And how Horatius held the bridge
In the brave days of yore.
Thomas Babbington, Lord Macauley
Lays of Ancient Rome
The elephant was the last straw.
All day Mr. Butler, strangely resembling Cerberus except for the number of heads, had kept the world at bay. The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher was engaged in a solemn ritual and all visitors were to be refused, all tradesmen redirected and all trespassers prosecuted. The bell was not to ring and disturb the votaries’ concentration. A holy hush must be maintained.
The household had been dispersed for this special occasion. Miss Ruth and Miss Jane had been banished to the moving pictures to see an improving newsreel and a cowboy adventure, have lunch at a suitable café and spend the afternoon blamelessly at the museum. The dog Molly had been muzzled with the femur of what must have been an ox, or possibly a mammoth. Mrs. Butler had put on her good coat and gone hat shopping in the city, leaving a cold collation under a mist of muslin on the dining room table. Dorothy, Miss Phryne’s maid and inseparable companion, had naturally joined the rites in attendance, as had the cat Ember. Three times Dot had crept down the stairs to tell Mr. Butler that so far it was all going well.
And Mr. Butler had kept the door, valiantly turning aside three hawkers (of infallible washing powders, fly repellents and an ingenious new form of mouse-trap), seven society visitors and a worried representative from the mayor’s office, calling about another minor detail in the forthcoming Flower Parade. All of these he had awed into leaving cards and departing quietly, closing the gate silently behind them. He was just allowing himself to lean a little into the porch, mopping his brow and wondering how long this could possibly go on, when an elephant stepped easily over the front fence and stood face to face with him.
It was surprisingly large. It had small, wise eyes set into deep wrinkles and for a moment Mr. Butler and the elephant stared at each other without moving or reacting. Mr. Butler was so astonished that he could not think of anything to say except ‘Shoo!’ and he did not think that wise, in view of the newly planted dahlias.
They stood there, an interesting tableau out of an Anglo-Indian painting. Then the elephant, obviously feeling that the first move in this new friendship was up to her, lifted her trunk and gently took the handkerchief out of Mr. Butler’s nerveless hand. She patted delicately at his brow and made a small, absurd squeaking noise. It sounded sympathetic.
‘Thank you,’ said Mr. Butler, a broken man.
‘Phryne in?’ enquired a voice, and Mr. Butler looked up into the eyes of a raddled, middle-aged woman with fiery red hair, seated astride the elephant’s neck. ‘Flossie’s taken to you, I see. She’s the nicest elephant I’ve ever had, I’ll say that for her.’
Mr. Butler gathered what wits he had left. ‘Miss Fisher is engaged,’ he said. ‘She is not at home to visitors today.’
‘Too bad,’ said the woman. ‘I’m Dulcie Fanshawe of Fanshawe’s elephants. Well, you might have guessed, eh? Any chance of a bucket of water for Flossie? And a cup of tea for me? We’ve just got off the train and they’re still setting up down by the beach.’
‘If you can keep your animal…er…Flossie, quiet, madam, that can be arranged,’ said Mr. Butler. Miss Dulcie Fanshawe’s hair was definitely artificial and her trousers were scandalous but she had a genuine, charming smile. And Miss Phryne would never turn aside a person or even an elephant in need of sustenance.
‘She won’t give trouble,’ said Dulcie. ‘Elephants are very quiet beasts.’
‘Just walk her along to the back, then,’ said Mr. Butler. ‘The kitchen door is open. I have to keep the door until Miss Fisher’s at liberty to receive guests.’
‘What is she doing?’ asked Miss Fanshawe, permitting Flossie to lift her down and taking hold of one large, flapping ear.
Mr. Butler told her. Miss Fanshawe grinned. ‘How long has she been at it, then?’ she asked.
‘Since nine this morning.’ Mr. Butler finally did allow himself to lean into the porch and Flossie mopped his brow again. He observed the delicate, fingered ends of her trunk and the fine control she had over her grasp. She smelt strongly of hay.
‘Lord, you poor man! Now, Floss, give the nice man back his hankie and we’ll get you a drink.’
Flossie returned Mr. Butler’s handkerchief, gave his hair a light caress, and followed Miss Fanshawe around the side of the house to the kitchen.
Mr. Butler resumed his vigil. Time was elapsing. The cold collation had been eaten on the run, standing, while discussing and arguing. The girls would be back soon, as would Mrs. Butler, who would need to get the dinner started and show Mr. Butler her new hat. Miss Phryne had better get a wriggle on or she was going to have disturbances which Mr. Butler could not prevent.
Just then he remembered that Molly and her dinosaur bone were in the back garden. How, he wondered, would the black and white mongrel react to Flossie?
Nothing he could do about it from here, he thought, and at last heard the long-anticipated sounds of women reassuming coats, putting on hats, packing up, and chattering their way down the hall to his closely guarded door. At last. He felt like a sentry who had been relieved of his post long after he had assumed himself forgotten.
The rite was concluded. Miss Fisher’s new dress had been fitted. Mr. Butler bowed out Madame Fleuri, a grim devotee of the mode, her two assistants and her three seamstresses. Miss Fisher and Dot waved them goodbye.
And Mr. Butler shut the front door just as Molly, waking from a deep post-prandial nap in the asparagus bed, encountered her first elephant and entirely lost her poise. Howling, she fled into the house and dived under Miss Fisher’s chair. After a while a small black nose stuck out from under the fringe, quivering.
Miss Phryne Fisher was dressed in a bright red house gown. She had put it on and taken it off eighteen times. She had listened to long lectures about fashion and stood unmoving as swatches of cloth were draped, pinned, whipped off and on and pinned again. For seven hours. She had gulped down her lunch and was feeling hungry, thirsty and frayed. She did not need an irruption of hysterical dogs into her now-quiet house.
‘Molly?’ asked Phryne wearily. ‘What is the matter?’
‘I think it was meeting Flossie,’ said Miss Fanshawe, escorted in by Mr. Butler. ‘All the circus dogs are used to elephants, I’d forgotten how a nice urban dog might react. Sorry to drop in on you like this when you’ve had such an exhausting day, Phryne, but I came looking for a drink for Flossie and remembered that you lived here.’
‘Dulcie Fanshawe!’ Phryne jumped up. Molly declined to move. Until someone came up with a reasonable explanation for elephants, she was staying where she was. ‘Come in, sit down, have a drink, how are you? I haven’t seen you since London!’
‘Can’t stop,’ said Miss Fanshawe. ‘Come and meet Flossie. I can’t leave her in that pretty little garden for long. Far too many edible plants.’
Phryne followed Dulcie to the garden and found that Flossie had not fancied any of the vegetation on offer but was sucking up a lot of water from a bucket, continuously replenished with the hose.
‘I took her for a little constitutional down by the sea and she would keep tasting the foam,’ explained Dulcie Fanshawe. ‘Too much salt is very bad for elephants and they’re setting up the show right by the sea, on the sand. There,’ she said to the gurgling elephant, ‘that feels better, I’ll warrant. Poor old Floss! I bought her from a frightful little road show—filthy place—where they kept her chained all the time. See the scars around her ankles? She was dying from pneumonia and neglect and loneliness and I got her for a song and a threat to report the owner to the RSPCA. I reported him anyway. If I’d had my way we would have chained him by the leg in filthy straw for a few months to see how he liked it. Horrible man. Then I sat up with Flossie for a week until she started to recover and she took to Rani and Kali right away. But she’s the nicest elephant I’ve ever met. And the worst treated. Humans.’
‘I know, as a species we have nothing to recommend ourselves. How did you end up in Australia?’ asked Phryne.
‘Well, with the three elephants I had a show, and we were something of a hit,’ said Miss Fanshawe modestly. ‘And none of us like the cold. Flossie’s got a weak chest, poor girl. So we took Wirth up on his offer and came out here. Nice place,’ she said. ‘Kali likes the beer and I like the climate.’
Mr. Butler brought a tray of drinks into the garden. Flossie squeaked her pleasure at renewing their acquaintance and he unbent far enough to pat her trunk.
‘A refreshing cocktail, Miss Fisher,’ he said. ‘In view of the day we have all had.’
Phryne sipped. ‘Oh, lovely,’ she said. It tasted of cherries. A bubbly, delicate, utterly refreshing mouthful of spring.
Miss Fanshawe took a deep gulp, blinked and said, ‘Oh my! That’s enough to make you want to go out and get all hot and tired over again!’
Mr. Butler withdrew, pleased. The lady might not be out of the top drawer but she knew a good cocktail when she drank it. Mrs. Butler had returned with her new hat and was seated at the kitchen table, peeling vegetables for a roast. The adoptive daughters of the house were helping, eating bread and butter to stay their stomachs until dinner. Thin blonde Jane and darker, plumper Ruth, Miss Phryne’s strays. Mr. Butler wanted to unbend and he couldn’t do it with them there, even though they were good girls and no trouble at all, really.
‘Go into the garden,’ said Mr. Butler to the two girls. ‘There’s an elephant.’
They dived for the door without a word.
His new cocktail had gone down well. The day had been long. Mr. Butler sat down, undid his shirt collar, and poured himself a small glass of the butler’s infallible restorative, a good port. Mrs. Butler stopped peeling and laid down her potato severely.
‘Now, Mr. B, you know it isn’t right to fib to the girls,’ she reproved. ‘Just because you’d rather have their room than their company.’
Mr. Butler gave her a smile which bordered on smug—he had had a very trying day—and said nothing. Mrs. Butler surveyed him closely. They had been married for nearly forty years. She picked up the vegetable peeler again, obscurely worried by that smile. ‘There isn’t really an elephant in the garden, is there?’ pressed Mrs. Butler, peeling industriously.
‘Yes, Mrs. B,’ he replied, allowing himself another vindicated sip. ‘There is.’
● ● ● ● ●
Phryne Fisher looked at her household as they came down to dinner, correctly dressed, clean and shining. A credit to themselves, she thought. Dot in her favourite brown jumper suit. The girls in matching summer dresses. Herself in her red house gown. Ember, who had not twitched a whisker when he sighted an elephant through the kitchen window, slouching elegantly along after Mr. Butler’s silver salver, which was redolent of gravy. Molly, who had been coaxed out from under the chair and assured that the elephant was definitely gone, sitting nervously under the table hoping for titbits. Mr. Butler, restored by port. And dinner.
Phryne had a healthy appetite and the money to indulge it. And lunch had been scanty and hurried. Time to taste a nice Bordeaux and allow the day to fold peacefully to its close.
‘Where did you meet Miss Fanshawe?’ asked Jane. ‘And did you know that the rock hyrax is the elephant’s nearest relative?’
‘In London and no,’ replied Phryne. ‘What is a rock hyrax?’
‘It’s a little rabbity thing,’ said Jane. ‘Not at all like an elephant, which is—as we saw—big. And Miss Fanshawe said that Flossie isn’t even a very big elephant.’
‘She was a special act in a circus I went to see,’ said Phryne. ‘I have always loved circuses. And I was able to help in a little emergency they had, so they invited me backstage—’
‘Hang on,’ interrupted Jane. ‘What little emergency?’
‘It wasn’t anything really,’ temporised Phryne. Jane looked at her. So did Dot and Ruth. ‘Oh well, they had a big cat act. I was sitting ringside when a black panther called Princess, who had clearly had a bad day, decided that sitting up on her pedestal and waving her paws in the air was too, too tedious and it would be more amusing to knock her trainer down with one swipe and then bite his head off. She was about to do that when I grabbed the ice-cream man’s slop dish and threw it in her face.’
‘That was quick thinking!’ said Jane.
‘I reasoned that she was a cat and cats hate water and they especially hate to appear anything less than entirely well groomed,’ Phryne told Jane. ‘With her whiskers full of partly melted ice cream she felt that she could not face her public and rushed off stage. The other beasts went too and the trainer wasn’t badly hurt. I don’t like seeing those beautiful cats made to do stupid tricks, anyway. It’s undignified. If I had allowed the panther to continue with her program for the day they would have had to shoot her, and that wouldn’t have done at all. Anyway, they asked me to come backstage and there I met Dulcie. First, I met Kali. Now she is a big elephant. Not friendly. I was picking my way over the waste ground to the caravans when a stupid dog came yapping and biting at this huge elephant—it clearly had a death wish—and her trunk shot out and—whack—the dog was thrown into the air. It hit the side of a tent with a noise like a drum and retired into private life, howling. I was just standing very still, trying not to attract Kali’s attention, when Dulcie said, “It’s the heat. It’s making them nervous,” and Kali picked me up and set me on her back as gently as a mother. It was an odd evening, all round,’ concluded Phryne, taking another bite of roast beef.
‘No, really,’ said Dot with some irony.
‘Kali is named after the Hindu Goddess of Death,’ Jane informed the company. ‘She’s usually depicted with a bunch of skulls in one hand and a sword in the other, dancing on a pile of severed heads.’
‘Nice name,’ said Dot, exercising her irony again. ‘Nice thing for a young lady to know.’
‘Knowledge is power,’ said Phryne approvingly. ‘Dulcie and elephants just go together like toast and honey. In the way that some people are good with dogs or children, she’s good with elephants. And she had such a conventional upbringing, too. Nice girl from a nice school with a retired vicar as a father. Still, you can never tell.’
‘Fathers are important,’ said Ruth unexpectedly.
‘Yes,’ agreed Phryne. ‘I suppose they are. But there are fathers and fathers, you know. Mine is an old grump.’
‘Mine’s all right,’ said Dot, helping herself to another roast potato. ‘A hard working honest man. Even goes to church when Mum nags him. Wants his dinner right on the dot of five, of course, but he works hard and he deserves it. Never used to yell at us or hit us.’
‘I don’t remember mine very well,’ confessed Jane. ‘I always lived with my grandma. She said that my parents were travelling folk but kind in their way. They just left me with her and wandered off, then they got killed in a farming accident when I was four.’
‘And I don’t remember my father at all,’ said Ruth. ‘I wonder what he was like?’
Phryne suppressed the comment that since he had not gone to the trouble of actually marrying Ruth’s mother and had exited stage left before Ruth was born, not even putting his name on her birth certificate, he wasn’t particularly relevant. This lack of a father was clearly bothering Ruth, though. The girl read far too many romances.
‘He might have been a good man,’ she said gently. ‘But we’ll never know. Think of him as a good man,’ she suggested.
‘Mum said he was a sailor,’ said Ruth.
‘There are good sailors,’ said Phryne. ‘Well, some good sailors. In a way they are ideal as husbands. They drop in every six months for a wild celebration, then they drop out again before one gets bored with their company or annoyed by their habits. However, speculation is always lame. Let’s see what Mrs. Butler has for dessert. Ah! Fruit salad and ice cream. I wonder if elephants like ice cream?’
‘It would need to be a very big Dixie Cup,’ said Jane.
● ● ● ● ●
Everyone, after their busy day, was sleepy and disinclined to go out to the movies or indeed to do anything more active than play the gramophone and flick through a magazine. Phryne read a detective story, frequently going back because she suddenly found herself reading a conversation between two characters she had not met before—a sure sign that an early night was indicated. The girls played a quiet game of cards. Dot knitted. Molly, still obscurely worried that huge grey beasts might invade her domain, slept in the kitchen wedged in beside the stove with her tail to the wall.
Ember had already retired to a boudoir which was no longer filled with intrusive humans talking, arguing and flourishing pointed objects. He was curled up in a perfect black sphere when Phryne cast off her red gown, bathed sumptuously in a lily of the valley scented tub, and assumed a red silk nightgown and her own place in her moss green bedroom.
Mr. and Mrs. Butler made a milk drink and retired. Both girls went to their jazz-coloured room and got into their beds. By ten o’clock the whole house was breathing deeply in well-deserved slumber.
No one heard the side window slide open after midnight.
● ● ● ● ●
Miss Mavis Sutherland to Miss Anna Ross
21 August 1912
I have your letter and it all sounds so exciting! Three sailors, one a piper, one a violinist and one a drummer, all staying in your mama’s house! Which one of the three do you like the best? Mr. James Murray the fiddler (he doesn’t sound very Scotch, by the way)? Oh no, I see that you said he had red hair. Red hair is so unattractive on a man. Not like your own deep auburn tresses which could hardly be called red at all. So is it the drummer Mr. Neil McLeod, who is fair, or the dark-eyed Mr. Rory McCrimmon? Come, Annie, ’fess up. It must be unbearably exciting to have musicians in the house. Tell all. I am agog.
Here it is very tedious as always, the London house is closed for the summer but they will all be back soon, now that autumn is closing in. There was frost on the windows last night. It must be lovely to be in sunny Australia where it never snows. Along about February, when the snow closes in and it’s so dark, I miss dear old Melbourne more than ever. Well, I had better finish this or I’ll miss the post. With my respects to your mother and my dear love to you,