A beautiful and traumatized young Russian woman turns herself in at the British consulate in Russia, begging to be sent to relatives in England and rescued from the mysterious tragedies of her past. But is she what she seems, or is she a deadly spy on a secret mission?
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London, October 1920
'Are you sure this is the place, cabby? It looks rather grand...'
'St Katharine's Square, number 1, Guv'nor, just like you said. They're all grand in this neck of the woods. This is a Royal Borough, sir. But if you don't fancy it, we can always move on.'
'No. Wait here. I'm in no hurry.'
The passenger in naval uniform peered again through the gloom of an October evening, taking in the magnificence of the four-storey mansion.
'Well I may be in a hurry,' the cab driver objected. 'Fog's coming up.'
'A pea-souper, eh? I've been away for years. I've forgotten what they look like.'
'Pea-souper – nothing! This one's going to be a brown windsor, judging by the smell of it. Straight up off the river,' the grumbling went on. 'It's to be hoped they've got the acetylene flares alight round Trafalgar Square or I'll never get you back to the station, Guv.'
The naval man was barely listening, all his attention on the stuccoed, balconied façade. Electric lights penetrated the growing darkness, offering a welcoming orange glow behind drawn curtains. In the upper floors, lamps or candles were moving between rooms as staff came off or went on duty.
'Well at least there's someone at home,' he said, awkwardly throwing a pebble into the silence ponding between him and the young woman by his side.
She made no reply.
He took her hand and gave it an encouraging squeeze. 'Nearly there, Miss Petrovna! Three thousand miles and three years – but you've made it!' He spoke with a cheerfulness he couldn't feel.
Sensitive as he'd become to his companion's moods, the captain interpreted the barely audible response as a mew of distress and his resolve began to crack. He'd avoided saying farewell - he was embarrassed by emotional leave-takings, especially those made in public - and there was nothing more to add.
Even so, he launched into one last speech. 'Look... Miss... um... Anna... There's still time to change your mind. You don't have to do this yet. Come home with me.' After the slightest pause, he resumed: 'My wife would make you very welcome. Joan is a fine woman – she'd care for you. Get you properly on your feet. Our family doctor is no slouch and he'd rally round, I know. It needn't be for long. Just as long as you choose.'
She turned reproachful eyes on him and shook her head in regret.
The captain realised with a shock that he'd experienced the same devastating rejection years before. How many? Well over twenty. He'd been no more than a boy in short trousers. He'd been tramping the moors with his father when they'd come across an injured otter. A very young female. His indulgent old pa had allowed him to carry the animal home in his jacket. He'd cared for her, fed her, watched her grow strong and mischievous. And always closing his ears to the concerned parental advice: 'Wild creatures, otters! Never think you can house-train 'em! Taking little things, of course, but you shouldn't get fond of 'em.'
The day came when she escaped from her pen, invaded his mother's kitchen and wrecked it.
He hadn't waited for his parents to tell him his duty. It was clear. He'd taken her back into the wild himself, choosing a spot where he knew the fishing was good and there was a thriving otter colony. On the river bank he'd whispered goodbye, never really thinking she would leave him.
Pain had gathered and lodged in his young throat like a ball of india-rubber, threatening to suffocate him, as he watched her leap with delight into the water, dive, surface, dive again, swimming away from him. He'd turned, swiping at the tears in his eyes with the sleeve of his rough sweater and he'd begun to blunder back home across the meadow.
A piercing chirp made him stop and turn and there she was behind him, on the bank again, wet fur comically spiked, staring at him with intelligent black eyes. Black eyes he could have sworn were asking where on earth he thought he was sloping off to. The moment he started back towards her, calling her name, she turned, yipped in satisfaction and dived into the water.
He never saw her again.
In a busy and danger-filled life, he'd scarcely thought about her until this moment of parting raised the same choking pain.
'Very well. Message received, cabby! Look, wait here with the young lady, will you, while I go and announce us. I'll be a few minutes.'
The door was opened by a butler as he approached.
'Captain Swinburne? Good evening, sir. Her Highness is expecting you. Will you come up to the drawing room?'
He followed the butler down the spacious hallway and up the stairs. They made towards an open door through which filtered smoky, autumnal music – a Chopin nocturne, he thought. When they entered, the pianist abandoned her piece and came smiling to greet him. A striking-looking Russian woman in her fifties, dark hair streaked with grey, she made a reassuring impression on him: friendly and, yes, he would have said - motherly. Somehow, he hadn't expected – motherly. Or small.
Sherry was offered and politely refused. He declined to take a seat by the fire.
Facing him across the rug in front of the fireplace, the princess came straight to the point. 'You have her, Captain? Our Anna?'
'Miss Petrovna is waiting in the taxi, Your Highness, and eager to see you. I wanted to have a word with you in private before I leave her in your hands.'
She listened intently as he moved through his account. He confirmed that the girl had been found collapsed and almost dead on the doorstep of the British consul in Murmansk in Northern Russia. On recovering sufficiently, she had begged to be given a passage to Britain where she knew members of her family were living. The consul had contacted Swinburne aboard his ship which was patrolling the Arctic seas off shore. He'd agreed to take her on board and bring her back to Portsmouth where he was due to call in for a refit in the autumn.
He was quite certain that none of this was fresh news to the Russian lady but she listened intently to every word, seeming to value his first-hand report.
He told her how pleased the ship's doctor had been with the patient's progress. The best food the boat could provide, fresh air, exercise and the stimulation of a late summer's cruise along the coast of Norway had almost restored her to full physical health. The captain was careful to explain that the ship had been conveying back home a consular family who had gladly lent one of their maids as nurse cum chaperone so all the proprieties had been observed.
The Russian acknowledged this with a tilt of the head and an understanding smile.
But it was the girl's mental state that he needed to lay out for her future guardian, he stressed. 'She has suffered unbelievable hardship... loss... torture would not be too strong a word... unremitting squalor for three years. Anyone less strong and tenacious of life would not have survived. But the work is not yet finished - it will be some time before she's fully recovered. It's possible that the services of an alienist might be called upon with advantage.' A radical suggestion but the lady seemed not to be offended. She even nodded in acceptance and Swinburne felt emboldened to press his point. 'There are physicians in London with certain skills acquired in the war... Anna's condition is in some ways similar to those I have witnessed for myself in men experiencing the prolonged terrors of the battlefield. And, survivor that she is, she deserves the appropriate treatment. I would like you to be aware of this. I will not leave her in any situation that I do not judge to be congenial and capable of responding to her condition.'
He knew he was going too far. His stewardship was officially at an end; he had to recognise the superior authority of the noble lady to whom he was daring to dish out advice and demands. But Captain Swinburne was not a man to retreat from a position he'd taken up, whether his feet were on the deck of a gunboat or on a silken rug in a douce London drawing room.
She looked up at him sharply, scanning his weather-beaten features and standing firm before the challenge in his very English blue eyes.
He steeled himself to receive the set-down he'd merited.
But the princess's response when it came was thoughtful: 'Captain, it occurs to me that losing your support could constitute yet another blow to Anna's well-being.'
'I did what I could. Believe me, ma'am, it was her choice to break the bond we have established.' The words stretched between them, vibrating with a resentment he had not intended. He hurried to add: 'But an encouraging sign, I'm sure you'll agree. She's ready to move forward. She recognises now that she has a future and I do believe she is making plans for it.' He broke off, unwilling to say more and indicated that he was ready to bring her in.
As he passed the grand piano, Swinburne's attention was caught by a photograph, the one at the forefront of a cluster of silver-framed portraits arranged on the shining surface. He exclaimed and went to examine more closely a group of five or six earnest-looking young women dressed in nurse's uniform, a flutter of angels gathered in a semi-formal pose around a bed in a hospital ward. The wounded soldier at the centre of their attention looked suitably overawed.
'There she is! That's Anna! Good Lord! She actually was a nurse! So much she didn't tell me...'
Responding to the invitation in the Russian's expression, he smiled, eyes on the photograph. 'One of my crew was careless enough to cut his leg to the bone on a day when our doctor was ashore in Trondheim. They brought him to me, dripping blood and swooning and Anna, who was with me on deck, snapped out of her torpid state and had the chap sedated, stitched up and bandaged with all the skill of a medic in no time. Saved the leg, I reckon.'
The lady chuckled. 'She was always a fine needlewoman! But none of these girls was truly a nurse, you know. Amateurs all, some more capable than others. Some with decorative merit only. You're looking, Captain, at the contents of the topmost drawer of the Russian aristocracy doing their bit in wartime for their country. The Empress Alexandra herself led by example and floated through the wards in cape and wimple dispensing comfort. Though I ought not to disparage their efforts – they meant well and, in Anna's case, acquired a genuine skill they say. But, Captain... you do well to pick her out amongst so many beauties and all wearing an unflattering starched head-dress...?'
The question was lightly put but Swinburne was a man sensitive to the slightest change in wind and current. He picked up an underlying tension. Was he being quizzed in some way? Had the photograph, prominently placed as it was, been set there deliberately as some kind of test? He didn't doubt it. The captain was straightforward. He couldn't be doing with traps and subtleties. And he could understand the lady's deeper concerns. His reply came at once.
'Be assured, Ma'am. I'd know her face anywhere. It's the line of the nose – like a Greek statue... and the dark eyebrows – they have the sweep of a gull's wing. She's the one on the far left. I'd no idea this was her world.'
The Russian who had been tugging at the pearls at her throat in some suspense, sighed with relief at his identification and stopped her fidgeting. She came to stand at his side, looking at the photograph with him, relaxed now and companionable. Whatever test she'd just administered – he seemed to have passed it and, puzzled, he listened as she made further confidences. 'Yes, Captain. That is indeed our Anna. My poor dead cousin Peter's daughter. I held her in my arms the day she was born.'
He was pleased to note in her voice the tremble of an emotion she could no longer hold back, the tears gathering in her eyes, the furtive hunting in her sleeve for a handkerchief. She accepted the crisp square of linen he had instantly to hand and put it to use with grace and murmured thanks. After a moment, she spoke again more brightly. 'As a child, Anna spent many a summer with us in the Crimea... she will feel at home here with me now. But I share your dismay and wonder at a world so abruptly and tragically torn from us. Well connected as she was, Anna would have made a good marriage. She could have had her pick of the finest young men of Europe. Probably not royalty but a count at the very least... a duke perhaps? Sadly now all dead or dispersed and she herself ruined beyond any hope of...'
She suppressed the alarming thought and her tone became crisp. 'But then... that is all past and we must look, as you say, to her future. You may leave her with us in total confidence. I have heard your words and understood the deeper concerns on which you are tactfully silent. I say again – I will provide the care she needs.'
Swinburne had heard the same tone from admirals and generals. There was only one acceptable answer: 'Yes, sir. Of course, sir.' This tiny, decisive woman he had no knowledge of and no reason to trust, had, unaccountably, got under his defences. He nodded his superfluous agreement. 'Yes, ma'am. Of course, ma'am,' he said and he smiled as he spoke.
Swinburne bowed and made to leave.
'Wait, Captain!' She hesitated for a moment then picked up the photograph and handed it to him. 'If you will keep it for your eyes alone you may have this – some slight reward for your care. But be discreet! We aristocrats all have a price on our heads still and are pursued. London is full of ruthless men. Not a few of them, our enemies.'
As he took it from her, mumbling his thanks, he caught a flash of indulgence and pity in her eyes. She'd guessed his secret in minutes. Time he was gone.
The two women ran into each other's arms exclaiming softly in delighted recognition. Swinburne skirted silently around them in the hallway, glad enough to hear:
'Anna! My dear girl! At last! We have you safe!'
In the outburst of tears and sobs that followed, they didn't hear him leaving.
He was blameless. As innocent as the obliging bird that gobbles down the inky, sweet berry of the deadly nightshade then flies off unwittingly to disperse the seed, Captain Swinburne had just dropped off a deadly cargo in a fertile corner of London.
He prepared to move on.
'We're finished here, cabby. Back to Piccadilly while you can still see the road.'
He shouldn't have looked back.
A last glance through the window showed him Anna. She'd come outside again and was standing motionless, neither waving away nor beckoning back, watching him leave. The fog was coming down and he couldn't make out her face but, in his imagination, he saw her dark otter's eyes following him as the taxi drew away.
Cheyne Walk, London. August. 1922
Joe Sandilands had grown out of the habit of packing. In India, his many journeys had been eased by the silent and efficient attentions of a bearer. And now, six weeks after his return, he was ashamed to find he'd almost lost the knack.
In irritation, he left his suitcase in the middle of the living room floor, gaping open in readiness for the inevitable afterthoughts. These swiftly followed as he cruised about his room, his eye lighting on things without which he couldn't possibly survive a long weekend in the country. As he passed his bookshelves he tweaked from the ranks the Wodehouse he hadn't had time to read since his return. He threw it in. A packet of Freiburg and Treyer cigarettes followed. There would be boxes full of Turkish or Virginian available to guests on every gleaming table at the great house he was about to visit but he never liked to be seen helping himself. He paused and considered. Could it be interpreted as an insult to one's host – taking one's own supplies?
The ludicrous question betrayed the level of his anxiety concerning this jaunt. He defiantly chucked in another packet. He followed it with a bag of mint humbugs.
Glad to be distracted by a peremptory hoot from the river, he went to stand at the window looking down on the restless surface of the Thames and listened while the bells of Chelsea Old Church struck the hour. Six o'clock. Cocktail time. His sister Lydia, a stickler for punctuality, would be getting back from her shopping expedition at any moment. Time to go down and help her with her bags. There would be bags! And the hand-operated mechanism of the lift, he knew, terrified her, though, independent girl that she was, she would never summon help. Joe started guiltily as he heard her upstairs already and letting herself into the flat.
She called out a greeting and dropped a cascade of packages and hat boxes onto the sofa. Responding to Joe's raised eyebrows: 'Just a few things,' she said. 'The rest are being delivered to Surrey.' Lydia kicked off her shoes and, cursing gently about the traffic in Sloane Street, came to join him at the window. Joe poured out a gin and tonic and handed it to her. They listened for a moment in companionable silence to the swash and rustle of a tug boat towing a flotilla of barges upstream into the glare of the westering sun.
'I love this time of day,' Joe said, sipping his dry sherry.
His sister looked at him in disbelief. 'Isn't it time you found somewhere better than this?' she asked. 'Tiny rooms you can only get up to in a dangerous, wheezing old lift? An attack of vertigo every time you look through the window? Lot's Road power station on one side, smoky tugs going up and down the river all day – and night too as far as I can see... Joe – you're living in a coal hole!'
'It suits me,' Joe said defensively. 'I like the river. From this distance. Nobody knows where I am. I can get a bit of peace and quiet. And, anyway, this place seems to suit you well enough too – handy for Harrods and always a spare room to be had when the sales are on. What more could a girl want?'
'A little less of the bachelor austerity, is what!' Lydia put down her glass and moved around the room switching on lamps and plumping up cushions. 'Your Mrs Jago only cleans this place for you – you can't expect her to add any decorative touches. Why don't you let me... Ah! Getting ahead with your packing, I see?' She made for the open suitcase. 'I'll help you.'
Always a mistake to let an older sister help you with your packing.
Joe reckoned that the damage had been done, the precedent set, when he was a boy and going off to school for the first time. At that moment of uncertainty he'd been grateful for a bossy girl counting handkerchiefs, refolding his shirts and confiscating his cache of marbles. But today, the twenty-nine year old, six foot Commander at Scotland Yard that he had become resented the attention. He decided to do a bit of commanding.
'Do leave off, Lydia! I'm only going away for a weekend in the country.'
Lydia wasn't listening. Up to the elbows stirring about amongst his things, she'd pounced on an alien element. 'A Cerebos salt tin? What's this doing hiding amongst your dress shirts, Joe?' She held it away from her and shook it. It rattled. Lydia stared at the familiar blue and white container with distaste. 'What have you got in this rusty old thing? Not still smuggling marbles are you? Or is this your stash of spare bullets for your big, bad Browning?'
Joe snatched it from her and twisted off the lid, revealing the innocent contents.
'Toothbrush, paste, shaving things. Happy with that?'
'No. Not a bit. Think Joe! You're off to stay at the country seat of an Earl, trying to make a good impression on your elders and betters... what's his lordship going to think? More to the point – what's his footman going to think when he unpacks for you? You'll be a laughing-stock below stairs. I'll pop out to Bond Street tomorrow, first thing, and get you a decent wash bag.'
'You'll do no such thing! I've always used a Cerebos salt tin and I see no reason to stop.'
'But it's disgusting – it's rusting away.'
'What do you expect? It's travelled across oceans and half way round India. I made an appearance at a far grander establishment than Gratton Court with my tin!'
'India? Oh no! You're telling me you took this insanitary object with you when you stayed with the Maharajah What's His Name?'
'I did! A humble salt tin stood on a marble bathroom shelf in the Palace of Ranipur, batting for England amongst the crystal, the jade and the solid gold accessories, placed there – without comment – by the bearer who unpacked my things.'
'I'm surprised someone didn't remove it.'
'Someone did. When I unpacked on return to Simla I noted that my faithful old receptacle had been taken away and replaced... with a brand new Cerebos salt tin! This very one!'
Lydia chuckled. 'Now that's style!'
'That's Indian good manners and – humour,' Joe agreed quietly. 'Can't tell you how glad I am to be home but - I miss the laughter, Lyd. And the colour. In sober old London.' He saw dismay dawning in her eyes and hurried to add: 'But I've done with serious travelling for now. Got a career to relaunch!
A sudden understanding of the tin's significance silenced her. Schoolboys, soldiers and now, apparently, strapping great police commanders – they all needed a reminder of their home in strange or threatening situations. Lydia put it back in the suitcase. 'You can always claim then that it was a gift from a Maharajah – should anyone ask,' she said comfortably. 'But I suppose they must be used to eccentricities at Gratton Court - the old Prince of Wales was a constant guest there in the Good Old Days.' She gave a mock shudder. 'Now - I shouldn't have liked to view the contents of his salt tin!'
Joe responded to his sister's unexpressed anxiety. 'I'll be fine, Lyd. Don't worry about me. Big boy now. And it's not as though it's an interview I've been called up for. There's nothing much riding on this, you know. I've already got the job – had it for two years now. They just want to check I can drink my soup without slurping and get through dinner with a selection of rabid old fire-eaters without poking one in the eye with a fish-knife. I shall keep smiling, tell a few tall stories, sing baritone in the after-dinner choruses around the grand piano and shoot a commendable but not showy number of birds.'
'What are you using for guns?'
'Pa's old pair. I've sent them ahead. Decent... respectable but nothing flashy. Now if we were going for real game, I could have impressed them with the Holland & Holland Royal I used in India. Sir George insisted on giving it to me. Not many charging buffalo offering themselves as targets on Exmoor though.'
'You used it in India? Joe you don't like shooting animals,' Lydia reminded him with sudden suspicion.
'True. But the animals in question were tiger. Man-eaters both. With hundreds of deaths on their rap sheets!'
'I shot two of them. In as many minutes. One male, one female. They were hunting as a pair.'
Lydia laughed. 'You're having me on! Sounds like the beginning of a good yarn though for when the port starts to circulate.'
'Oh, if I were vandal enough, I could carve two grooves on the glossy French walnut stock of the Royal. It saved my life. But I prefer to carry my grooves concealed.'
With a sister-baiting grin of mischief, Joe pushed up the sleeve of his right arm to show her two raking claw marks, well healed by now. He enjoyed her squeal of horror. 'I had the luck to be treated by an English doctor who'd studied ancient Indian medicine. Lord only knows what he poured into the wound but it worked a treat. Wounds can go rotten faster in India than they did in Flanders.'
Lydia shuddered. 'Well, watch your back, little brother. I've sneaked a look at the guest list you've popped behind the clock on the mantelpiece. Impressive and surprising. Something's brewing. And I think I can guess what. I read the papers! And I get Marcus to repeat the political gossip he comes by at his club. He can't always make sense of it but he's worth hearing. The country's not been standing still while you've been living it up in India, you know - it's started rolling downhill. Joe, the men you're meeting are not only running our country – they're a ruthless, manipulative bunch...'
'Oo, er... I shall think of them as ''the Gratton Gang''!'
Lydia was not to be diverted by his fooling. 'These men aren't going to be the slightest bit interested in your table manners and your small talk. In fact, I do rather wonder what exactly they might be wanting from a minnow like you.'
She squashed the suggestions he was about to make. 'Well, you're getting a reputation for defusing a crisis, Gerald says. Defusing - in my dictionary - that spells danger. Don't let these grandees use you for a cat's paw while they skulk in safety behind the barricades, Joe. You know what you're like for leading the charge.'
Sensing a sisterly assessment of his character about to be fired in his direction, Joe employed a diversionary tactic 'Lyd, why don't you open up one of those boxes – you know you're dying to! Pop one of your new hats on your head and I'll take you out to dinner.'