Cecil Langton had spent a lifetime cultivating his little black book of friends, acquaintances and fans who facilitated his gilded existence, floating from one party and dinner to the next. The author and aesthete had been on every notable guest list from Chelsea to Chipping Norton since the swinging heights of the 1960s, when he had daringly recorded every salacious nugget of London’s beau monde in his sizzling debut book, Rock & Raunch. The profits had paid outright for his pride and joy – Dunton House – a Ketton stone folly on the outskirts of a vast estate in the depths of Rutland.
The beguiling retreat was packed to the rafters with chubby chintzy sofas, exquisite art and the decorative fruits of a lifetime spent collecting everything from 17th-century chinoiserie to trunkfuls of toile de Jouy. It was an architectural oddity that channelled all the grandeur of a country house in little more than 3,000sq ft; a mansion in miniature complete with castellated turrets and a central tower that Cecil had repurposed as a rather dramatic master bedroom. Over four decades he’d lovingly crafted borders packed with blousy blooms bursting forth from strident topiary. It was, in the view of Cecil and any of the endless procession of illustrious guests, heaven on earth.
An invitation to Dunton was prized, especially by a nomadic new generation who could fill their social media feeds with bucolic images of the lush borders and walls of ornate Meissen china – although for Cecil, such gauche gloating was strictly verboten. And, as a rule, he was terribly picky about his house guests, especially after one notorious weekend when an ill-advised invitee insisted upon rising at an unspeakably early hour for naked power yoga on the front lawn. It was less the sight of the bare bottom that irked Cecil than the chillout soundtrack that drowned out his beloved dawn chorus. In an uncharacteristic rage Cecil had sent the miscreant packing without so much as a morning espresso.
He wasn’t usually so prickly but it had been an arduous few years. His books were no longer selling and after a freehold buyout on his Highgate pied-à-terre, Cecil was feeling the pinch. And so, just a month later, when an email promising sky-high returns for super-discreet holiday lets pinged into his in-box, his interest was immediately piqued. They’d seen his house in The World of Interiors they said, and sourced rarefied rentals with aristocratic associations for their wealthy clients. They’d like to do a test summer let and they’d take care of everything. But best of all for Cecil, who couldn’t bear the idea of anyone finding out about his declining funds, was that no one need ever know – discretion was assured.
So at the start of the summer he’d spent a weekend ensuring the house was at its best. Before he left he gathered the plumpest roses from the garden and arranged them spilling forth from table-top urns that would greet his guests in the old hall. “See you in September, papa!” he said, as he looked at the impish portrait of his much-missed but long-departed father. “Keep an eye on them.”
He stayed in town for the summer, and told anyone who asked that some urgent tiling had to be carried out to Dunton’s prized turrets. When the house was finally vacated, as the autumn mists began to hover over the fields, Cecil celebrated by inviting some of his dearest friends for one of his legendary long weekends. The mix was as eclectic as ever: a fabulously indiscreet junior minister, a West End impresario, two It girls (his favourite goddaughters) and a dashing poet with Byronic good looks whom he’d recently befriended.
That Friday he had a serious spring in his step as he came down for dinner. The funds from his summer let had just been transferred and, for now at least, Cecil was out of the woods. “Money for old rope,” he thought as he poured the drinks.
“So, what were you really doing this summer?” giggled Antonia, his eldest goddaughter, as she handed over an Instagram post tagged #nakedlettings. Cecil’s Zen-like state turned to momentary alarm as he stared at the phone, and was faced with a naked young man engaged in yoga right in front of the family portraits in his candlelit hall. “Oh, papa,” he chided archly. “I said keep an eye on them, not turn a blind eye” – knowing he’d never have grown into the old chancer he was if his father had ever done any different.