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Provence, South of France, 1926
He studied her sleeping face for the last time.
She was lying peacefully on her back, her fair hair spreading in ripples over the pillow. Warm-gold by day,
the waves now gleamed pale silver, all colour bleached away by the moonlight. Her features also were drained and only the lips still showed a trace of emotion. They were slightly open and uptilted, perhaps in a suggestion of remembered and recent passion. He smothered the distasteful notion.
He felt his resolve waver and was alarmed to acknowledge a moment of indecision. He reminded himself that this beauty was his – his to spare or to destroy – and a rush of exaltation swept away the slight uncertainty. It had been a wobble, no more than a weakness imposed on him by convention. Convention? Even at this moment of approaching ecstasy he paused to consider the word. From the Latin, of course. ‘A coming together’. In agreement and common consent. Well, convention would never direct him.
It was his nature to step away from the crowd, to walk in the opposite direction, to think his own rebellious thoughts and to translate those thoughts into action. He would be true to his nature. He would assert his birthright.
He leaned closer until his face was only inches above the still form. He had a fancy that, if he pressed his lips to hers,
he might catch her dying breath. The thought revolted and fascinated him in equal measure and he lifted his head. He took a deliberate step backwards. He would not touch her.
No part of his body would make contact with hers. To test his resolve he contemplated trailing a lascivious finger along her smooth throat as others had, of allowing that finger to ease over the left collar bone until it encountered the imperfection of a tiny mole half-hidden by a fold of her white gown. His hand remained safely in his pocket. He would look. Admire. Hate.
He stood for a moment, a shadow among shadows. The garment he’d put on had been carefully chosen: an oldfashioned hunting coat (English tailoring, he did believe),
it had been abandoned on a hook by the door in the cloakroom by some visiting milord, years, possibly decades,
ago. The thick grey tweed was a perfect camouflage – it even had a hood – and, essential for his purpose, not one but two concealed poacher’s pockets. His fine nose was revolted by the smell of decay that lurked in the tweedy depths, still stained with the blood of long-dead creatures,
but they accommodated the very special equipment he had needed to carry, covertly, along the corridors.
He played with the notion of taking out the heavy-duty military torch and lighting up her last moments, but an innate caution made him dismiss the idea. The moonlight was all the illumination he could wish for. A resplendent
August moon shone through the uncurtained windows,
coating the alabaster-fair features with an undeserved glaze of sanctity.
The Moon. Generous but demanding deity! He adored her. She was his friend, his accomplice. He welcomed the white peace and forgiveness she brought at the end of each day’s red turmoil and sin. Like some sprite from a northern folk tale, he came to life in the dark hours. His eyes grew wide, his thoughts became as clear and cold as the moon herself. His senses were sharpened.
He listened. He turned abruptly as a distant owl screeched and claimed its prey. A farm dog across the valley responded with a half-hearted warning howl and then fell silent, duty done. But from within the walls there was no sound. His stretched senses detected nothing though he could imagine the drunken snores, the unconscious mutterings,
the hands groping blindly for a pitcher of cool water as his fellows slept, divided from him by several thick walls and a courtyard. He would be undisturbed.
The weight in his right pocket banged against his thigh and prompted his next move. He took out the heavy claw hammer and ran a hand over the blunt metal head; with the pads of his fingers he tested the sharpness of the upcurving,
V-shaped nail-wrench that balanced it at the rear.
He required the tool to perform well in both its capacities.
It would smash with concentrated force and, with a twist of his hand, would lever and rip. It would be equal to the task. But there would be noise. He took a velvet scarf from his neck and wound it securely around the hammer head to muffle the blows.
He was being overcautious. No one would respond,
even if the sounds cut through their wine-fuelled stupor. A
strange light might possibly have excited curiosity and investigation by some inquisitive servant. No, he didn’t discount a dutiful response from one of these domestics if he were careless enough to draw attention. The live-in staff were well chosen, adequately paid and highly trained. So,
no wandering lights. But a few distant creaks and bangs in a crumbling old building went, like the dog’s howl,
unheeded by everyone.
He’d savoured the moment for too long. Enough of musing.
Enough of gloating over her loveliness. Time to move on. Time to clear this filth from his path to make way for a worthier offering.
He took out the fencing mask he’d thought to bring with him and put it over his face. He wanted no tell-tale scratches raising eyebrows at the breakfast table. He pulled up the hood of the hunting coat to cover his hair. There would be no traces of this night’s activity left clinging to his person, attracting the attention of that sharp-eyed girl who cleaned out his room.
He was ready.
As a last flourish, he muttered cynically an abbreviated prayer for a lost soul in Latin: ‘Quaesumus, Domine, miserere
famulae tuae, Alienorae, et a contagiis mortalitatis exutam, in
aeternam salvationis partem restitue. Have mercy on the soul of your maidservant, Aliénore, and free her from the defilement of her mortal flesh . . .’
As he murmured, his supple fingers ran with satisfaction along the smooth wooden handle of the ancient hammer.
He’d used it often and knew its strength. The muscles of his arms were accommodated to its use as those of a tennis player to his racquet, and they responded now with familiar ease as he swung the weight upwards over his head and brought it crashing down into the centre of the delicate face.
France, August 1926
‘To wake or not to wake the pest?’ was Joe’s silent question.
Would she really welcome an elbow in the ribs only half an hour after sinking so ostentatiously into sleep? He glanced again at the suspiciously still form in the passenger seat next to him and the half of the face that was visible. The pure profile and slight smile were deceptively angelic, and he decided to leave her to her daydreams. But a road sign had just announced that they were a mere five kilometres north of the town of Valence. Here they were,
booming on south at a speed the Morris Oxford cabriolet could never have reached, let alone sustained, on English roads. Joe Sandilands was no car-worshipper, but he could almost have persuaded himself that it (he refused to call this ingenious arrangement of metal ‘she’) was enjoying swallowing up the huge French distances.
The day was hot; the hood was down. Avenues of plane trees lined the route, offering, for mile after mile, a beneficent shade.
The girl in the passenger seat was fast asleep – or pretending to be. You could never tell with Dorcas. Joe was quite certain that she frequently rolled up her cardigan and pushed her head into it, facing away from him, the minute they got into the car, deliberately to avoid making polite conversation.
And that suited Joe.
Was she being considerate? Or was she bored out of her mind by him? He decided – bored. A seasoned police officer more than twice her age would never be an ideal companion for a fourteen-year-old English girl, however well travelled she might be. Lord! How old was he these days? Thirty-three! But at least no one had yet taken him for her father and Joe was thankful for that.
‘My uncle Joseph Sandilands. Commander Sandilands of Scotland Yard,’ was all the introduction Dorcas was prepared to supply when she felt their travelling arrangements called for clarification. But it was all the reassurance people seemed to need. The suggestion of a blood relationship and an impressive title put Joe beyond reproach or even question. Particularly when he hurried to add,
allowing just the briefest flicker of martyrdom to flit across his agreeable features, that he was escorting his niece down to her father who was spending the summer at the Château du Diable – or whatever its pantomime name was – in
Provence. Dropping her off as he himself flighted south to the delights of the Riviera. As he’d jokingly told his sister
Lydia who’d engineered the unwelcome escort duty, he would be held up as an example from Calais to Cannes of self-sacrificing unclehood. And so, to his surprise, it had proved. The slight deceit, embarked on in the interests of an oversensitive English concern for the proprieties, had gone unchallenged and undiscovered.
Uncle Joseph! The word made him feel old. In his world,
uncles were elderly and rather decrepit survivors of the war before the last. They sat in armchairs, smiling benignly at their descendants, muttering of Mafeking, their lower limbs rugged up in tartan. After a shifty glance to make certain Dorcas still had her eyes closed, Joe pushed his sun goggles on to his forehead, tilted his head and squinted critically into the useful mirror he’d had fixed to his windscreen in Lyon to keep an eye on traffic behind. They were all there on his face: the lines and the crow’s feet sketched in by a tough life lived mostly outdoors. And undeniably on the advance. But at least his grey eyes were taking on an interesting brilliance as his face grew darker in the southern sun. He narrowed his eyes, trying on an air of menace and mystery. All too easily achieved when the left side of your face was slightly distorted. He’d never found the time to have the battlefield surgery corrected and now it was too late – he’d grown into his shrapnel-scarred features. He wore the damage like a medal – with a silent and bitter pride.
‘For goodness’ sake, Joe! Book yourself into St Mary’s and have that repaired,’ his sister Lydia constantly urged.
‘Surgeons are so much more skilled these days. They can rebuild whole faces – your little piece of mis-stitching would hardly begin to test them. You’d be in and out in no time and we’d have our handsome old Joe back again the moment the bandages came off.’ She’d waggle a minatory finger at him and add: ‘And never forget what they say!
“The face is the mirror of the soul.” Aplatitude, I agree, but a sentiment I’ve always put some store by. It’s deceitful of you to present this distorted funfair reflection of yourself to the world.’
But he’d resisted. Quibbled. Procrastinated. In eight years of police work, he’d discovered the power of intimidation he could exert by presenting his battered left side to the suspects he was interrogating. It spoke of battles survived, pain endured, experience acquired. With a turn of the head, he could trump the villainy of any man he’d confronted across the interview table. ‘You think you’re tough?’ he challenged silently. ‘How tough? As tough as
this?’ Men who’d evaded the draft found themselves wrong-footed, fellow soldiers recognized an officer who’d clearly led from the front and accorded him a measure of silent respect.
Joe underlined the effect of the drama he was assessing in his rear-viewing mirror with the cruel grin and slanting flash of white teeth of a music-hall villain. Not quite
Ramon Novarro in Scaramouche but, even so – not bad! Not bad at all! He could use that sardonic look at the casino or strolling along the promenade in Nice. He recalled, with a stir of excitement, the words his superior in the War Office had used when encouraging him, for Reasons of State, to undertake this journey to France: ‘I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, Sandilands, that female companionship – if that’s what you’re after – is available and of a superior style in France.’ The Brigadier’s remark was uncharacteristically indiscreet, unwittingly arousing. Joe had been surprised,
amused and then dismissive but the titillating notion had stayed with him. His foot unconsciously increased its pressure on the accelerator. Yes, he was eager to be down there, sipping his first pastis under a blistering
Riviera sun, eyeing pretty women parading about in tennis skirts and swimming costumes. And if they were enticing your ear with a French accent – so much the better.
‘Ah! Bulldog Drummond races south, pistol in his hip pocket, ready for a shoot-out with Le Bossu Masqué,’
commented a lazily teasing voice. Dorcas gave a showy yawn to indicate she was open to conversation. ‘Only one thing wrong. Pulling a face like that, you really ought to be driving a Sports Bentley. You don’t cut much of a dash in a Morris.’
‘Two things wrong. My female companion – that’s you –
ought to be bound and gagged and wriggling helplessly on the back seat with her head in a bag.’
‘Le Bossu’s wicked accomplice whom you’ve taken hostage?’
‘Very likely. Female of the species being what she is and all that . . .’
Dorcas looked about her. ‘Oy! Didn’t I ask you to be sure and tell me when we got to Valence?’
‘I was just about to wake you, though I can’t imagine why I should bother. It’s not much of a place and we’re driving straight by it.’
‘Family tradition! Father always marks our passage through the town by shouting, “A Valence, le Midi com-
mence!” Though at the speed my family plods along in a horse-drawn caravan we have more time to enjoy the moment. Listen, Joe! In a minute or so, if you slow down a bit, you’ll hear them. The cicadas. The sound of
Joe smiled. She was right. In a strange way, everything behind them was of the north: green and quiet. The snowclad
Alps still funnelled their cold breath down the valley of the river the road was following. But the land ahead was tilted towards the sun. The atmosphere grew suddenly more brilliant, the rush of air warmer. The vegetation was changing and he welcomed the sight of the first outlying umbrella pines and the narrow dark fingers of cypress trees leaning gently before the wind, beckoning them on.
Soon there would be olives fluttering the silvery underside of their leaves at him.
He took his foot off the accelerator and, hearing his first cicada, decided to stand in for her absent father, Orlando.
The girl had little enough in the way of family life; the least he could do was reinforce the few happy memories she chose to share with him. ‘Le Midi commence!’ he shouted.
‘Here comes the South!’
Satisfied, the ritual complete, Dorcas breathed in the changing perfumes and asked for the umpteenth time: ‘Are we nearly there, Joe?’ to annoy him.
He decided to bore her back to sleep again with a recitation of distances, speeds and map references but a rush of good humour cut him short. ‘No! Miles to go before bedtime.
Big place, Provence. I was planning to spend the night in Avignon then set off into the hills straight after breakfast to track down your pa. Silmont? That’s the place we have to find. Outskirts of the Lubéron hills. Olivesilvery
Silmont?’ he speculated. ‘I wonder if there’ll be vines growing there? And lavender. Honeysuckle. All those herbs . . . wild thyme . . . rosemary . . . oregano,’ he murmured.
She was feigning sleep again. Botany also was a bore,
Joe fought down a spurt of irritation with the child’s father. As a friend, Orlando Joliffe came in for a good measure of regard, even affection, from Joe. Joe found –
and was surprised to find – that he admired his skills as an artist but he also enjoyed the man’s company. He appreciated his intelligence and his worldly ways. When Joe made himself evaluate the relationship which would have been frowned on in his own staid professional circle, he came reluctantly to the conclusion that there was in
Orlando a quality of raffish insouciance, a childlike delight in sensual indulgence that struck a chord in Joe’s being,
that spoke to something long buried under layers of
Yes, as a drinking companion there was none better but,
judged as a father, Orlando failed on all counts to satisfy.
He wasn’t uncaring exactly but careless, ready to leave the upbringing of his four motherless children to anyone he could persuade or pay or blackmail into attending to their needs. When Joe’s sister, in dire emergency, had shown neighbourly concern and rashly offered to take Dorcas under her wing, Orlando had accepted with shaming alacrity.
Lovely, good-hearted Lydia! Joe felt a pang of guilt whenever he thought of his sister’s involvement with the wretched Orlando’s family circus.
It had all been Joe’s fault.
In a moment of concern for the family’s situation, he’d handed over Lydia’s telephone number. ‘This here’s my sister’s number. You’ll see she lives close by. She has children of her own and she’s a trained nurse. You can depend on her. Give her a ring if there should be an immediate problem and you can’t raise me.’
And Dorcas had taken him at his word. With lifechanging results for several people, not least poor Lydia.
Appalled by the circumstances of the children’s hand-tomouth,
bohemian existence Lydia had swept them all away to the safety of her own comfortable home. Dorcas had stayed on longer than the rest, and, with her uncivilized ways of going on, she’d become a project for Lydia, her upbringing a social duty. ‘Give me that girl for two years and I’ll have her fit to present to the Queen at a
Buckingham Palace reception,’ she’d been unwise enough to declare in Orlando’s hearing. He’d hurried to take her up on the offer and Dorcas had become a fixture in the household. And Joe had acquired ‘a niece’.
Months had passed but ‘Auntie’ Lydia was still a long way short of her target, Joe reckoned. As his brother-in-law commented, ‘Buckingham Palace be blowed! I wouldn’t trust that scallywag to behave herself at a Lyon’s Corner
But then, on their journey through France, the child had surprised Joe. Lydia’s training and preparation had not been in vain, it seemed. Dorcas had put on gloves and –
alarmingly – silk stockings and behaved impeccably for the family at the Champagne Château Houdart where they’d stayed near Rheims. He glanced at the shiny dark head with its newly acquired and very fashionable fringed bob and smiled a smile that was both sad and tender. The wretched girl, he did believe, had fallen in love. With the highly suitable and totally admirable son of the house.
Aged all of sixteen, Georges Houdart had seemed equally smitten and the two had been inseparable for the length of their stay.
It was all too premature, Joe feared. A scene from Romeo
and Juliet in preparation? Joe grinned as he happily dismissed the thought. These two were old beyond their years; they’d both, in their different ways, grown up taking too much, too early, on young shoulders. But this too had happened on his watch. Perhaps he should have a word with Orlando when they finally tracked him down?
Issue some sort of warning? Urge a belated paternal concern? ‘Well, here’s your daughter back, old man. No –
no trouble at all . . . In fact she’s been most helpful. And here she is – delivered safe and sound in wind and limb,
as you see, but – have a care – there may be unseen wounds in the region of the heart . . .’ No. Joe knew it would be a waste of time. He’d wait and report back to
Lydia when he returned to Surrey. Lydia would know whether to speak out or be silent.
With her uncomfortable ability to intercept and respond to his thoughts, Dorcas, eyes still closed, was muttering:
‘Do you think Orlando’ll notice I’ve changed a bit? So many things to tell him when we get to him.’
‘Yes, lots to tell Orlando,’ Joe agreed. ‘But I was wondering,
Dorcas, when – if, indeed, ever – you were going to come clean with me and confess all. Would this be a good moment to tell me what you need to tell me?’
Her eyes popped open and he felt an undignified rush of triumph to see he’d surprised her.
‘Whatever are you talking about? Confess? To you?
You’re a policeman not a priest!’
He grinned. ‘I think it’s entirely possible that you’ll be needing me in both capacities before we go much farther.
Do you want me to spell it out? Would it ease your confession if I were to say: I know what you’re up to!’
Joe left a space for the inevitable outburst of denial to run its course but there was a long silence.
‘When did you guess?’ Her voice was suddenly uncertain.
‘I don’t guess. I work things out. It’s what I do. But, to answer your question: it occurred to me before we left
Surrey. All that nonsense about not wanting to go to
Scotland with Lydia’s family for the holidays? You were given every chance to come south with your father and his menagerie when he set off at the start of the summer but you refused. And I had noticed you’d been devouring
Walter Scott’s novels one after the other and you’d got together a whole collection of hill-walking clothes from
Lillywhite’s – from boots to tam-o’-shanter and everything in between. You were looking forward to Scotland but the moment you discovered that – just for once – I wasn’t going north with Lydia but motoring down to spend a month in Antibes with an old army mate, you changed your plans. You used every possible means of persuading my sister to talk me into bringing you along with me. Out went the woollies – sandals and shorts were chucked into a bag. Walter Scott was put back on the library shelves and Alphonse Daudet and something coyly entitled So
You’re Going to Provence? were done up with string and put out ready for the journey. Not one of my most challenging puzzles, Dorcas! For some reason, you wanted to be here with me in Provence. Am I getting this right? Say something!’
She nodded dumbly, unable to come up with a riposte.
Joe paused, giving her time to make her own explanation.
She turned on him angrily. ‘Crikey! You must be a difficult man to live with! Sneaking about looking in wardrobes . . . checking labels! Going through my books!
You’ve a nerve!’
Again, he waited.
‘Well, all right.’ She took a moment to collect her thoughts, considering him through eyes narrowed in speculation. He knew the signs and prepared himself to hear one of her easy fabrications but her confession when it came was halting and clumsy, the pain in her voice undeniable. ‘Yes. It seemed too good a chance to waste. I’ve been trying for years, Joe. Every time we’ve come south with my father, for as long as I can remember, I’ve tried.
With no co-operation from Orlando. He doesn’t want me to succeed. He really doesn’t. I’ve searched and searched from Orange down to Les Saintes Maries on the coast. I’ve talked with gypsies and men of the road . . . I’ve checked every new grave in every cemetery. No luck. There’s a limit to what a child can do even down here where there’s more freedom to come and go and talk to anyone you meet.
Life’s not so . . . so corseted . . . as it is in England. But even so, it’s not easy. And now I’m getting older . . .’ Dorcas looked uncomfortable for a moment, ‘there will be places I
can’t go to, people I just can’t interview without running a risk . . . I’m sure you can imagine. Gigolos and white slavers and bogeymen of that description. I know how the world works . . . I’m not stupid!’
‘So you thought you’d latch on to a sympathetic chap who can go unchallenged into these dangerous and shady places and ask the right questions on your behalf –’
‘A nosy fellow with a good right hook!’ she interrupted.
‘And one who speaks French of a sort? That’s always useful.’
‘Mmm . . . these valuable attributes come at a price.’ Joe nodded sagely. ‘I warn you there’ll be a forfeit to pay.
‘Agreed.’ She accepted without thought, not bothering to ask what the fee would be. She knew he was just making pompous noises and he knew that she would break any agreement that proved not to suit her anyway.
He pushed on with his pretence: ‘So long as you’re hiring my detective services, I think I should insist on a clear client’s instruction from you. I wouldn’t want to discover you were expecting me to track down that silver bangle you dropped down a drain in Arles the year before last.’
Dorcas smiled. ‘No. I want you to find something much more precious, Joe. Something I lost thirteen years ago. I
want you to find my mother.’