Arriving at the Delphinium, he took the old black marble back stairs to the second floor, as was the rule. A toddler by the standard of the other London clubs, the Delphinium claimed to be the first to have admitted men and women both as members, but it had started life as a ladies' club, and certain inversions of the old chauvinistic ways still held there. So it was that he arrived on the second story from the back way, while the ladies of the club used the grander front stair.
At the bar, some ladies rested their feet on the brass and bent the elbow, taking their drink and enjoying themselves in silence and in laughter. Others, men and women both, occupied the generous high-backed loungers and small tables, reading, talking, drinking, smoking, eating; a couple of women members in back monopolized the old felt, and the crack of billiards broke through the low din with a steady regularity.
A waiter came and took his order - men and women both dressed in shirt, vest, and slacks - and he took it to a quiet corner of the library, where tall windows gave good light to read by in the early mornings, and at length selected a small brown-leather volume without a title, but only a curious star-leaf worked out on it in gold. He leaned back to read it, sometimes gazing idly out the window at the smart-dressed people walking by on the street below. Opening it at random he took it for a book of poetry, but the stanzas did not match any familiar meter, and soon he determined it was a more esoteric work, though with a mythology he'd not yet run across, and long phrases in Greek he had to spell out a letter at a time.
"Morven Deen," Anne said, giving him a start. He hadn't heard her come up behind him. Anne had been a friend of his wife, who had also been a club member, and had sponsored him for membership. She was tall for her height, as they say, with a mien and poised that seemed to carry her several inches higher than her five and ten. Anne preferred trousers to skirts, and had proven to him on more than one occasion that she never went without a knife somewhere upon her person. Today it appeared to be a large American Bowie knife in a sheath at her belt on the left hand side, and her left hand rested on it as the right plucked the book from his unresisting fingers.
"They called her the Wickedest Woman in the World." she said, taking the seat opposite him. A waiter came over and took her order, and he smiled to have a partner for some conversation.
"A female Crowley?" he said, and then quickly realized his error at her frown. She silenced his apology with a curt shake of the head, which sent the bangs framing her face to sashay.
"An incorrect comparison, though you're not the first to make it. The journalists loved her, in a small way, but her enormities were too much for the press. Like Crowley, but hers were real, and they didn't care. She was only a woman, after all. The 'Great Bitch' to the 'Great Beast.' They did have some similarities, after all."
Anne leaned back in her chair, and her gaze stretched out beyond the walls of the Delphinium.
"You have no idea what it was like for a woman, back then. A girl, really. Her family's wealth bought her an education, but to her father and mothers she was only fit for breeding; she was well rid of them when her father brought home the French pox from some Italian whore. Imagine that then, if you would, the rarity of it - a young woman, educated, monied, unmastered. Edward wasn't even on the throne yet, a few of the outer relatives wanted to take control, but she fought them off, them and every smooth-talking bachelor and eager cleric that tried to collar her into marriage."
"She found solace, or perhaps at least society, in para-masonic organization. Her father had been a Master Mason before the disease ate away at his mind, and his wife in one of the auxiliaries. A wee Scots lass, maybe she wanted to see what mysteries lay beyond the kirk and didn't care for table-rapping and faerie photography...though I think that all came later. Anyway, she went through the initiations, talked her way into libraries and homes to read the old charters; preached the equality of all people, men and women...she made her way to France in the 1890s, where the whole co-masonic movement was going on. She rose up the degrees...but never got recognition from the Grand Lodges. None of them would admit a woman."
"So she fell in with the more occult elements...learned theosophy at Blatavasky's knee and some say in her bed; stood the rituals of the Golden Dawn and stayed silent during its divisions and internal struggles. Some say she was a member of the Ordo Templi Orientis before Crowley published his damned book...and left, because he came in and changed all the degrees." Anne sipped her drink. "She loved women and used men, as they say; and one of them got her in trouble - a rite of Attis which went awry when the initiate changed their mind at the worst possible moment. So she began her travels...Greece, where the first mystery schools were, and especially Thessaly. Anatolia and Armenia, Romania and Russia...some say she was a spy, though they never say for whom. The first World War began and ended; in the '20s she was in America, selling dream-books through Sears & Robuck catalogues. The Great Depression saw her in Mongolia, where she met the Panchen Lama; there's even an account where she met David-Néel's tulpa."
"An adventuer," he said.
"A seeker," said Anne, "She had children, but never raised them. She wanted something else. The money ran out and she returned to Britain, to find the movements she left in perpetual decay. Even Crowley had left for his Abbey at that point, and she was never a builder. Ended up as a sort of headmistress for her own public school, the kind the Decadents would have pissed blood to hang about; a closet with a peephole would have filled a hundred of their shabby pornographies. I think...she wanted a child, with another woman. Not to be a man, but woman to woman, together. She kept trying, you see. But the ceremonies...there was talk of a prison sentence, once or twice. Prudish old laws. No one knows how she died, exactly."
She finished her drink, and signaled the waiter; she ordered for them both, and he let the waiter take his half-finished drink away. In a few minutes, the waiter returned. He felt he should do something, and raised his glass in toast.
"To the Wickedest Woman in the World." he said, and they clinked glasses.