Read an Excerpt
It was a golden afternoon in late June, a perfect day for cricket. The sun burned in a cloudless sky, and the breeze was barely sufficient to stir the slender, pale skirts of the women as they stood on the grass at Fenner’s Field, para- sols in hand. The men, in white flannels, were relaxed and smiling.
St. John’s were batting and Gonville and Caius were fielding. The bowler pounded up to the crease and sent the ball down fast, but a bit short and wide. Elwyn Allard leaned forward, and with an elegant cover drive, dispatched the ball to the boundary for four runs.
Joseph Reavley joined in the applause. Elwyn was one of his students, rather more graceful with the bat than with the pen. He had little of the scholastic brilliance of his brother, Sebastian, but he had a manner that was easy to like, and a sense of honor that drove him like a spur.
St. John’s still had four more batsmen to play, young men from all over England who had come to Cambridge and, for one reason or another, remained at college through the long summer vacation.
Elwyn hit a modest two. The heat was stirred by a faint breath of wind from across the fenlands with their dykes and marshes, flat under the vast skies stretching eastward to the sea. It was old land, quiet, cut by secret waterways, Saxon churches marking each village. It had been the last stronghold of resistance against the Norman invasion eight and a half centuries ago.
On the field one of the boys just missed a catch. There was a gasp and then a letting out of breath. All this mattered. Such things could win or lose a match, and they would be playing against Oxford again soon. To be beaten would be catastrophic.
Across the town behind them, the clock on the north tower at Trinity struck three, each chime on the large A-flat bell, then followed the instant after on the smaller E-flat. Joseph thought how out of place it seemed, to think of time on an eternal afternoon like this. A few feet away, Harry Beecher caught his eye and smiled. Beecher had been a Trinity man in his own years as a student, and it was a long-standing joke that the Trinity clock struck once for itself and once for St. John’s.
A cheer went up as the ball hit the stumps and Elwyn was bowled out with a very respectable score of eighty-three. He walked off with a little wave of acknowledgment and was replaced at the crease by Lucian Foubister, who was a little too bony, but Joseph knew his awkwardness was deceiving. He was more tenacious than many gave him credit for, and he had flashes of extraordinary grace.
Play resumed with the sharp crack of a strike and the momentary cheers under the burning blue of the sky.
Aidan Thyer, master of St. John’s, stood motionless a few yards from Joseph, his hair flaxen in the sun, his thoughts apparently far away. His wife Connie, standing next to him, glanced across and gave a little shrug. Her dress was white broderie anglaise, falling loosely in a flare below the hip, and the fashionable slender skirt reached to the ground. She looked as elegant and feminine as a spray of daisies, even though it was the hottest summer in England for years.
At the far end of the pitch Foubister struck an awkward shot, elbows in all the wrong places, and sent the ball right to the boundary. There was a shout of approval, and everyone clapped.
Joseph was aware of a movement somewhere behind him and half turned, expecting a grounds official, perhaps to say it was time for lemonade and cucumber sandwiches. But it was his own brother, Matthew, who was walking toward him, his shoulders tight, no grace in his movement. He was wearing a light gray city suit, as if he had newly arrived from London.
Joseph started across the green, anxiety rising quickly. Why was his brother here in Cambridge, interrupting a match on a Sunday afternoon?
“Matthew! What is it?” he said as he reached him.
Matthew stopped. His face was so pale it seemed almost bloodless. He was twenty-eight, seven years the younger, broader-shouldered, and fair where Joseph was dark. He was steadying himself with difficulty, and he gulped before he found his voice. “It’s . . .” He cleared his throat. There was a kind of desperation in his eyes. “It’s Mother and Father,” he said hoarsely. “There’s been an accident.”
Joseph refused to grasp what he had said. “An accident?”
Matthew nodded, struggling to govern his ragged breathing. “In the car. They are both . . . dead.”
For a moment the words had no meaning for Joseph. Instantly his father’s face came to his mind, lean and gentle, blue eyes steady. It was impossible that he could be dead.
“The car went off the road,” Matthew was saying. “Just before the Hauxton Mill Bridge.” His voice sounded strange and far away.
Behind Joseph they were still playing cricket. He heard the sound of the ball and another burst of applause.
“Joseph . . .” Matthew’s hand was on his arm, the grip tight.
Joseph nodded and tried to speak, but his throat was dry.
“I’m sorry,” Matthew said quietly. “I wish I hadn’t had to tell you like this. I . . .”
“It’s all right, Matthew. I’m . . .” He changed his mind, still trying to grasp the reality. “The Hauxton Road? Where were they going?”
Matthew’s fingers tightened on his arm. They began to walk slowly, close together, over the sun-baked grass. There was a curious dizziness in the heat. The sweat trickled down Joseph’s skin, and inside he was cold.
Matthew stopped again.
“Father telephoned me late yesterday evening,” he replied huskily, as if the words were almost unbearable for him. “He said someone had given him a document outlining a conspiracy so hideous it would change the world we know—that it would ruin England and everything we stand for. Forever.” He sounded defiant now, the muscles of his neck and jaw clenched as if he barely had mastery of himself.
Joseph’s mind whirled. What should he do? The words hardly made sense. John Reavley had been a member of Parliament until 1912, two years ago. He had resigned for reasons he had not discussed, but he had never lost his interest in political affairs, nor his care for honesty in government. Perhaps he had simply been ready to spend more time reading, indulging his love of philosophy, poking around in antique and secondhand shops looking for a bargain. More often he was just talking with people, listening to stories, swapping eccentric jokes, and adding to his collection of limericks.
“A conspiracy to ruin England and everything we stand for?” Joseph repeated incredulously.
“No,” Matthew corrected him with precision. “A conspiracy that would ruin it. That was not the main purpose, simply a side effect.”
“What conspiracy? By whom?” Joseph demanded.
Matthew’s skin was so white it was almost gray. “I don’t know. He was bringing it to me . . . today.”
Joseph started to ask why, and then stopped. The answer was the one thing that made sense. Suddenly at least two facts cohered. John Reavley had wanted Joseph to study medicine, and when his firstborn son had left it for the church, he had then wanted Matthew to become a doctor. But Matthew had read modern history and languages here at Cambridge, and then he joined the Secret Intelligence Service. If there was such a plot, John would understandably have notified his younger son. Not his elder.
Joseph swallowed, the air catching in his throat. “I see.”
Matthew’s grip eased on him slightly. He had known the news longer and had more time to grasp its truth. He was searching Joseph’s face with anxiety, evidently trying to formulate something to say to help him through the pain.
Joseph made an immense effort. “I see,” he repeated. “We must go to them. Where . . . are they?”
“At the police station in Great Shelford,” Matthew answered. He made a slight movement with his head. “I’ve got my car.”
“Does Judith know?”
Matthew’s face tightened. “Yes. They didn’t know where to find you or me, so they called her.”
That was reasonable—obvious, really. Judith was their younger sister, still living at home. Hannah, between Joseph and Matthew, was married to a naval officer and lived in Portsmouth. It would be the house in Selborne St. Giles that the police would have called. He thought how Judith would be feeling, alone except for the servants, knowing neither her father nor mother would come home again, not tonight, not any night.
His thoughts were interrupted by someone at his elbow. He had not even heard footsteps on the grass. He half turned and saw Harry Beecher standing beside him, his wry, sensitive face puzzled.
“Is everything . . .?” he began. Then, seeing Joseph’s eyes, he stopped. “Can I help?” he said simply.
Joseph shook his head a little. “No . . . no, there isn’t anything.” He made an effort to pull his thoughts together. “My parents have had an accident.” He took a deep breath. “They’ve been killed.” How odd and flat the words sounded. They still carried no reality with them.
Beecher was appalled. “Oh, God! I’m so sorry!”
“Please—” Joseph started.
“Of course,” Beecher interrupted. “I’ll tell people. Just go.” He touched Joseph lightly on the arm. “Let me know if I can do anything.”
“Yes, of course. Thank you.” Joseph shook his head and started to walk away as Matthew acknowledged Beecher, then turned to cross the wide expanse of grass. Joseph followed him without looking back at the players in their white flannels, bright in the sunlight. They had been the only reality a few moments ago; now there seemed an unbridgeable space between them.
Outside the cricket ground Matthew’s Sunbeam Talbot was parked in Gonville Place. In one fluid motion Joseph climbed over the side and into the passenger seat. The car was facing north, as if Matthew had been to St. John’s first and then come all the way through town to the cricket ground looking for Joseph. Now he turned southwest again, back along Gonville Place and finally onto the Trumpington Road.
There was nothing to say now; each was cocooned in his own pain, waiting for the moment when they would have to face the physical proof of death. The familiar winding road with its harvest fields shining gold in the heat, the hedgerows, and the motionless trees were like things painted on the other side of a wall that encased the mind. Joseph was aware of them only as a bright blur.
Matthew drove as if it demanded his entire concentration, clutching the steering wheel with hands he had to loosen deliberately now and then.
South of the village they turned left through St. Giles, skirted the side of the hill over the railway bridge into Great Shelford, and pulled up outside the police station. A somber sergeant met them, his face tired, his body hunched, as if he had had to steel himself for the task.
“Oi’m terrible sorry, sir.” He looked from one to the other of them, biting his lower lip. “Wouldn’t ask it if Oi din’t ’ave to.”
“I know,” Joseph said quickly. He did not want a conversation. Now that they were here, he needed to proceed as quickly as possible, while his self-control lasted.
Matthew made a small gesture forward, and the sergeant turned and led the way the short distance through the streets to the hospital mortuary. It was all very formal, a routine the sergeant must have been through scores of times: sudden death, shocked families moving as if in a dream, murmuring polite words, hardly aware of what they were saying, trying to understand what had happened and at the same time deny it.