The first novella, The Carfitt Crisis, is about Sir Brian Carfitt and his wife Marion. She receives an unexpected house guest in the shape of her niece, nicknamed Pony, from America, who arrives unannounced and accompanied by an enigmatic man known only as Engram, whom she has met on the way.
The crisis referred to in the title is complex and both Brian and Marion are involved in different ways. Marion is distressed because she has just learned of the death of a man she had been in love with and lived with, on and off, for two years; she believes her husband doesn't know about this and consequently has a mistaken view of her personality. Brian, meanwhile, is on the verge of financial ruin.
Engram stays overnight and helps Brian and Marion to gain a measure of self-knowledge and so to find a way through their respective crises. He also helps Pony, who he has discovered is not what she claims to be. He evidently possess remarkable powers: he can manipulate people's consciousness by a kind of telepathic hypnosis; he belongs to an esoteric group to whom he is due to give a talk the next day. His ideas and behaviour seem to be inspired by G.I. Gurdjieff, the Greek-Armenian mystagogue who influenced Priestley in earlier years. In less skilful hands Engram might easily have seemed too good to be true, a magician capable of anything; but Priestley avoids this by giving him some flaws and mistakes of judgement.
The short story, Underground, concerns Ray Aggerstone, an unpleasant man who is about to betray both his wife and his mother. He is in a train on the London Underground Northern line, reflecting with satisfaction on how he has managed to deceive both women about his plans; they think he is preparing a place for them in Nice but really he is decamping to Rio with all their money. He is taking the train to give them the final details about how they will all meet up in Nice, but he finds out that his journey is not going to be how he expects it will. The train is on a different line that is taking it deeper and deeper. I was reminded of a poem, "Down", by Robert Graves.
The second novella, The Pavillion of Masks, describes a single day in the lives of a group of people in an imaginary German principality in 1847. It is a romantic comedy which is given an extra dimension by Priestley's claim that it is his dramatisation of the letters and diaries of the main characters, supposed to have really existed.
There are three of these: Cleo Torres, Countess of Feldhausen; Nicolo Novelda, an Italian who is her adviser and confidant though not her lover; and Suzanne Belsac, a Frenchwoman in late middle age who is companion and housekeeper to Cleo and is devoted to Nicolo, whom she thinks of as a son.
Cleo has come from a humble background but has made her way in the world thanks to her intelligence and beauty. She is living in the Pavillion courtesy of Karl, the ruler of the principality, whose mistress she is, but she is making plans for a new life in Paris. In this she is being assisted by Nicolo, but he has plans of his own which he has not divulged to anyone.
Throughout the course of the day various people call on Cleo for reasons of their own. The last to appear is Prince Karl. In the evening alarming news arrives: a mob of ruffians is approaching, threatening to attack the Pavillion because they disapprove of Cleo and her relation with Prince. It seems possible that this will be the prelude to a revolution. It is, of course, Nicolo who sorts matters out and in so doing brings his own plans to success.
This is a charming story written with a great deal of wit and many nice touches.