A gentleman with the hideously foreign name of Laurens van Zwaan would never have been completely acceptable in the more rarefied strata of English society. As Sir Lawrence Swann, however, the famous painter was welcome at every society occasion, with the embarrassing exception of Court, where her Majesty the Queen lately refused to receive him because of an increasingly dubious reputation. She had knighted him only last year, on his return from two years painting in Egypt. Now, however, the Queen Empress believed that an unmarried man such as Sir Lawrence should not be seen to be consorting with quite so many young, unaccompanied women at his Egyptian-decorated home in Hampshire. Arguments that a famous painter of scenes of Ancient Egypt would need a multiplicity of young female models, to help him replicate the court of the pharaohs for the vast painting commissioned by one of the City livery companies, fell on haughtily deaf royal ears. The word harem had been mentioned on more than one occasion. Sir Lawrence's recent affectation of wearing a tarboosh, since his return from Cairo, did little to allay the Queen's suspicions of what might be termed "Ottoman" tendencies.
In the smoking room of the United Services Club in Pall Mall, Lt. Colonel "Eggy" Newman, who lived not far from Sir Lawrence in the Meon Valley, was telling of strange comings and goings, odd lights in the middle of the night and unearthly shrieks at the painter's house. "The general feeling locally is that odd rites are taking place there. Arcane rites. Heathen rites. All to do with the chap's fascination with the Pharaohs. Half naked slave girls and what have you." He took an appreciative sip of his Taylor's 1868, from a vintage before the phylloxera blight ravaged the Douro a few years later.
"I say!" said Captain Jonty Smalme. "How do you know all this? Met the fellow in the Castle at Cowes this summer. Seemed a perfectly decent chap for a foreigner, apart from not liking Stilton. Thought the Dutch ate cheese all the time, what? Although I never quite know with the Dutch whether they are our friends or enemies. Not like the French, of course. Know where you are with the French. Fire on the uproll eh, Admiral?" He glanced across at Admiral Troutbridge who was puffing on a large cigar and gazing into the middle distance. "But the Dutch?" Smalme continued. "I know they gave us a king and what have you but didn't they give your chaps a good pasting a couple of hundred years ago?" Smalme, who was very much the junior officer sat around the table and not eligible to be a member of the club, looked at Admiral Troutbridge realising that he might have just gone too far. Too much port. Again.
"Dashed good chaps in a sea fight," replied the Admiral. "Strapping milk-fed gels. Good at dykes. Overrated cheese. Talk too loudly!" He looked at Smalme pointedly.
"I think," said Newman, "that someone should come down to Hampshire and investigate his house. Do a bit of a recce. After all, Holland is right next door to Germany and he could be up to things a lot more sinister than having a few half naked bints running about."
"Perhaps some of the bints need rescuing..." ventured Smalme.
"Well done, Smalme. I'll leave it to you to put a small force together. Strictly informal. I'm sure the Admiral can supply a couple of chaps from the Senior Service."
"You can count on it!" confirmed Troutbridge. "I'll get some fellows up from Pompey!"
"What?" said Smalme, realising he had been outmanoeuvred. What had he let himself in for?