Fontigny, Burgundy, 1926
The Englishman groped his way along the dark hallway and hesitated by the front door, listening to the nighttime sounds of the house. Nothing to be heard but the creaking of ancient timbers in the autumn wind gusting against the structure. Hand halfway to the key in its place in the massive lock, he stopped to check once again the contents of his pockets. All present and correct. The all-important postcard was readily to hand in the right pocket of his tweed overcoat. The letter in the left he took out and considered for a moment before stowing it away again.
"Can't imagine what you'll make of this, Johnny, old man," he said to himself. "If it reaches you—well and good. Let's hope I'll have a chance to explain one day. Face-to-face. We'll sip a brandy in one of those sleep-inducing armchairs in your club and you can make fun of me. I'll be only too delighted! And if it doesn't get through . . ." He suppressed a bark of laughter. ". . . at least I'll have scared them shitless!"
He tugged a black felt fedora down snugly over his brow, concealing fair hair heavily streaked with silver. Amongst the dark denizens of Burgundy he'd stand out like a harbour-light if the full moon out there penetrated the rain clouds. He listened again to the heartbeat of the house: sleeping . . . sleeping . . . sleeping. Then he froze. His straining ears picked up a slight sound from above. The same sound, repeated, identified itself as no more than the familiar overture to the nightly basso profundo performance from old Capitaine Huleux on the floor above. Could the man's wife possibly sleep through that? Had any of the other sleepers in the house been disturbed? He waited. When he was confident that he was unobserved, he turned the key twice in the lock, glad that he'd taken the precaution of oiling it the previous day, and slipped out into a chilly Burgundy night.
An hour to go before dawn and the sky was still black. But at least the rain had stopped. He glanced to right and left down the deserted street, unable for a moment to move on.
"Brace up! You don't want me to call you a Cowardy Custard, do you?" His nanny's voice sounded in his head, still sharp over the distance of half a century. Funny how the old girl still rallied round when he was in a tight spot.
He made his customary silent reply. "Bugger off, Nanny!"
"Don't be a crybaby . . . Once begun is half done . . ."
He stepped into the street, cutting off the comforting cliches, and set off towards the centre of town, hugging the deeper shadows along his way. Every inch was familiar to him, every street gutter to be jumped, every jutting window box full of rusting geraniums to be eased around, every stretch of cobblestones slippery underfoot. As he approached the central square, he thought he could well have done without the vivid moonlight that lit up the scene in a glassy theatrical glow.
Agitated though he was, the artist in him lured him into pausing to admire the gleaming facades of the medieval houses lining the square, standing pale against a sky swept clear of the last remnants of tattered clouds fleeing the Mistral towards the south. Was this the last time he would hold his breath in wonder at the loveliness of this corner of France? Could be. Pity, that. He'd grown fond of it. In spite of the unpleasantness. His lips twisted in a humourless smile. He was being absurd. He was still alive in spite of everything, wasn't he? They'd let him go. For the moment.
His fault, of course. He'd been dealt a poor hand but he could have played it more carefully. His wretched temper had got the better of him again, and he'd been rash. Thrown down gauntlets, issued ultimatums. If he'd had his sabre on his hip, he'd have rattled it. He'd made it impossible for them to let him get away back to England with the knowledge he had. A man of his standing with friends in the government and the military would be listened to—in spite of the enormity of his discoveries. There'd be shocked disbelief, followed by concern for his sanity and perhaps even gentle ridicule, but he knew how to weather that. In the end, they'd hear what he had to say. Alarms would be sounded. The French ambassador would be called in to give an explanation. He smiled with grim satisfaction at the thought of the mayhem he would cause. But, just in case he didn't make it, he would ensure, at least, that England was alerted.
But was this still possible? A rush of doubt shook him. One by one his options had been closed down; there remained just this one last despairing throw of the dice. He ought not to involve her in this disgusting, dangerous business but, in the end, it had all come down to a few dreary words on an innocent-looking postcard. It would make its way, unsuspected, just one of the many cards put into the box by tourists near the abbey at weekends. He'd been careful enough to choose a photograph of the abbey ruins, and to send it to her at a Cambridge address unknown to them, he did believe. It ought to evade even their vigilance.
From the shelter of the doorway of the boulangerie he located the Cafe de la Paix on the opposite side. Wrought-iron tables and chairs were still laid out on the pavement, pathetically promoting the illusion that summer was not over. The postbox stood next to the cafe, jauntily lit, eerily blue.
Resigned and steadier now that he was so near his goal, he felt in his pocket and grasped the postcard, concealing it in the palm of his hand.
"Quick's the word and Sharpe's the toffee!" exhorted Nanny.
His mood changed to one of impatience. The Englishman was unused to creeping around the periphery of any scene or any battlefield; the frontal attack was his usual style. He squared his shoulders, stepped into the moonlight, and walked purposefully across the wet cobbles. A few feet from the letter box, however, he paused.
A sharp cry had rung out behind him. He gasped in dismay. The cry was taken up by others and echoed with harsh derision around the square above his head. Wretched jackdaws! He'd forgotten about them. For a moment, heads emerged aggressively from nesting holes in the decaying stonework. Wings flapped. Complaints were made at full raucous pitch and he stood exposed, hating his inconvenient hecklers.
They fell silent as abruptly as they had awakened and he dared to move forward.
And then he heard it: a shuffling sound from the alley beside the cafeŽ, the dull clang of a foot hitting iron and a swallowed curse. His blood churned in his veins, triggering his body into familiar battle-ready reactions.
Overture and beginners.
He went smoothly into his rehearsed movements. Swiftly he covered the distance to the box and, breathing heavily, made play of leaning on it for support. Screening the narrow slot with his body, he slipped the postcard inside. His girl would understand. She'd understand and sound the charge.
Pantomime time. Turning and looking furtively about him, he took the letter from his left-hand pocket with a wide gesture, but, in doing so, dropped it clumsily to the ground, swearing loudly—but not too loudly—as he bent to retrieve it. The oblong of white paper reflected showily in the moonlight, scuttering along the pavement, carried by a complicitous gust of wind. It came to rest by a cafe table.
Confident English handwriting flowed in black ink across the envelope: Brigadier-General John McAndrew, Directorate of Military Operations and Intelligence, The War Office, Whitehall, Londres, Angleterre.
The address was clearly visible a second before a black boot stamped down on it.
Running, crouched, towards it, he was still two or three yards distant when he was jerked upwards from behind by a silent presence. A sinewy hand stinking of horses and leather closed over his mouth. He fought back with an outburst of energy, welcoming the declaration of hostilities. Hand-to-hand combat. So that's how it would end! Well—he could oblige one more time! He kicked out violently at the shins of the man restraining him and relished the stable-yard oath he provoked. It took a second attacker, darting out from the shadows and dragging his feet from under him, to subdue the Englishman. Fingers yanked back his head exposing his throat. In the moment the point of a cold steel blade trailed over the skin seeking its target, his upturned eyes focused on the slender spire of the abbey outlined against the dark blue of the sky and he grimaced with satisfaction to see the precision with which the full moon dotted its i.
"I told you this would end in tears!" His nanny's voice was reproving. Regretful. Very close now.
His stretched senses became aware of the clatter of hooves and the jingle of harness in the distance and, as the stiletto slid into his jugular, his last thought was "Got you, you bastard!"
"A Miss Talbot, you say? Laetitia Talbot? Certainly not! I won't see her! What possessed you, Claydon, to let her get as far as my door?"
The College servant, an under-porter, looked anxiously behind him and made to reply, but was cut off with what he considered unwarranted brusqueness. "Tell her to remove herself from the premises at once. Escort her from the College by the least public route. You understand me? The River Stairs, perhaps?"
" 'And, while you're at it, Mr. Claydon, why don't you just dunk the minx in the Cam?' " came the amused suggestion from the doorway. " 'If she floats, she's clearly the witch we always suspected she was.' Dr. Dalton! So good to see you again! A year? Can it really have been a year?"
The young woman advanced into the room, peeling off her gloves, sending the unmistakable signal that she was not to be persuaded to leave. She turned graciously to her uniformed escort who stood looking uncertainly from the don—now rising with automatic good manners—to the elegantly clad lady—who seemed to be treating the situation with a casualness amounting to levity. Behind his mask of disapproval, Claydon's shrewd eye was assessing the situation and calculating the relative strength of these two antagonists. The under-porter was skilled at this. His job depended on it. And the pecking order here was becoming clearer by the second. He noticed that young Dr. Dalton was lurking behind the protection of his desk, a formidable redoubt of polished mahogany piled high with books and papers.
With lazy assurance the intruder extended her rolled umbrella like a billiard cue, playfully, and swept a stack of books onto the floor. "That's better! Now I can see what you're doing with your hands, Felix."
The don cringed. Claydon looked thoughtfully at the ceiling.
Miss Talbot settled into a chair. With a wave of her hand she invited Dalton to resume his seat. "Do sit down. This may take some time."
She turned to Claydon with a dismissive smile. "Thank you. You may go."
Claydon made his judgment. "Certainly, Miss. Thank you, Miss." And, in a belated attempt to atone for his lapse in allegiance: "Shall I whistle up some tea, sir?"
"Thank you, no. This is not a social occasion. That will be all."
Felix Dalton glowered at the girl smiling across the desk at him. Why the devil had she come? After all these months? Had she found out? Did the young madam still bear a grudge? He sighed. The ball was in her court and he would just have to hear her out. And now, of course, she had nothing to lose. Impossible to threaten her—they'd surrendered their trump card last year. Against all his advice. He decided to go on the offensive.
"You look well and happy, Miss Talbot. The disgrace of being sent down from the University does not appear to have dimmed your spirits."
"No indeed." The topic seemed not to disconcert her.
At such a calculated piece of rudeness any other girl would have fled the field in tears. Not this one. She even peered at him flirtatiously from under the dipping brim of her green hat. "As you observe—ejected from the gloomy groves of Academe with its lurking serpents, I've been enjoying sunshine, open spaces, wide vistas . . ."
Was there a literal meaning to be inferred here? She certainly did look . . . well, browner than he remembered.
"Away from the confines of the corridors of learning, I thrive. I find that, after all, the uncorsetted life is the one that suits me." An unladylike wiggle of the shoulders accompanied the remark.
Dalton cleared his throat and fought down an urge to loosen his collar. Stung by her comment, he wondered whether he was blushing. Just as she had intended, the memory of Laetitia Talbot in decidedly uncorsetted state returned to torment him. A vision of alabaster and gold had been his first impression as she rose, steaming gently from her bath before the fire; his second that he was witnessing a very Edwardian scene. Both impressions had been abruptly dispersed when, becoming aware of his presence, she'd hurled a wet sponge at him and pushed him bodily from her room whooping like a bloody banshee. Dalton shuddered at the memory. He'd never be able to look a Botticelli maiden in the eye again.
Now he eyed warily the supple figure opposite. Her short linen walking dress was, as far as he could judge, in the height of fashion and revealing an extent of silk-clad leg as disturbing as ever. He'd been a damn fool . . . misinterpreted the signals . . . if there had been signals. He was no longer sure. And he rather thought he'd been badly informed at the time. That bloody know-it-all Wetherby! And he hadn't been the only gossipmonger to offer comment and advice: "So you're invited to Melchester for the weekend? A Talbot house party? Oh, my! The literati are to meet the celebrati, then? Guest of Sir Richard?" Asked with a slightly raised eyebrow. "Or his daughter? Miss Talbot is in your supervision group, I understand?"
And: "The lovely Laetitia! You want to watch out for that one! She'll have you on a cocktail stick, old boy! But surely you've heard? You cannot be unaware . . . ? Artistic family . . . Bohemian, you might say. Town house in Fitzroy Square. Handy for the British Museum. As well as other conveniences less appetising. Rumour has it that little Miss Talbot . . . much indulged by her papa . . . was allowed liberties no proper young girl of eighteen should ever have been allowed. Mother long dead—no restraining influence—and a constant parade of the loucher low-life of London trailing through the house. She was getting close to some of those appalling scarecrows at . . . what's that school of art? The Slade. That's it. Word is she was sent up to Cambridge—strings pulled of course!—more as a place of safety than of learning, but not before . . ." Wetherby had finished his tale sotto voce although they were alone together in the combination room, his voice getting lower as his excitement rose, his face gleaming in the candlelight, ". . . not before she had arranged to lose her virginity. In an upstairs room at the Cafe Royal. With a Satanist!"
Felix thought he'd replied casually enough. "Heard that somewhere before, I think. Old story. And you've got the wrong girl."
But below the astonishment and disapproval a trickle of excitement had begun to flow.
Excerpted from Bright Hair About the Bone by Barbara Cleverly. Copyright © 2008 by Barbara Cleverly. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.