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MESSENGER OF TRUTH (Chapter One)
’Good morning, Miss Bassington-'ope. Come on in out of that cold." Billy Beale, Maisie Dobbs's assistant, stood by the door to the first-floor office as Maisie allowed the visitor to ascend the stairs before her.
"Thank you." Georgina Bassington-Hope glanced at the man, and thought his smile to be infectious, his eyes kind.
"I've brewed a fresh pot of tea for us."
"Thank you, Billy, that will be just the ticket, it's brassy out there today." Maisie smiled in return at Billy as she directed Georgina into the room.
Three chairs had been set by the gas fire and the tea tray placed on Maisie's desk. As soon as her coat was taken and hung on the hook behind the door, Georgina settled in the middle chair. There was a camaraderie between the investigator and her assistant that intrigued the visitor. The man clearly admired his employer, though it did not appear to be a romantic fondness. But there was a bond, and Georgina Bassington-Hope, her journalist's eye at work, thought that perhaps the nature of their work had forged a mutual dependence and regard--though there was no doubt that the woman was the boss.
She turned her attention to Maisie Dobbs, who was collecting a fresh manila folder and a series of colored pencils, along with a clutch of index cards and paper. Her black wavy hair had probably been cut in a bob some time ago but was now in need of a trim. Did she not care to keep up with a hairdressing regime? Or was she simply too busy with her work? She wore a cream silk blouse with a long blue cashmere cardigan, a black skirt with kick pleats and black shoes with a single strap across to secure them. It was a stylish ensemble, but one that marked the investigator as someone who set more stock by comfort than fashion.
Rejoining Georgina, Maisie said nothing until her assistant had seen that the guest had tea and was comfortable. Georgina did not want to confirm her suspicions by staring, but she thought the woman was sitting with her eyes closed, just for a moment, as if in deep thought. She felt that same sensation of warmth enter her body once more, and opened her mouth to ask a question, but instead expressed gratitude.
"I'm much obliged to you for agreeing to see me, Miss Dobbs. Thank you."
Maisie smiled graciously. It was not a broad smile, not in the way that the assistant had welcomed her, but the woman thought it indicated a person completely in her element.
"I have come to you in the hope that you might be able to help me...." She turned to face Maisie directly. "You have been recommended by someone we both know from our Girton days, actually."
"Might that person have been Dame Constance?" Maisie inclined her head.
"However did you know?" Georgina seemed puzzled.
"We rekindled our acquaintance last year. I always looked forward to her lessons, and especially the fact that we had to go to the abbey to see her. It was a fortuitous connection that the order had moved to Kent." Maisie allowed a few seconds to pass. "So why did you visit Dame Constance, and what led her to suggest you should seek me out?"
"I must say, I would have had teeth pulled rather than attend her tutorials. However, I went to see her when..." She swallowed, and began to speak again. "It is in connection with my brother's...my brother's--" She could barely utter another word. Maisie reached behind her into a black shoulder bag hanging across the back of her chair and pulled out a handkerchief, which she placed on Georgina's knee. As the woman picked up the pressed handkerchief, the fragrant aroma of lavender was released into the air. She sniffed, dabbed her eyes and continued speaking. "My brother died several weeks ago, in early December. A verdict of accidental death has been recorded." She turned to Maisie, then Billy, as if to ensure they were both listening, then stared into the gas fire. "He is--was--an artist. He was working late on the night before the opening of his first major exhibition in years and, it appears, fell from scaffolding that had been set up at the gallery to allow him to construct his main piece." She paused. "I needed to speak to someone who might help me navigate this...this...doubt. And Dame Constance suggested I come to you." She paused. "I have discovered that there was little to be gained from badgering the police, and the man who was called when my brother was found seemed only too pleased when I told him I was going to talk to an inquiry agent--I think he was glad to get me out of his sight, to tell you the truth."
"And who was the policeman?" The investigator held her pen ready to note the name.
"Detective Inspector Richard Stratton, of Scotland Yard."
"Stratton was pleased to learn that you were coming to see me?"
Georgina was intrigued by the faint blush revealed when Maisie looked up from her notes, her midnight-blue eyes even darker under forehead creases when she frowned. "Well, y-yes, and as I said, I think he was heartily sick of me peppering him with questions."
Maisie made another note before continuing. "Miss Bassington-Hope, perhaps you could tell me how you wish me to assist you--how can I help?"
Georgina sat up straight in the chair, and ran her fingers back through thick, drying hair that was springing into even richer copper curls as the room became warmer. She pulled at the hem of her nutmeg-brown tweed jacket, then smoothed soft brown trousers where the fabric fell across her knees. "I believe Nicholas was murdered. I do not think he fell accidentally at all. I believe someone pushed him, or caused him to fall deliberately." She looked up at Maisie once more. "My brother had friends and enemies. He was a passionate artist and those who expose themselves so readily are often as much reviled as admired. His work drew both accolades and disgust, depending upon the interpreter. I want you to find out how he died."
Maisie nodded, still frowning. "I take it there is a police report."
"As I said, Detective Inspector Stratton was called--"
"Yes, I was wondering about that, the fact that Stratton was called to the scene of an accident."
"It was early and he was the detective on duty apparently," added Georgina. "By the time he'd arrived, the pathologist had made a preliminary inspection...." She looked down at the crumpled handkerchief in her hands.
"But I am sure Detective Inspector Stratton conducted a thorough investigation. How do you think I might assist you?"
Georgina tensed, the muscles in her neck becoming visibly taut. "I thought you might say that. Devil's advocate, aren't you?" She leaned back, showing some of the nerve for which she was renowned. Georgina Bassington-Hope, intrepid traveler and journalist, became infamous at twenty-two when she disguised herself as a man to gain a closer view of the lines of battle in Flanders than any other reporter. She brought back stories that were not of generals and battles, but of the men, their struggle, their bravery, their fears and the truth of life as a soldier at war. Her dispatches were published in journals and newspapers the world over and, like her brother's masterpieces, her work drew as much criticism as admiration, and her reputation grew as both brave storyteller and naive opportunist.
"I know what I want, Miss Dobbs. I want the truth and will find it myself if I have to. However, I also know my limitations and I believe in using the very best tools when they are available--price notwithstanding. And I believe you are the best." She paused briefly to reach for her cup of tea, which she held in both hands, cradling the china. "And I believe--because I have done my homework--that you ask questions that others fail to ask and see things that others are blind to." Georgina Bassington-Hope looked back at Billy briefly, then turned to Maisie once again, her voice firm, her eyes unwavering. "Nick's work was extraordinary, his views well known though his art was his voice. I want you to find out who killed him, Miss Dobbs--and bring them to justice."
Maisie closed her eyes, pausing for a few seconds before speaking again. "You were very close, it seems."
Georgina's eyes sparkled. "Oh, yes, we were close, Miss Dobbs. Nick was my twin. Two peas in a pod. He worked with color, texture and light, I work with words." She paused. "And it has occurred to me that whoever killed my brother may well want to silence me too."
Maisie nodded, acknowledging the comment deliberately added to intrigue her, then she stood up, moved away from the fire and walked across to the window. It was snowing again, settling on the ground to join the brown slush that seeped into shoe leather only too readily. Billy smiled at their guest and pointed to the teapot, indicating that perhaps she might like another cup. He had been taking notes throughout the conversation, and now knew his job was to keep their guest calm and quiet while Maisie had a moment with her thoughts. Finally, she turned from the window.
"Tell me, Miss Bassington-Hope: Why were you so reticent to keep your appointments? You canceled twice, yet you came to Fitzroy Square in any case. What caused you to renege on your contract with yourself on two--almost three--occasions?"
Georgina shook her head before replying. "I have no proof. I have nothing to go on, so to speak--and I am a person used to dealing with facts. There's a paucity of clues--indeed, I would be the first to admit, this looks like a classic accident, a careless move by a tired man using a rather precarious ledge upon which to balance while preparing to hang a work that had taken years to achieve." She paused briefly before continuing. "I have nothing except this." She pressed her hand to her chest. "A feeling here, right in my heart, that all is not as it should be, that this accident was murder. I believe I knew the very second that my brother died, for I experienced such an ache at what transpired, according to the pathologist, to be the time of his death. And I did not know how I might explain such things and be taken seriously."
Maisie approached Georgina Bassington-Hope and gently laid a hand on her shoulder. "Then you have most definitely come to the right place in that case. In my estimation, that feeling in your heart is the most significant clue and all we need to take on your case." She looked at Billy and nodded, whereupon he flipped over a new card. "Now then, let us begin. First of all, let me tell you about my terms and the conditions of our contract."
MAISIE DOBBS HAD been in business as a psychologist and investigator for almost two years, having previously been apprenticed to her mentor since childhood. Blanche Dr. Maurice Blanche, was not only an expert in legal medicine, but himself a psychologist and philosopher who had provided a depth of learning and opportunity that might otherwise have been unavailable to his protégé. Now, with a steady stream of clients seeking her services, Maisie had cause for optimism. Although the country was in the grip of economic depression, there were those of a certain class who barely felt the deepening crisis--people like Georgina Bassington-Hope--which in turn meant that there was still plenty of business for an investigator with a growing reputation. The only dark cloud was one she hoped would remain at a good distance. During the autumn of the previous year, her own shell shock had reared up, resulting in a debilitating breakdown. It was this malaise, compounded by a rift with Blanche, that had led to a loss of trust in her mentor. Though in many ways she welcomed the newfound independence in the distance from him, there were times when she looked back at the rhythm of their work, at the rituals and processes, with an ache, with regret. At the outset of a case, following a preliminary conversation with the new client, Maurice would often suggest a walk or, if the weather was poor, simply a change in the seating arrangement. "As soon as that contract is signed, Maisie, we shoulder the weight of our load, open the gate and choose our path. We must therefore move the body to engage our curiosity again after taking on the task of administrator."
Now, with the contract signed by both Maisie and Georgina Bassington-Hope and poor weather preventing all possibility of a walk, Maisie suggested the trio move to the table by the window to continue the conversation.
Later, after the new client had left, Maisie and Billy would unfurl a length of plain wallpaper across the table, pin the edges to the wood, and begin to formulate a case map of known facts, thoughts, feelings, hunches and questions. As the work went on, more information would be added, with the mosaic eventually yielding up previously unseen connections pointing to the truths that heralded closure of the case. If all went well.
Maisie had already jotted some initial questions on an index card, though she knew that many more would come to mind with each response from her new client. "Miss Bassington-Hope--"
"Georgina, please. 'Miss Bassington-Hope' is a bit of a mouthful, and if we are to be here for any length of time, I would rather dispense with the formalities." The woman looked from Maisie to Billy.
Billy glanced at Maisie in a way that made his discomfort at the suggestion obvious.
Maisie smiled. "Yes, of course, as you wish. And you may call me Maisie." Though she was not at all sure she was really open to such an informality, her client's preference must be honored. If she were relaxed, information would flow more readily. Both women now looked at Billy, who blushed.
"Well, if you don't mind, I think I'll stick to your proper name." He looked at Maisie for guidance, then turned to the woman again. "But you can call me Billy if you like, Miss Bassington-'ope."
Georgina smiled, understanding the predicament she had placed them in. "All right, then, Billy--and how about just 'Miss B-H' for me."
"Right you are. Miss B-H it is."
Maisie cleared her throat. "Well, now that we have that little conundrum out of the way, let's get on. Georgina, first I want you to tell me as much as you know about the circumstances of your brother's death."
The woman nodded. "Nick has--had--been preparing for this exhibition for some time, over a year, in fact. His work was becoming very well known, especially in America--there are still a fair few millionaires and they are buying up everything from poor old Europe, it seems. Anyway, Stig Svenson of Svenson's Gallery on Albemarle Street--he's more or less Nick's regular dealer--offered him a special exhibition that comprised both earlier and new works. Nick jumped at the chance, especially as he thought the gallery would be the ideal place to unveil a piece he has been working on, one way or another, for years."
Maisie and Billy exchanged glances, and Maisie interjected with a question. "Why was it perfect for his work? What did the gallery have that made him so excited?"
"Stig had just had the whole place ripped apart and painted--and Nick had already made it clear that he needed a certain amount of room for the new pieces." Georgina held out her arms to help describe the gallery. "Essentially, there are two sort of square bay windows at the front--they're huge--with a door in between, so you can clearly see in from the street, though you cannot view each individual piece. Svenson has--as you might imagine--a very modern, Scandinavian idea of how to use room. It's very bright, every inch of his gallery modeled to display a piece to its advantage. He's had the latest electric lighting installed, and fittings that direct beams in such a way as to create shadows and light to draw buyers in." She paused, to see if her audience of two were keeping up. "So, at the far end there is one huge blank wall almost two floors high for larger pieces, then on both sides a galleried landing, so that you walk in as if you are walking into a theater, only there are no seats and you are not on a gradient--and it's completely white. You can go to either side, up stairs to the landings, but there are screens to divide the room in sections so that you never actually see the whole pièce de résistance--if there is one--until the end. All very clever."
"Yes, I see." Maisie paused, tapped her pen against the palm of her left hand, then spoke again. "Would you describe his 'pièce de résistance' for us?"
Georgina shook her head. "Actually, I can't. As far as I know, no one had seen it in its entirety. He was very secretive about it. That was why he was at the gallery until late--he wanted to construct it himself." She paused thoughtfully, her hand on her mouth, then she looked up. "The only thing I know about it is that it was in several pieces."
"But I thought you said he was working on it when he died. Wouldn't it still be at the gallery?"
"Sorry, what I meant was that he was working on scaffolding, placing the many anchors that would secure the pieces when he brought them in. He had them in storage in London--frankly, I have no idea where."
"Who would know where? Svenson?"
She shook her head. "That's a bit of a mystery at the moment. No one can find the key, and no one knows the address. We just knew he had a lock-up or something somewhere. I know he wanted it all to be kept under wraps until the last moment so that it would draw even more attention--I think he imagined the gasps, if you know what I mean."
"I see, and--"
"The trouble is," Georgina interrupted, "he had already promised most of the collection--except that main piece--to a collector of his work, sight unseen."
"You mean, someone made an offer without first viewing the collection?"
"They'd seen preliminary sketches, but not of the centerpiece."
"Was it a significant offer?"
The woman nodded. "Some tens of thousands of pounds, to my knowledge."
Maisie's eyes grew large and, glancing at Billy, she thought he might pass out.
"...For a painting?"
Georgina Bassington-Hope shrugged. "It's what people will pay if they think the work will dramatically increase in value. And the buyer has the money, had already paid a deposit, which Svenson retains until delivery."
"Who was the buyer?"
"A man called Randolph Bradley. He's an American living in Paris, though he also has a home in New York. One of those back-and-forth people." She ran her fingers through her hair and looked away.
Billy rolled his eyes. "I think I'll put the kettle on again." He stood up and left the room, taking the tea tray with him. Maisie said nothing. Though she understood his annoyance at such amounts of money passing hands in such troubled times, she was dismayed that he had felt it necessary to leave the room. Maisie made small talk, a series of barely consequential questions, until he returned.
"Several pieces? So, was this 'piece' like a jigsaw puzzle, Miss B-H?" Billy set a cup of hot tea in front of Georgina and the customary tin mug in front of Maisie. He placed his own cup on the table and took up his notes again. Maisie was relieved that he had been thinking as he made tea, and not just fuming with resentment.
Georgina nodded. "Well, yes, you could say that. Before the war, Nick was studying art in Europe. He was in Belgium when war was declared, and he returned home very quickly." She shook her head. "Anyway, in Belgium he became very interested in the triptych form."
"Triptych?" Maisie and Billy spoke in unison.
"Yes," continued Georgina. "A triptych comprises three parts, a center main panel with smaller panels on either side. The stories depicted on the smaller panels give more detail to the scene in the main panel, or augment it in some way."
"Bit like the mirror on a dressing table, eh, Miss B-H?"
The woman smiled. "Yes, that's right--though a stained-glass window in a church might be a better description. Triptychs are often religious in nature, though many are quite gory, with scenes of war, or execution of someone important at the time--a king, perhaps, or a warrior."
"Yes, I've seen some in the museums. I know what you're talking about." Maisie paused, making a note to come back to Nicholas Bassington-Hope's background as soon as she had a sense of the circumstances of his death. "So, let's continue with his death--he was at the gallery--what happened, as far as the inquest revealed?"
"There was scaffolding against the main wall. All of the smaller, less important pieces had been placed, and Nick was working on the main wall, as I told you. The scaffolding was there so that he could situate the pieces correctly."
"And would he do this alone?"
"Yes, that was his plan. Though he had help with the scaffolding."
"Wouldn't Svenson have arranged for workers to set up the scaffolding?"
"No." Georgina paused. "Well--yes, usually he probably would, but this time he didn't."
She shook her head. "You don't know Nick. Has to do it all himself, wanted to ensure that his scaffolding was in the right place, that it was strong and that there was nowhere the work could be compromised by the structure."
"And he had help?"
"Yes, his friends Alex and Duncan helped."
"Alex and Duncan?" Maisie glanced at Billy to ensure that he remained attentive. If they both took notes, then nothing would be missed as they studied the cache of information later.
"Alex Courtman and Duncan Haywood. Both artists, Nick's neighbors in Dungeness, where he lived. His other friend, Quentin Trayner, had a twisted ankle and couldn't help. He'd fallen while bringing a boat ashore." She paused briefly. "The three of them always helped one another out. They were all artists, you see."
"And they all lived at Dungeness--in Kent? It's a bit bleak and isolated, isn't it?"
"And freezing cold at this time of year, I shouldn't wonder!" Billy interjected.
"There's quite an artists' haven there, you know. Has been for a few years now. In fact, when the Rye to Dungeness railway closed down--I think in '26 or '27--they sold off the railway carriages for ten pounds apiece, and a few artists bought them to set up as houses and studios on the beach." Georgina paused and her voice cracked, just slightly, so that both Maisie and Billy had to lean forward to better hear her. "I called it the 'place where lost souls were beached.'" Georgina leaned back in her chair. "They were men of an artistic sensibility who had been drafted by the government to do its dirty work, and afterward all four of them were left feeling sick about it for years."
"What do you mean?" asked Maisie.
Georgina leaned forward. "Nick, Quentin, Duncan and Alex met at the Slade, that's how they forged such a strong friendship. And they had all seen service in France. Nick was wounded at the Somme and was sent to work in propaganda after he'd healed--he was no longer fit for active duty. Alex worked there too. Then Nick was sent back over to Flanders as a war artist." She shook her head. "It changed him forever, that's why he had to get away after the war, to America."
"Yes, he said he needed lots of space around him."
Maisie nodded and flicked back through her notes. "Look, Miss--Georgina--I suggest we complete our notes on the actual events of your brother's death today, then let us make another appointment to talk about his history. That will give you time to gather other items that might be of interest to us--journals, sketchbooks, letters, photographs, that sort of thing."
"So..." Maisie stood up, placed her index cards next to her teacup and walked to the other side of the table to look across at the snow-covered square. "Your brother, Nick, was working late, preparing the gallery's main wall to hang a piece--pieces--of his art, which no one had seen yet. At what time did he arrive to do this work? Who else was with him? And what time, according to the pathologist, did he die--and how?"
Georgina gave a single nod as she sipped her tea, set her cup down again and began to answer Maisie's questions as directly as they were asked. "He had been there all day, since dawn, hanging the pieces. They had set up the scaffolding later in the day, according to Duncan and Alex, who said he told them to return to my flat around half past eight--it wasn't unusual for Nick to bring friends to stay at my flat and they had turned up the night before with their knapsacks. My home is a convenient London bolt-hole for all sorts of people." She paused, took another sip of tea, and went on. "The gallery caretaker, Arthur Levitt, said that he looked in on Nick around nine and told him he was ready to go home. Nick replied that he had a key and would lock up."
There was silence for a moment, a hiatus that Maisie allowed to linger in the air as the narrator sought strength to recount the loss of her brother. Georgina Bassington-Hope pulled at the handkerchief Maisie had passed to her earlier and shifted in her chair.
"Detective Richard Stratton from Scotland Yard was on my doorstep at eight the following morning, with news that there had been an accident. I don't think he usually deals with accidents, but came out all the same as he was on duty when the alarm was raised by Mr. Levitt when he came in and found Nick...."
Maisie spoke softly. "Can you tell me how he described finding your brother?"
"On the floor below the scaffolding. Part of the rail was broken and it looked as if Nick had leaned back a bit too far while checking the position of some anchors against a guide that he had already drafted on paper. His neck had been broken and it is thought that he died instantly when he hit the stone floor, probably around ten-ish, according to the pathologist." She shook her head. "Damn him for being so secretive! It was all this business of wanting there to be a big ooh-ahh when the triptych was revealed to the world that killed him. If he hadn't been there alone..."
"Georgina, let's summon a taxi-cab to take you home." Sensing a weariness in her client that was not physical but rooted in her soul, Maisie leaned across and placed her hand on Georgina's shoulder. "We'll speak again tomorrow--and perhaps we should meet at the gallery, if it isn't too difficult for you. Would ten be convenient?"
Georgina nodded, feeling the now familiar warmth flood her body again as Maisie touched her. Billy stood up and pulled on his overcoat before making his way out to Tottenham Court Road to hail a taxi-cab. Maisie helped Georgina into her coat and picked up the collection of index cards to pen some additional notes.
"Everything you've described points to an accident. The intensity of your sense that it was not a misstep by your brother that caused his death is compelling to me, which is why I am taking on this case. However, when we meet tomorrow, and in our future meetings--for there will be a few--I would like to know if you are aware of anyone who might harbor an intensity of feeling about your brother, or his work, which might have led to a desire to see him dead, either by accident or a deliberate act."
"Yes, I've been thinking about that, I--"
"Good. Now then. One final question today--may I have details of your family? I will need to meet them."
"Of course, though don't expect to make too much headway--they do not share my feelings and would be horrified if they knew I had come to an inquiry agent." She buttoned her coat as they heard the door slam and Billy make his way back up the stairs. "My parents live on an impossibly large estate just outside Tenterden in Kent. Noelle--'Nolly'--my older sister, lives with them. She's forty now, lost her husband in the war. She's nothing like the rest of us, very proper, very county, if you know what I mean. She's a justice of the peace at the local magistrates' courts, sits on all sorts of local committees and gets involved in politics; you've met the sort--bit of a know-all. And she heartily disapproves of me. My brother Harry is the baby, the child who came along when everyone least expected it, according to Emsy--that's Emma, my mother. Harry is twenty-nine now and a musician. Not classical, no, much to Nolly#8217;s dismay he plays the trumpet in dark places where people have fun and enjoy themselves."
Billy came into the room, a coating of fresh snowflakes across his shoulders. "Taxi-cab's outside, Miss B-H."
"Thank you, B--, Mr. Beale." Georgina Bassington-Hope shook hands with Billy, then addressed Maisie. "See you at ten tomorrow morning at Svenson's Gallery on Albemarle Street." She paused for just a moment, plunging her hands inside her coat sleeves once again. "I know you will find out the truth, Maisie. And I know you will find his killer, of that I am sure."
Maisie nodded, moved as if to return to her desk, then turned back. "Georgina, forgive me--one last question, if I may."
"You were obviously close to your brother, you've said as much, but, were you on good terms when he died?"
The woman's eyes reddened. "Of course." She nodded her head. "We were close, so close that we never had to explain ourselves to each other. We just knew about each other, to the point of perceiving what the other one was thinking, even when we were miles apart." Georgina Bassington-Hope looked at Billy, who opened the door to accompany her downstairs to the waiting taxi-cab.
When Billy came back to the office, he was shaking his head. "Well, what do you think about all that, Miss?"
Maisie was now seated at the paper drawn across the table to form the case map, working with colored pencils to add notes to a small but growing diagram. "It's too soon to say, Billy, too soon to even begin to draw conclusions." She looked up. "Come and help me pin this paper onto the table."
Billy smoothed his hand across the paper to remove folds before pinning the edges and studied his employer's preliminary notations as he worked. "What do we do next?"
Maisie smiled. "Well, here's what we'll be doing this afternoon--we're off to the Tate to learn a bit more than we know already about art."
"Come on, Billy, an hour or two spent in contemplation of the great world of art will do us both the power of good on this gray old day."
"If you say so, Miss. You never know, you might find something nice for them bare walls of yours!" Billy patted the case map as he pressed in the last pin, then moved from the table and collected Maisie's coat, which he held out for her.
"I think the bare walls are there to stay for a while, Billy. Furniture is top of my list for the new flat at the moment." Maisie laughed as she buttoned her coat, collected her hat, scarf, gloves and document case. "Now then, let's go and find a triptych or two. With a bit of luck we'll find an amenable curator who will educate us about the people who can afford to buy such things without even looking at the goods or balking at the price!"
MESSENGER OF TRUTH. Copyright 2006 by Jacqueline Winspear.