Episode Fifteen – ‘Dancing at the Midnight Hotel’, Part Three

The next few days just seemed to sort of slip by. Our search for Sturridge’s hidden door became bogged down in a morass of good intentions that never quite got us anywhere. After much discussion Michael and I had decided that our best bet would be to secure a detailed plan of the building which we could use as a basis for a thorough search. Maia seemed the obvious person to approach for this and so it was to her that we naturally turned. But though she appeared by no means unwilling to help us she had such a relentless habit of sliding off the point of any conversation that, despite asking her on several occasions, we never quite got round to confirming that such a plan existed, let alone whether or not we might borrow it.

So then we moved on to the idea that one of the other members of staff might lead us on a tour of the building. But all the staff seemed to have been so thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that the primary objective of the Midnight Hotel was the relaxation of its guests that all suggestions of anything as regimented as a systematic exploration of the place soon faltered due to their determination to provide us instead with a nice cooling drink or set us up under an umbrella on the beach.

That left us with the challenge of exploring by ourselves. But our various efforts on our own behalf seemed to confirm only that the hotel was larger and more sprawling than it first appeared. The upshot of all this was that we got to the end of the week with such a muddle of half-arsed plans and ideas under our belts that there seemed nothing for it but to give up and start again from scratch.

And, to be perfectly honest, following our encounter in the cocktail lounge with the only other real world guest in the hotel our minds were not perhaps quite as focused on our quest as they should have been. Our chat with the great Mr James had left a number of unanswered questions lingering in the air but since he had exited through the terrace doors that afternoon the novelist seemed to have gone to ground. I sensed he felt a little uncomfortable about the revelations that had come tumbling out during the course of the conversation and so, while the hotel grapevine insisted he hadn’t yet checked out, it seemed certain that Henry James was, for the time being at least, avoiding Michael and I.

Then there was the question of the mysterious dark-haired woman whose brief appearance in the cocktail lounge had such an effect on the author. There certainly seemed to be some connection between the two but my efforts to find out exactly what were stymied by the fact that she turned out to be just as elusive as he was. She seemed to move through the hotel like a ghost, never lingering in any one spot for long. The hotel gossips offered a ready supply of speculation but, like all such gossip, the information they provided was fragmentary and contradictory. Her name was variously reported as Eve, Eva or Ellen and the more lurid of them insisted she had arrived at the hotel whilst on the run but whether this was from an aggrieved father, a jealous lover or the long arm of the law no-one seemed to know for sure.

Whoever she was, the mysterious dark lady nevertheless proved to be the key, in a roundabout sort of way, to extending our acquaintance with Henry James.

It was late afternoon and Michael and I had headed down to the beach in the hope of making a survey of the hotel. We had an idea that by counting the windows on the ocean side of the property we could work out how many rooms there ought to be on each floor which in turn would help us figure out where there might be one door too many. Unfortunately the distracting beauty of the sunset and a general sense of lethargy brought on by the warmth of the day were not proving conducive to even such simple mathematics.

At some point during the proceedings I let my gaze drift leftwards along the headland adjoining the hotel and it was then that I spotted the mysterious young woman standing on the clifftop, gazing intently out to sea. It was not the first time I had spotted her occupying such a spot and I mentioned this fact to Michael.

“She’s just enjoying the sunset I suppose,” remarked Michael in a barely interested tone.

“Let’s go up and see if we can’t catch her,” I suggested, spurred by a sudden and unexpected burst of energy.

Michael looked over at the steep flight of stone steps leading up from the beach and made an unenthusiastic noise.

“While she’s about I’ll bet there’s a good chance Henry James can’t be far away,” I added by way of encouragement.

There was a brief hesitation before Michael conceded, “Oh alright then.”

We set off up the cliff path at the double. The dark lady appeared immobile enough for now but I knew from experience that she had a habit of suddenly melting away into the shadows. The stone pathway twisted and turned as it rose, hugging tight to the side of the cliff, so that the woman flickered in and out of view as we climbed.

up the path

About two thirds of the way up I thought I saw her begin to turn away from the sea but our path took her out of view again almost immediately. Another glimpse, a little further up, revealed her definitely walking away from the cliff edge and, sure enough, by the time we finally emerged, sweaty and breathless, onto the headland she had vanished entirely.

“Bugger!” I gasped, hopelessly scouring the clifftop for some indication of where she might have gone.

“Wait a minute. Who’s that?” said Michael, pointing into the distance.

Peering in the direction indicated I spotted the outline of a figure hurrying towards us. Unfortunately it was clearly a little too full and round, even at that distance, to be the dark lady but we watched it approach with interest. As the figure drew closer it gradually focused itself into the unmistakable shape of Henry James. He recognised us at almost exactly the same moment that we recognised him and came to a stuttering halt.

“Oh!” he said in a tone of distinct disappointment.

“Good evening Mr James,” said Michael cheerfully.

“Oh,” repeated Henry James, gazing distractedly around the clifftop. It didn’t take much to figure out who he might be looking for.

“She’s gone,” I told him bluntly. “Looks like you just missed her.”

“Oh,” said James for a third time, looking rather crestfallen. Then he suddenly recollected himself. “Oh but I wasn’t… I had no intention of… That is, I was just out taking a stroll,” he blustered, growing distinctly red in the face.

“Would you care to join us for a drink on the terrace?” asked Michael politely.

“Oh well, I really don’t think…” James fumbled for an excuse.

“She can’t have got far,” I suggested. “The terrace ought to be as good a place as any to keep an eye out in case she comes back.”

James wrinkled his face momentarily in an agony of indecision before finally giving in. “Very well then,” he graciously conceded. “I suppose a small drink at this hour would be most agreeable.”

We found ourselves a table on the edge of the terrace and to begin with James made it perfectly clear he was only there for want of a ready excuse and was counting down the minutes till it might be socially acceptable for him to make his escape. He fidgeted anxiously whilst Gennaro cheerily ran through his lengthy list of cocktail options before insisting on a simple measure of bourbon and as we waited for the waiter’s return he perched on the very edge of his chair, gazing wistfully out to sea.

Once the drinks had arrived I let Michael do most of the conversational running and, after a hesitant start, he displayed rather a nice line in how to handle your heroes. He succeeded in sounding curious without being interrogatory and was respectful without slipping into obsequiousness. Before long he had coaxed James into opening up a bit by asking him about his literary heroes, thus sparking a rambling debate which ranged from Elizabethan dramatists to early twentieth-century poets. By the time Gennaro returned to check up on us about half an hour later James had relaxed sufficiently to agree to another drink.

It was only once we were well into this second round that I felt secure enough to try and steer the conversation in a more personal direction. “Have you had any word lately from your friend, Patrick?” I asked casually enough.

James immediately stiffened. “Not recently,” he replied uncomfortably.

“You must be expecting to hear from him soon though,” I persisted.

“I…” began James. He stopped, hesitated and then added, “It’s a tricky situation,” in a rather despairing tone. “I’m afraid it would take too long to explain.”

“We’re in no hurry,” I remarked complacently and Michael smiled encouragingly.

James studied his drink thoughtfully for a moment. “It’s really a very unique case,” he eventually said with a sigh. “I couldn’t possibly expect you to understand.”

“You’d be surprised,” remarked Michael. He looked over at me with a questioning glance and I nodded in encouragement. There seemed no reason, after all, why our story should remain a secret from Henry James.

So, over the course of the next twenty minutes or so, and with the occasional prompt or revision from me, Michael related to James the tale of our adventures in the landscape of the imagination in pursuit of the author CJ Sturridge.

“Good gracious,” murmured James when we had finally finished. “Well, I say…”

“Exactly,” I said sympathetically.

“But really,” persisted James. “Who could have anticipated that two adventures, completely separate but so alike in all the key details, could be occurring almost simultaneously?”

There was a brief pause whilst we all considered this question.

“Is it really so surprising?” Michael eventually asked. “The landscape is, after all, a pretty big place.”

“But I mean to say…” James began before once again grinding to a disbelieving halt.

“And I suppose the imagination does thrive on echoes and imitations,” I suggested, warming to Michael’s point of view. “They do say that there are only a few basic story archetypes to choose from. I guess we’re just variations on the same theme.”

“But really,” repeated James, shaking his head in astonishment. “To sit here and have one’s own experiences related to you as another’s memoirs, that’s extraordinary indeed.”

Neither Michael nor I felt inclined to disagree with him on that point.

“But then – 273 rooms!” exclaimed James after another brief pause. “I’m certainly glad my story hasn’t followed yours that far. That’s quite some task you have on your hands.”

“That’s true,” conceded Michael. “But sometimes I think it’s harder at the beginning, when you have nothing to go on. At least we know where our man is and can formulate some sort of plan for getting him out.”

“Have you had many leads in your search?” I asked James.
“Oh plenty,” he replied wearily. “But none of them seem to get us anywhere. It’s all whispers and rumours, snatches and snippets of information. So many times we’ve had news of Diana’s whereabouts – word that if we take ourselves to such-and-such a place we’ll be bound to catch up with her there. But then we struggle our way through hell and high water to reach the destination only to find that if she was ever there in the first place she’s now long gone and we have to start all over again.”

“As I said before, it’s a big landscape,” was the best Michael could offer. “It can be hard going.”

“Especially when you’re not even sure what it is you’re supposed to be rescuing someone from,” I added.

“That’s my point entirely!” exclaimed James. “The information one is given to start with is so sketchy. And the plain truth is we can’t even be certain that Diana wants to be found – she did, after all, come here of her own accord. But try telling Patrick these facts…” James trailed off. “The truth is we quarrelled rather badly, Patrick and I, before he left.” He fell to staring moodily into his glass of bourbon.

“I’m sure you’ll patch things up once he returns,” I casually offered by way of sympathy.

James shook his head. “That’s just the thing – I don’t know that he will return. Some rather harsh words were said before he stormed out and now I have no idea where he is or whether I will ever see him again.”

Neither Michael nor I quite knew how to respond to this so we contented ourselves with offering sympathetic looks while James stared glumly at his glass once again. Eventually he took a swig of his drink and continued.

“We’d stumbled on the Midnight Hotel quite by chance, you see,” he explained, “after another promising trail had gone cold. It seemed to me to be just the place to rest up awhile and take stock. But not long after we arrived Patrick told me he’d heard that Diana might be somewhere out west, that there was word she’d become mixed up in some dispute within the fabled realms. Naturally he wanted to go dashing off right away in pursuit.”

James paused and looked up at us as though he were a man putting his case before a jury. “Well, I’m sure you’ve heard just how dangerous the fabled realms can be. Those folktales are often deadly to the unwary. I only suggested that for once it might be a good idea to wait awhile, try and obtain some more detailed information before we went rushing off on another wild goose chase.”

“Sounds reasonable enough,” murmured Michael encouragingly.

“I only wish Patrick would agree,” said James sadly. “But he resolutely refuses to see sense. What he fails to acknowledge is just how dangerous it is out there. It’s a miracle we’ve made it this far. We’ve been ship-wrecked and train-wrecked, been confronted by highwaymen, mermaids, dragons…”

“You’ve seen a dragon?” I interjected excitedly.

drinks on the terrace

“This may be an imaginative landscape but the dangers are quite real,” continued James.

“Do you mean like a proper scaly, fire-breathing dragon?” I persisted. “How big was it?”

“Just because a man has died once already he need not be eager to repeat the experience,” James ploughed on, ignoring my question. “Particularly if it involves added violence and horror.”

“I suppose they’re probably a bit scary but I still think it’d be quite cool to see an actual live dragon,” I mused, having drifted momentarily off-topic.

Michael gave me a fierce glare to discourage any further reflections on the subject of dragons. “There’s no doubt the landscape can be dangerous,” he said supportively to James. “I think you’re right to be cautious.”

“You see, that’s just what Maia said!” exclaimed James. “But no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t convince Patrick. In the end we had a blazing row in which he called me every shade of yellow he could think of before storming out.” James returned to staring dejectedly at his glass.

“I’m sure he’ll come back once he’s had chance to cool off,” I suggested optimistically.

“I doubt it,” replied James glumly. “Patrick’s final words were that he’d get along far better without me. And he’s probably right. I don’t suppose I’ve been anything but a hindrance to him from the moment we arrived.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” returned Michael stoutly. “Let’s not forget that you were plucked from the clutches of death for this duty. I doubt those powers-that-be would have gone to all the trouble of resurrecting you if they didn’t think you were vital to Patrick’s cause.”

“Ah, now there you have the final insult!” retorted James haughtily. “I was informed by these powers that I was requested personally by Patrick for this role. I wouldn’t have considered it otherwise. But in the middle of our row Patrick blurted out that it was all just a misunderstanding. He claims I was only selected on account of some offhand remark he’d made just because he happened to be reading The Ambassadors at the time of Diana’s disappearance. Can you credit that?”

“Amazing,” I murmured, burying my face in my own drink for the moment.

“Besides anything else, it does nothing for one’s faith in these so-called powers,” huffed James. “It seems to me they have a very slapdash way of running things.”

“Very slapdash indeed,” agreed Michael. It sounded to me that he said this with something like a smirk but as I was still avoiding his eye at the time I couldn’t be entirely sure.

James sighed. “I suppose the plain truth is that this landscape of shipwrecks and dragons and gangsters is not my landscape,” he said. “When I was first offered the opportunity to come to the landscape of the imagination it sounded such a wonderful idea. And as an author – someone who has engaged with the imaginative world all his life – I thought I would feel right at home.” He paused and sighed again. “But I suppose I was never quite cut out for playing the hero. My landscape is a quieter, more reflective place. It sits somewhere apart from all the bluster and action.”

“Somewhere like the Midnight Hotel?” suggested Michael.

James smiled ruefully. “Somewhere very like the Midnight Hotel.”

“And somewhere that just happens to come equipped with a certain mysterious dark-haired young beauty?” I couldn’t resist adding teasingly.

James looked at me sharply. “I suppose the hotel gossips are having a field day.”

“Can you blame them?” I replied. “You’re not exactly subtle.”

“Who is she, if you don’t mind my asking?” said Michael.

“To tell the truth I have no idea,” replied James. “I don’t suppose I’ve exchanged more than half a dozen words with her in all the time I’ve been here.”

“Even so she seems to have cast a pretty deep spell,” I noted.

“It’s not what you think,” returned James quickly.

“Hey, it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” I said lightly. “She’s certainly very attractive.”

“Perhaps she is but that’s really not the point,” maintained James. I returned him a doubtful look. “Look, I’m not sure I can actually explain why I feel the need to get to know her so badly,” he went on, “except to say that in some respects I feel I already do. I still don’t know her name or where she comes from but sometimes I catch a glimpse of that face and wonder whether I didn’t in fact write those features myself at one time.”

“You think she’s a character from one of your books?” said Michael in surprise.

“Not exactly,” replied James. “As I said, I don’t even know her name. But I can’t help but feel there’s some sort of connection between us. It’s almost as if she’s the ghost of an idea, a character I always meant to write but never quite got around to.” He paused and looked up with another rueful smile. “I don’t suppose that makes the slightest sense.”

“Oh I don’t know,” I replied lightly. “It has a certain poetic sense to it.”

“I suppose all the hotel gossips take me for just another middle-aged man chasing after a woman half his age,” remarked James ruefully.

“Does it matter if they do?” asked Michael.

“No, I don’t suppose it does,” said James after just a moment’s consideration. “There you have it, I suppose. The truth is that ultimately I’m not sure it even matters whether Patrick chooses to return or not. For as long as that young woman is here at the Midnight Hotel I don’t feel that I can ever leave.”

 

To be continued…

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