumed he felt it to be an expression of thrilling vulgarity.

“You see, if we leave aside dear dear Spammy over there”—at this point Crumlish toodled with his fingertips over to where Pamela, the office drudge, was arranging paper clips; in response Pam burst into gales of girlish laughter, which set off curious seismic events in the various pendulous and drooping zones of her body: a small tremor about her middle, a major quake in the jowls, a volcanic eruption of spittle at the lips, and a devastating bust tsunami—“everybody here is either a Toff or a Tart or a Swot. Oh. Are you allowed three eithers? I can’t remember. Anyway, I, of course, am a Toff. We don’t know very much, but the gentry do like one of their own to deal with. Not perhaps when it comes to going on a rummage; then they seem to prefer it if you act like staff, and you think yourself lucky if cook gives you a chipped mug in the kitchen. But when they bring in one of their gewgaws for a valuation, they appreciate the rich and heady aroma of old money.”

Alice was clearly supposed to be shocked by Mr. Crumlish’s performance. But she noticed that the people in the office, the twenty or so men and women arranged in clumps about the room, paid him no attention, despite the arch and actorly projection of his voice. She assumed they had heard it all before, perhaps received the same initiation themselves.

“Ophelia,” continued Mr. Crumlish, “is, as you can see, a Tart. Pretty, pretty, pretty.”

With each pretty, Mr. Crumlish twitched the hem of his pinstriped suit jacket, flashing the vivid lilac lining.

Alice glanced quickly in the direction that Mr. Crumlish had flicked his thin wrist and saw a young woman of astonishing, languorous beauty playing idly with her long black hair. She seemed to have nothing else to do. Alice instantly felt shabby. Her own long hair was cheaply cut, underconditioned, and prone to acts of reckless rebellion; her shoes were scuffed; the new suit now seemed so wrong.

“The Tarts,” continued Mr. Crumlish, breaking the spell that Ophelia’s beauty had cast over Alice, “tend not to know very much either, but they are easy on the eye, and it’s so much cheaper than getting the decorators in. Anyway, what else would they do with their History of Art degrees? The Swots, on the contrary, know everything; not everything about everything, but everything about something. Couldn’t do without the Swots. Could do without the smell.”

“The smell?” Alice was mystified.

“You know, the stale, composty, damp-tweed aroma, combined with the smell of a shirt worn for a second or even third day, mixed finally with the faint sweet tang of distressingly recent onanism. I present to you Mr. Cedric Clerihew.” He pronounced Cedric seed-rick, which Alice hadn’t heard before. She had no way of knowing if Crumlish was being amusing. Clerihew certainly wasn’t going to put her right. He was a small round person and, like many small round people, his age was difficult to estimate, but certainly above twenty and below forty. He was very neatly dressed, almost like a boy receiving his first Holy Communion. He smiled and sweated toward Alice, but Crumlish swept her on and away before he had the chance to speak to her or reach out with his little hands, the fingers of which looked a knuckle shorter than the usual complement.

“Poor boy,” said Crumlish, this time in a voice that only Alice could hear. “One day he might, by pure good fortune, stumble upon the right posterior, but until that happy time he licks in vain.”

Alice giggled too loudly, hiding her wide mouth behind her hand. A couple of faces turned, Ophelia’s among them. She performed what must have been a very deliberate up-and-down look of dismissal. Anyone who cared to glance toward Clerihew would have seen him staring intently at his desk, his face red, his mouth set hard. Mr. Crumlish, pleased with the response, moved Alice on through the large book-splattered room.

“But you, Alice, what are you? Not, obviously, one of the Tarts. I’m afraid your degree—what was it? Of course, zoology of all things— suggests that. Not to mention your commendable lack of vanity.”

As was perhaps intended, Alice took the statement that she lacked vanity as a hint that she ought to rectify the deficit.

“Nor, despite your name, which, between the two of us I don’t entirely believe, do you appear to be one of us—I mean a Toff. That only leaves the Swots. And, my dear Alice, you really are far too fragrant to be a Swot. I fear you may be sui generis, which is frightfully inconvenient for the . . . oh, what is the word? A putting-things-into-classes person?”

“A taxonomist. Was that a test, Mr. Crumlish?”

All this while they had been winding their way between the desks, each carrying its burden of computer and heavy reference books. In the far corner they finally came to two facing desks with a low partition between them. One was free and the other occupied by a young man who might have been handsome had the frown lines been etched a little less deeply.

“Oh,” said Mr. Crumlish, “I’ve got it all wrong. There’s a fourth category. As well as the Tarts and the Toffs and the Swots, we’ve recently acquired our first Oik. And look, he’s to be your intimate desk chum. How affecting. Alice, meet Andrew Heathley. I suspect his mates call him Andy. Andrew, this is Alice Sui Generis. Be gentle with her.”

Andrew scowled yet more heavily, convincing Alice that a brute impulse to hurl a profoundly unacceptable insult in the face of Mr. Crumlish had been forced down into some subterranean chamber of his mind. She doubted it would be lonely.

“Hello,” he said, smiling the frowny smile that was soon to become so familiar.

“Hello,” replied Alice, a little intimidated by Andrew’s apparent seriousness.

“You’ve had the tour from Crumlish. I assume you got the Tarts and Toffs stuff. I had that when I joined. I suppose I ought to be flattered that I’ve entered the pantheon.”

“Are you really an Oik? Whatever an Oik is.”

“I think he means I’m a socialist. From the North.”

“Seems like a funny sort of place for a socialist to be working. If you are—a socialist, I mean, not working.”

“It is. A bloody funny sort of place.”

“How did you come to be here?”

“Oh, Christ, life-story time already. Well, I was doing a Ph.D. on . . . oh, stuff, but I ran out of funding. There was a girlfriend who worked here. A vacancy came up. They never advertise them; there’s usually one of Crumlish’s Toffs grown in a pod in the basement ready to step in. Somehow they screwed up and I got the job.”

Alice wondered at the strange way Andrew referred to a girlfriend, but she could hardly ask any more personal questions on her first day. Months later, when she brought up the girlfriend, Andrew replied only that she was tall and had gone to the Other Place, by which he meant, she supposed, Christie’s rather than heaven or the House of Lords.

As for Andrew, as soon as he saw Alice walking toward him, looking charmingly flustered by the Crumlish routine, he knew he was going to fall for her. Just how far he couldn’t even guess, although he had a brief and blurry vision of precipices. Not that having Andrew fall for you was particularly difficult. At the moment he was principally (and hopelessly) in lust with Ophelia and subordinately (and, had he but known it, more promisingly) keen on a girl called Tessa, who would occasionally wander through Books on unspecified errands.

“You know, I haven’t much of a clue as to what I’m supposed to be doing,” said Alice, once she had sat down and unpacked her pencil case and reached around on both sides in vain pursuit of the computer’s on button.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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