Read an Excerpt
Paris, 21st May, 1927
"I know Monsieur will have a most enjoyable evening."
The young woman who'd shown him to his seat offered him a smile at once shy and knowing. She held out her hand for his tip and slipped it swiftly away with a murmured word of thanks. The solitary Englishman hesitated, eyeing the pair of gilt chairs snuggling cosily together in the empty box with sudden misgiving.
He detained her with his call as she turned to dart away, and offered his ticket stub again for her inspection. "Some mistake, I think?"
The girl took the ticket and looked with exaggerated care at the number. She was an ouvreuse--yes, that's what they called them over here, he remembered. Though what they actually "opened" was a mystery to the Englishman . . . unless you counted the opening of those little bags into which their conjurer's fingers made the notes and coins disappear.
"No, there is no mistake, monsieur. This is indeed your box number." She tilted her head and the smile appeared again, this time without the softening element of shyness. "You have the best seat in the house." Her eye ran over the handsome features, the imposing figure, taking in the evening dress, correct and well-cut. She remembered his generosity and paused in her scurrying to cast a glance, amused and complicitous, at the second chair. "A little patience!" she teased. "I'm sure it will not be long before monsieur has company." She took the time to add: "There are ten minutes to go before the curtain rises. And it is no longer fashionable to be late. Certainly not for this show."
She whisked away in a flutter of black silk and a tantalising trace of rather good perfume, leaving Sir George Jardine standing about in something of a quandary.
He had an increasing feeling of unease. He was displaced. He ought not to be here. But the momentary touch of vertigo was chased away by a stab of impatience with himself. With the man he had become over the years. Would he ever be free to lay aside the burden of his training? Years of forethought, political skirmishing, and--yes--out-and-out skulduggery, had imbued him with a watchfulness that was not lightly laid aside, even when he was thousands of miles away from the arena of his intrigues. Here he was, in the pleasure capital of Europe; it was time to let go the reins and leave the bloody Empire to look after itself.
For at least the next six months in fact. George had gone on working after many would have retired, the guiding force, the continuity, behind the last two Viceroys of India. He'd been looking forward to getting away from Delhi, leaving behind the heat, the scandals, the undercover chicanery. It had been a good idea to break his journey at Marseille and take the Pullman up to Paris. Yes, no doubt about that. A week or two of relaxation and stimulation, before he did his duty by his ageing family back home, had been hard-earned.
A summer in Surrey. He needed to fortify himself. Experience the latest sensations . . . work up a few stories . . . bank a few topics of conversation. At home in England one couldn't go on for long talking about India. It pained him to see eyes glaze over when anything other than a passing reference to the subcontinent was made. At the mention of Delhi, people started to twitch and to look anxiously over your shoulder for rescue, but just let drop that you'd been in Paris and they clustered round for news. George determined to have fascinating things to report.
Before taking his seat, he patted his pockets with a familiar sensation of expectation. His opera glasses, cigar-lighter, wallet, spare handkerchief and a roll of currency were present and correct. Along with a folded envelope.
Bit of a puzzle, this.
It had been handed to him the morning after his arrival in Paris--an envelope addressed to him in a careful English hand, care of the Ambassador Hotel. There was nothing in it but a scribbled note and a theatre ticket. For the Theatre des Champs-’lysees. The clerk at reception had no knowledge of its delivery. No one, George could have sworn, knew that he was to be in Paris this evening. And who the hell was "John"? Which "John" of his acquaintance--and there were many--had, in black ink written:
George, old man--welcome to Paris! Thought you wouldn't be able to resist this. Tickets are like gold dust, so make sure you enjoy yourself. But--there you are--I owe you one! Yrs, John.
A mystery? George had no time for mysteries. His first reaction was of irritation rather than puzzlement. Why on earth couldn't the wretched fellow have appended his surname? Unless he was so well known to him, it would be considered unnecessarily stiff? A moment's further reflection and he had it. With a passing embarrassment (was he getting old? losing his grip?) he remembered he had a cousin called John--though he'd always called him Jack--and that cousin was, indeed, in Paris, engaged in some clandestine way in the diplomatic service. And, yes, George did recall that the younger man owed him a favour. Quite a favour, in fact. A ticket to the theatre--though the star was the most talked-of, most scandalous woman in the world--was a pretty frivolous offering as a counterbalance. Bad form. George didn't at all object to being sent the ticket but he felt it was . . . ah . . . undignified to mention the moral debt at all. What are influential relatives for, if not to ease your path through the career jungle? You accept the leg-up, are duly grateful and the matter is never referred to again. Well--all would, doubtless, be revealed. Jack would pop up, late as usual, and they'd have a laugh together, slightly uneasy to catch each other enjoying such a spectacle as was promised. George was glad he'd had the sense to order a tray of whisky and soda for the interval. They'd enjoy a glass and his cousin would know that he was expected.
And here he was, the sole occupant of what in London would have been called the Royal box, the target of lazily _curious glances from the audience gathering below. A public figure and constantly on parade, George was unperturbed. He automatically made a gesture to adjust his already perfectly tied black tie, smoothed his luxuriant grey moustache and eased his large frame into the spindle-legged gilt chair further from the entrance, thinking to allow easy access for his cousin when he appeared.
He settled to stare back boldly at the audience, conveying amused approval. This gathering risked outshining the performers he thought, so brightly glittered the diamonds in the front stalls and the paste gems in the upper gallery. The gowns glowed--silks and satins, red and mulberry and peach apparently the favoured colours this season, standing out against the stark black and white of the gentlemen's evening dress. His nose twitched, identifying elements of the intoxicating blend of tobaccos curling up from the auditorium: suave Havana cigars, silky Passing Clouds favoured by the ladies and, distantly, an acrid note of rough French Caporals.
And every seat taken, it seemed. Definitely le tout Paris on parade this evening. George checked his programme again, wondering if he'd misunderstood the style of entertainment on offer. A turnout like this was exactly what you'd expect for the first night of a ballet--he'd been part of just such an audience, tense with anticipation, in this theatre before the war. He'd seen Nijinsky leap with superhuman agility in The Rite of Spring, delighting some, scandalising others. George had counted himself delighted to be scandalised. On this stage, Anna Pavlova had thrilled the world with her performance of The Dying Swan. And tonight's crowd was seething with expectation of an equally significant display. All was movement: faces turned this way and that, hands fluttered as friends were greeted across the breadth of the hall, places were hurriedly swapped and the unmistakable musical rise and fall of a chirruping French crowd on pleasure bent swirled up to him.
The sounds of such conviviality made him for a moment conscious of his solitary state. Unused to being alone, and certainly never unaccompanied at an evening's entertainment, George swallowed the joking aside he would have murmured to his aide-de-camp. He felt in his pocket and took out a pair of ivory opera glasses. The audience was freely scanning him; he'd return the attention and search out a familiar face among them. The odds were that he knew someone down there. Might note them, wave and see them in the bar after the show perhaps?
A poor haul. His glasses passed swiftly over the barely _remembered features of someone he'd been at school with and didn't care to see again. He was probably mistaken . . . a passing resemblance. And that was it.
He was on the point of giving up when a stirring in the box opposite caught his attention. An usherette had entered to show the occupants to their seats. An inquisitive application of the glasses confirmed that the girl was his pretty ouvreuse. Obviously i/c boxes for the nobs. A favoured position, most likely. He scanned the scene, watching as a young lady followed her in, clutching her blue and gold programme. The newcomer smiled back at her escort, trailing behind. She waited for him, turning her head in a regal gesture as he tipped and dismissed the attendant and went to stand by a chair, pausing until he came forward to hold it ready for her. As he sat down by her side, she threaded a white arm through his in a familiar way. Ignoring the man, George trained his glasses on her. What a corker! Blonde and flamboyantly pretty. And what quantities of make-up young girls wore these days, he reflected. The tiny pair of glasses was almost concealed in his great hand and he discreetly trained them lower to take in her figure. He smiled. What should he report back to the ladies of Simla regarding the latest fashions? They were certain to ask. He would say that necklines appeared to be retreating southwards while hems were advancing rapidly northwards. Disastrous collision inevitable.
An attractive colour, though, the scrap of silk the goddess opposite was wearing. Colour of a peacock's throat. It glinted in an exotic way, flashing two colours over the void at him. George sighed. Lucky bastard--whoever he was--to have this girl on his arm! He eased his glasses sideways to take in her companion.
Christ Almighty! George lowered them hurriedly. He dropped his programme deliberately and bent to retrieve it, head lowered, using the seconds floundering about on the carpet to decide what he should do next. This could prove to be, socially, a jolly awkward moment. What bad luck that the only other person he recognised for certain in the whole theatre should be seated exactly opposite him. In clear view. Lieutenant-Colonel Somerton, now a knight of the realm if George had it right, and one-time soldier. Their last meeting had been decidedly an unpleasant one.
But surely the scoundrel would, even after all these years, be lying low, not flaunting himself in a box in full view of the cream of European society? George was assailed by sudden doubt. He risked an eye over the edge and looked again, taking his time. The black hair was as thick as ever, with not a trace of grey as far as George could make out, and the moustache, always the man's affectation, still in place and looking, he thought, rather outdated. The hawk-like features which had struck such terror in the ranks were less sharp and he watched in surprise as the face he had always _perceived as humourless softened into a smile when his lady-friend whispered in his ear. Well, well! Steamroller Somerton! George had thought never to encounter him again. And now what? Greet him at once or spend the rest of the evening avoiding his gaze?
He made up his mind. Straightening again and glancing around, he made a show of catching sight of his old acquaintance for the first time and tilted his head slightly in surprise. With a short, stiff nod, unaccompanied by a smile, he acknowledged him and held his eye until the man responded similarly. George made no attempt to extend his courtesy to the female companion. The absent Lady Somerton, he felt, wherever she was (and it most certainly wasn't Paris), would not have considered it appropriate.
This was one of the dangers you ran in a European capital. Away from the hot-house world of India where you couldn't smile at a girl without running the risk of rumour, you suddenly felt free to turn your long-held fantasies into reality. How appalling for the chap opposite to see that he'd been recognised--caught out--and by a man he had no reason to call his friend. Deeply embarrassing. But it occurred to George that any sympathy he was prepared to expend on the situation would be wasted on a rogue like Somerton. No, it was the girl on his arm who deserved his concern.
He glanced at her again, suddenly shrewd and objective. All appearances were that she was a professional lady-friend, hired by the night. French, he would have guessed, judging by the liveliness of her hand gestures and her confident chatter. Well able to take care of herself--or summon up some protective chap from her murky organisation to do it for her. George was not familiar with the arrangements in Paris. In Simla or Delhi, had such a situation arisen, an aide would have been dispatched and the problem would have dissolved before his eyes.
But he was troubled. He found he could not dismiss the little miss opposite as a world-weary and experienced . . . what did they call a tart of this quality in France? Poule de luxe, that was it! Below all her surface glamour he sensed that she was young--barely twenty, he would have guessed. And, whether dubiously employed or a free agent, she was someone's daughter, for God's sake! Had the silly little thing any idea of what she was getting herself into? It would take more than a tap on the cheek with a fan to control Somerton if he turned nasty. George shuddered. The man, he recalled with a rush of foreboding, was rotten to the centre of his being. He couldn't say "soul"--there was no evidence that he had one. George chewed his lip in irritation.
He should have had the man shot when he'd had the chance.
He stirred in his seat, checked his watch and considered his options. Did he have time to negotiate the lengths of corridor chock-a-block with latecomers on a dash over to the box opposite? And what would he say when he arrived there with the performance about to start? He pictured himself crashing into the box, breathless, perspiring, and in the grip of a Quixotic urge. A ridiculous figure. He had no authority, civilian or military, over Somerton . . . he would have to appeal to the girl directly. But how would he find the words to warn her? There'd be accusations followed by argument, protests, denials. Your remarks are slanderous! I'll see you in court, Jardine! And--heaven forbid!--suppose the girl turned out to be something entirely innocent such as . . . his niece? George watched surreptitiously as Somerton leaned close and whispered something in her ear, lifting his head slowly and trailing his pomaded moustache lingeringly over her cheek. Almost retching with disgust, George concluded this was no niece.
He pressed down on his armrests and the chair wobbled under him as he prepared to take action. A moment later he sank back in frustration. He never embarked on any course unless his strategy was clear, his tactics well worked out, the outcome predictable and in his favour; the reason he'd survived for so many years when others had not. And he was not about to abandon the careful habits of a professional lifetime on account of a stab of juvenile sympathy. George could foresee the result of any irruption of his into the box opposite. At the best, he'd be ejected by a hurriedly _summoned bouncer; at the worst, he'd be trapped over there with the pair of them until the interval.
His conflict was cut short by an arresting fanfare of notes on a trumpet followed at once by a blaring blue jazz riff from the orchestra pit. He was aware of a simultaneous dimming of the electric house lights. The blonde girl across the way opened her mouth in anticipation and wriggled forward in her seat with the eagerness of a six-year-old at a pantomime. George sighed and came to a decision. In the seconds before the light faded, he did what he could. Oblivious of the hush descending on the crowd, he rose to his feet and slipped on his white gloves. He sought out and held the eye of his opposite number.
Imperious, imperial and impressive, over the width of the auditorium, Sir George Jardine delivered a command.