Kenneth Cameron. The Bohemian Girl

(The Denton series — 2)


Bernard Weisberger

For all the years and all the miles


I am indebted to my editor, Bill Massey, for both his expertise and his having put up with me in the first place. As well, this book and several others owe much to Tim Waller, whose linguistic knowledge and sense of period slang seem boundless, not to mention his ability to move back and forth with ease between British and American styles while I am floundering in the middle.

Several works were also useful to me: the Grossmiths’ Diary of a Nobody and Robert Machrae’s The Night Side of London for details of the period; Michael Holroyd’s biography of Augustus John and Alison Thomas’s Gwen John and Her Forgotten Contemporaries for details of artistic life, and, less so, Virginia Nicolson’s Among the Bohemians; Yesterday’s Shopping: The Army and Navy Stores Catalogue, 1907; Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves and My Reminiscences as a Cowboy; and, as always, Baedeker’s London and Its Environs (in this case, the 1902 edition) for details of the city, including such trivia as the address of Kettner’s restaurant in that day and ‘Old St Alban’s Church’ for what is now called St Alban’s Old Church. Finally, two websites: The Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health, at; and the Metropolitan Police, at


The room in sunlight was not half bad, everything too heavy, of course, but so was every other middle-class room in London. Denton’s chair was too heavy; the curtains were too heavy; the air felt heavy, but the sun that poured in was bright and cheerful and lightened everything. And, after six months away, two of them in a Central European prison, his own house would have looked wonderful in pouring rain.

‘Well,’ Denton said, luxuriating in his own chair at last, ‘we did it!’ He was more than six feet tall, lean, fiftyish, with an enormous Mr Punch nose and an unwaxed moustache that hung down over the ends of his mouth. Even in a Jaeger robe and pyjamas, he carried an air of the American West.

Atkins made a face. ‘Yes, though I’m not at all sure what we done, except go on a fool’s errand and come out with nothing we took in but our skins.’ He eyed a very large dog whose forward end resembled a bull terrier’s. ‘Rupert’ll never be the same.’

‘Thank God.’ Rupert had lost thirty pounds during the imprisonment, thanks to a diet of cabbage and potatoes, and little enough of those. They had all lost weight, but Denton still thought the trip had been a triumph. After a month in Paris learning how to take a motor car apart and put it back together, they had driven a Daimler 8 across France, Germany and Austria-Hungary and into the Carpathian Alps; then, after several adventures (including thirty-one tyre repairs, a tow over a mountain pass from eight draught horses, and a wait of three weeks for petrol), they had gone into Transylvania, where they had been arrested as spies. The motor car and Denton’s guns and a mostly finished novel were still there, seized as ‘military contraband’. But it made a great story, and it had made a great series of articles in England, America, France and Germany, and it would make (as it was supposed to, for that was the object) a popular book: Motors and Monsters: From Paris to the Land of Dracula by Automobile. Denton banged his hands on the arms of his chair and shouted, ‘By God, we did it!’

‘I never want to see a cabbage again.’

‘On the other hand, look at the taste you’ve developed for bread made out of sawdust.’

‘Rupert’s skin and bones.’

Denton stuck out a hand, and Rupert licked the open palm from fingertips to wrist. ‘I wish he hadn’t bitten that customs officer.’

‘Fool threatened us; what’d you expect? Bloody tyrants, them Central Europeans.’

‘You shouldn’t have said “get him”.’

‘Who was to know Rupert was trained to attack?’

They were both drinking coffee, Atkins standing from some ingrained sense of protocol, although he was wearing a seedy velvet robe, napless in many places — he was a small man, and the original owner had been large — and munching a piece of Denton’s toast. Denton poured himself more coffee and, looking up at Atkins with a smile that didn’t quite hide his sincerity, said, ‘I’d never have made it without you.’

‘Likewise, I’m sure, General, except that of course I’d never have made it without you because I’d never have been daft enough to undertake such a jaunt in the first place.’ Atkins shrugged himself upwards into the robe as a means of avoiding more thanks and said, ‘We’re in the morning paper. Noted Novelist Returns. I’m included as “faithful soldier-servant Harold Atkins”. Faithful, my hat. You done with me?’

Denton was starting to rip envelopes open, the accumulated mail of six months, throwing crumpled paper towards the fireplace and missing. He was hoping to find a letter from a certain woman but failing. ‘Hold on.’ He tore the end off an envelope of a particularly heavy paper, noted that it was addressed from ‘Albany’, the once- fashionable ‘single gentlemen’s flats’ (correctly ‘Albany’, no ‘the’, although most people said the Albany, as had Oscar Wilde), found inside a note on the same heavy paper with some sort of embossed thing and a smaller, lighter, plainer envelope. He read the few words on the heavy paper and then looked at both sides of the smaller envelope but didn’t tear it open.

‘Got steam downstairs?’

‘Nothing that’d run a ship, if that’s what you’re after. Goose the kettle, if that’ll do.’

Denton handed over the small envelope and muttered that he didn’t want the envelope damaged, to which Atkins answered that of course he was in the habit of damaging everything that came into his hands, and he vanished back into the darker end of the long room and clumped downstairs, Rupert in tow. Denton dealt with the rest of his mail by glancing at it and throwing it away — invitations that he threw towards the fire unopened, both because he didn’t go anywhere and because they were months out of date; the usual letters from people adoring his books and wanting something, often to sell a ‘sure-fire idea for a best-selling book’ of their life stories, sometimes to borrow money. The only new thing among this lot were four — no, six; there were two more at the bottom of the pile — from somebody named Albert Cosgrove, proclaiming boundless enthusiasm for his books and profound awe at his genius. The first, sent a month before, was a request for a signed copy of one, ‘please to inscribe To Albert Cosgrove’, no offer to pay for the book, of course. The others were hymns of praise, one beginning ‘Dear master’, another ‘Cher maitre’. Two had been written on the same day, only three days ago, one saying ‘I long for your arrival that will return the English language’s greatest literary artist to our land’ and asking for signed copies of all of Denton’s books.

Albert Cosgrove went into the fire, too.

Denton was American. He wrote grittily realistic novels about American sod-busters and the demons that tormented them, and he didn’t think of himself as a literary artist. He preferred to live in London, and he preferred living well to living like his characters. For that reason, his only regret about the Transylvanian trip was that most of the new novel — already paid for by his publisher and expected soon, as the editor’s letter showed — had been taken away when they were arrested and not returned when they escaped. Or were allowed to escape, as he believed had been the case.

By the time he had disposed of the mail, Atkins was back beside him with the steamed-open envelope on a salver.

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