As they entered the costumier's shop, the manager caught Alan's eye and raised his eyebrows questioningly, to which Alan replied with a slight nod. The manager whispered instructions to his two assistants, one of whom led the men to the gentlemen's section of the shop, while the other conducted the women to the ladies' side. The secret criteria that each of them was applying made the selection of the costumes a lengthy and at times frustrating experience, but eventually their choices were made. Sophie and Rosalind were to go as Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo-Peep, their costumes being almost identical save that Miss Muffet's bonnet was pink felt with a white ribbon, while Bo-Peep's was yellow straw with a blue ribbon. Alan and Andrew had both chosen to be Victorian cavalry officers. Their uniforms were very similar, save that Alan's included a hussar's fur cap with a large feather, while Andrew's headgear was a czapka, the peculiar square-topped helmet worn by lancers. Rosalind had chosen the Bo-Peep outfit only after being assured by the shop assistant, "That suits you perfectly, madam," and Alan had been told "That suits you perfectly, sir" before deciding on the hussar costume.

When the four of them had left, each carrying a box containing a costume, the manager, following the arrangement made with Alan a few days earlier, packed two other boxes and sent them round to the Imperial Hotel, labelled "Mr John Doe. Imperial Hotel, Room 151. Advance luggage."

* * *

The Fine Arts Ball was held every autumn at the Imperial Hotel, Nutchester. It was quite a bohemian affair — for Nutchester, that is. It did not rival its Parisian counterpart, and, if truth be known, fell somewhat short of resembling the London version, but by local standards it was considered daring and occasionally scandalous. Fancy dress was de rigeur. It was patronised mainly by the younger business and professional set, as it was unlikely to be affordable by anyone under thirty, or enjoyable by anyone over fifty. The revelry invariably lasted well into the early hours, and participants from outlying districts would usually stay at the hotel overnight, not always under their own names. The hotel manager had been heard urging clients to show more originality in choosing their noms de guerre, as it was confusing for his staff if there were too many Smiths simultaneously in residence. All the public rooms of the hotel were given over to the ball, not only the ballroom itself, but the dining room, the bars, the lounges, the function rooms, and the capacious foyer, from which a grand staircase led up to the first floor.

At about eight o'clock on the evening of the ball, Alan and Sophie Kendall changed into their costumes in the room they had rented for the night. It was on the second floor, where the rooms were adequately comfortable, but not quite so well appointed as those on the first floor, which were, in consequence, somewhat dearer. Andrew and Rosalind Riley had also taken a second floor room, where they changed into their costumes. When the two couples descended to the ballroom, it was already rapidly filling with revellers, and they immersed themselves in the festivities, admiring the costumes, meeting old friends, dancing, eating, and drinking.

Shortly after eleven o'clock, Andrew asked Alan to meet him in his room at twenty minutes to midnight so that they might switch their costumes. Alan sought out Rosalind, who told him that she had been instructed by Sophie to change costumes with her in Room 102 at ten minutes to midnight. Alan then told Rosalind what he wanted her to do.

* * *

At twenty minutes to midnight, Alan and Andrew were in the latter's room on the second floor, exchanging headgear and other parts of their costumes, so that Andrew became a hussar and Alan a lancer. Andrew then went down to the foyer and took up a position from which he could watch the staircase, waiting for Sophie to appear and give him the signal. As soon as Andrew had left, Alan hurried down to Room 151. The two boxes sent by the costumier had already been put in the room by the hotel staff. They contained a second hussar outfit and a second Bo-Peep outfit, the costumier's "Suits you perfectly" remark having been the signal that more than one copy of the costume was available. He changed back into the appearance of a hussar, and found a spot on the balcony whence he could observe the foyer and staircase without being seen.

At ten minutes to midnight, Sophie and Rosalind were in Room 102, exchanging bonnets and other parts of their costumes, so that Sophie became Bo-Peep and Rosalind Miss Muffet. Sophie then went to the staircase to signal to Andrew. Following Alan's instructions, as soon as Sophie had left, Rosalind hurried along to Room 151, where she found the second Bo-Peep costume. She changed back into that character and waited.

As midnight approached, Sophie descended a few steps at the top of the staircase. While she stood looking for her hussar in the foyer, a hotel waiter approached her with a piece of paper in his hand. "Excuse me, madam, but a gentleman asked me to give you this." She took the note and read, "Binky is in the long bar with Booboo, and wants to buy you a drink. Your very own Piggy."

"This isn't for me," she said. "Who gave it to you?"

The waiter scanned the foyer. "I can't see him, madam. It was a gentleman in a military uniform."

At that moment, Sophie spotted Andrew. "Was it him?" she asked the waiter, pointing.

"Oh no, madam, it was an elderly gentleman, quite short, and a little stout."

Sophie gave him back the note. "You've made a mistake. This note is not for me."

The waiter apologised and started to descend the stairs. Sophie caught Andrew's eye, beckoned to him, and returned to Room 102 to wait for him.

Andrew had seen the waiter give a note to Sophie, had seen her read it, point to him, and give the note back to the waiter. He was not surprised when the waiter accosted him on his way to the staircase.

"Excuse me, sir, but the lady wanted you to see this," and he handed a sheet of paper to Andrew.

It was a letter typed on hotel notepaper, and read, "Dear Madam, Owing to a plumbing disorder, we have been compelled to take Room 102 out of service. We have therefore relocated you to Room 151, which is of equal standard. We deeply regret any inconvenience that this may cause, and hope that you will accept a 10% rebate on your bill as compensation. Yours faithfully, J C Witherspoon, Manager."

Andrew thanked the waiter and made his way to Room 151. When the waiter examined the tip which Andrew had given him, he saw that it was more than adequate for the service, but in no way comparable to the tip he had already received from Alan.

* * *

Andrew tapped at the door of Room 151. A throaty voice replied, "Come on in, soldier boy. The door is open."

He entered and caught his breath at the sight awaiting him. Bo-Peep was seated at the dressing table sideways on, her face turned away from him. She had discarded her outer garments, and was wearing only her underclothes and her bonnet. Two long legs stretched out, clad in sheer silk stockings supported by the merest wisp of a garter belt. Matching bra and panties teased the eye, gleaming translucently. This, he thought, was what his marriage lacked — glamour and excitement.

"Sophie," he gasped, "you look magnificent!"

Keeping her back to him, Bo-Peep stood and stretched her arms. His throat tightened, and he could feel his heart thumping in his chest. She tossed the bonnet aside, and draped herself languorously across the bed. "I'm sorry, darling, Sophie couldn't make it. Will I do?"

"Rosalind! What . . .? How . . .?"

"Oh darling, do stop yammering, and get out of that silly uniform."

When the outfit was returned a few days later, the costumier retained a part of the deposit because some of the buttons were hanging by a thread due to having been torn open too impetuously.

* * *

Alan knocked on the door of Room 102. Sophie called, "Come on in, my very own Piggy."

He sidled into the room, trying to keep his face averted from its occupant. He had been able to see, out of the corner of his eye, that Sophie was stretched out on the bed totally naked, her hair loose and strewn across the pillow. He stood facing the door, puzzled by Sophie's salutation, and uncertain how to proceed.

"What does a girl have to do in this joint to get her husband to make love to her?" Sophie asked in a bantering tone.

Attempting to imitate Andrew's voice, Alan said squeakily, "Your husband? It's me, my darling, Andrew."

"Oh, Alan, don't be such a fool! I know it's you."

He turned and faced her. "How did you know it would be me? I thought you were expecting Andrew?"

"Of course I wasn't. I knew all along that Rosalind would spill the beans. I was just waiting to see how you would deal with it. I hoped you wouldn't be so fuddy-duddy as to play the outraged husband, and you haven't let me down — Piggy. That note was from you, wasn't it, a part of your counter ploy? Never mind, you can explain it to me later. I've got other ideas in mind for now."

Removing his costume, Alan asked, "What would you have done if Rosalind hadn't given the game away?"

"There was never any chance of that. I knew that if she thought I was laying a trap for you, she would help you to avoid it."

"Why would she do that? You're her friend, aren't you?"

"Yes, I'm her friend, but she fancies you, and that counts double."

"Fancies me? Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure, but don't even think of doing anything about it, Alan Kendall, or you'll have me to reckon with."

"Hmm. Well, in that case, you'll just have to make sure that I'm kept too busy elsewhere, won't you?"

"That can be arranged. Come here."

* * *

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