The Return of
Captain John Emmet
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Boston New York
Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth Speler
Al rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book,
write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
First published in Great Britain in 2010 by Virago Press
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The return of Captain John Emmett / Elizabeth Speler.
1. World War, 1914–1918—Veterans—England—London—Fiction.
2. Murder—Investigation—Fiction. I. Title.
Printed in the United States of America
DOC 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For my brother, Richard, and for my nephews Dominic, Tristan, Wiliam, Barnaby and Charlie, who, had they been born exactly one hundred years earlier, might al have found themselves on the Western Front.
You were only David's father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns.
Lieutenant Ewart Alan Mackintosh
(died Cambrai 1917)
NOVEMBER 1920, KENT
They gathered in the dark long before the train arrived at the smal station. It was mostly women: young mothers holding tightly wrapped infants, elderly women in shawls, black-coated middle-aged matrons alongside grown children. There were men too, of course, some already holding their hats self-consciously at their sides, and a cluster of soldiers stood to one end of the platform near the bearded stationmaster. Even so, the men were outnumbered by the women as they always were these days.
Occasionaly the station buffet sign creaked or a baby wailed and the isolated murmur of one woman to another was almost indistinguishable from the faint sigh of wind, but mostly there was quiet as they waited. Stil others stood a little further away. In the houses on either side of the line, behind lighted windows, silhouetted occupants held back curtains. Below them, at rail-side garden fences or on the banks, stood a handful more. On the far platform, almost out of reach of the lights, it was just possible to pick out one individual, swathed in a dark coat and hat, who stood at a distance from the rest. The stationmaster looked across the rails with some apprehension. In a long career he had never had a suicide, but tonight was different; this train's freight was despair and sorrow. However, the watcher seemed calm, standing at a reasonable distance from the platform's edge, with the width of the down track separating his stiffly upright figure from the expected train.
They felt it before they heard it. A faint vibration in the rails seemed to transmit itself to the people waiting, and a shiver trembled through them, folowed by a more audible hum and finaly a crescendo of noise as the train, puled by its great dark engine, appeared around the bend. Tiny points of fire danced red in its smoke and singed the grass. The last hats were removed hurriedly and one young woman buried her face in her companion's chest. The soldiers stood to attention and, as the train thundered by without stopping, its compartments briliantly iluminated, they saluted. A wave ran through the crowd as several of the spectators craned forward, desperate to catch a momentary glimpse of the red, blue and white flag, draped over the coffin of English oak, before its passing left them to the dark loneliness of their changed world.
As the crowd slowly dispersed, almost as silently as they had assembled, the stationmaster looked along his platform once more. Now quite alone on the far side of the track, one figure stayed immobile. Hours after the stationmaster had gone to his bed, reassured in the knowledge that it was six hours until the milk train, the last watcher remained solitary and now invisible in the darkness, waiting for dawn and the last battle to begin.
In years to come, Laurence Bartram would look back and think that the event that realy changed everything was not the war, nor the attack at Rosières, nor even the loss of his wife, but the return of John Emmett into his life. Before then, Laurence had been trying to develop a routine around the writing of a book on London churches. Astonishingly, a mere six or so years earlier when he came down from Oxford, he had taught, briefly and happily, but on marrying he had been persuaded that teaching was not a means of supporting Louise and the large family she had planned. After only token resistance he had joined her family's long-established coffee importing business. It al seemed so long ago, now. There was no coffee, no business—or not for him—and Louise and his only child were dead.
When his wife and son lay dying in Bristol, Laurence was crouched in the colourless light of dawn, waiting to move towards the German guns and praying fervently to a God he no longer believed in. He had long been indifferent to which side won; he wished only that one or the other would do so decisively while he was stil alive. It would be days before the news of Louise and their baby's death reached him. It was not until he was home, with his grief-stricken mother-in-law endlessly supplying unwanted details, that he realised that Louise had died at precisely the moment he was giving the order to advance. When he finaly got leave, he had stood by the grave with its thin, new grass while his father-in-law hovered near by, embarrassed. When the older man had withdrawn, Laurence crouched down. He could smel the damp earth but there was nothing of her here. Later, he chose the granite and speled out both names and the dates to the stonemason. He wanted to mourn, yet his emotions seemed unreachable. Indeed, after a few days shut up with his parents-in-law, desolate and aged by loss, he was soon searching for an excuse to return to London and escape the intensity of their misery.
As he sat on the train, returning to close up his London house, he had felt a brief but shocking wave of elation. Louise was gone, so many were gone, but he had made it through—he was stil quite young and with a life ahead of him. The mood passed as quickly as it always did, to be replaced by emptiness. The house felt airless and stale. He started packing everything himself but after opening a smal chest to find a soft whiteness of matinée jackets, bootees, embroidered baby gowns and tiny bonnets, al carefuly folded in tissue paper, he had recoiled from the task and paid someone to make sure he never saw any of it again.
Louise had left him money and so he was free to folow a new career. It did not make him a man of substantial means, but it was enough for him to tel Louise's father that he wouldn't be returning to the business. Even if Louise had survived and he were now the father of a lively son, he doubted he would have continued buying and seling coffee beans. The war had changed things; for him life before 1914 was a closed world he could never reach back and touch. He could recal banal fragments of people but not the whole. His mother's long fingers stabbing embroidery silks into her petit point. His father snipping and smoothing his moustache as he grimaced in the looking-glass. He could even remember the smel of his father's pomade, yet the rest of the face never quite came into focus. His memories were just a series of tableaux, disconnected from the present. Louise, and the smal hopes and plans that went with her, were simply part of these everyday losses.
He'd rented a smal flat, a quarter the size of the town house he and Louise had lived in for their eighteen months of marriage before he was sent to France. It was in Great Ormond Street and on the top floor, with windows facing in three directions so that the smal rooms were filed with light. There he could lie in bed listening to the wind and the pigeons cooing on the roof. He rarely went out socialy these days but when he did it was usualy to see his friend Charles Carfax who had been at the same school and had served in France. Charles was someone to whom nothing need be explained.
Sometimes as he gazed out across the rooftops Laurence tried to picture where he might be in a year's time—five years, ten—but he couldn't imagine a life other than this. At Oxford he had been teased about his enthusiasms: for long walks, architecture, even dancing. That excitement was a curiosity now and he had stopped worrying that he had drifted away from friends. He no longer had any imagined future different from the present.
Where he felt most alive was sitting in the chapel of Thomas More inside Chelsea Old Church, wondering at the man's courage, or in Al Halows by the Tower where bodies, including More's, had been brought after beheading at the Tower. Somehow horror was blunted by thirteen centuries. Churches, he thought, weren't buildings but stories; even their names fascinated him. However, when he tried to re-create that excitement for his own book, he was reduced to stone and floor plans and architectural terms. For St Bartholomew the Great, his notes read: bilet moulding, cloister, twelfth-century transept. Yet when he was sitting, resting his eyes, he had sometimes sensed the monks brushing by him on their way to Compline, or stumbling bewildered through the teeming streets after Henry VIII had evicted them, while the building survived as best it could: as stable, forge, factory or inn, before it returned to what it was meant to be.
He had had a happy childhood, adored by parents who had produced him quite late in life, but both had died unexpectedly before he was sixteen. His much older married sister, Milicent, had been like a second mother, but she had moved to India before their parents died, remaining there with her large family and a husband who was part of the colonial administration. She had tried her hardest to persuade her young brother to join them and, when Laurence turned out to be surprisingly stubborn in refusal, sent him stories by Rudyard Kipling, which revealed India as a magical and dangerous place. He stil kept one book near his bed, unable to imagine his sensible sister amid the gold elephants, turbaned elephant boys and rearing rattlesnakes on the cover. A distant aunt agreed to be his guardian and this satisfied Milicent, if not his need for love and comfort. In due course he went up to Oxford where his tutor had been something of a father to him from the day he arrived at Merton Colege as an undergraduate. Shortly before his death a year or so ago, this kind, unworldly man had introduced him to a publisher who had shown surprising interest in Laurence's diffidently proposed work.
Meanwhile his sister wrote regularly with an innocent assumption of his love for Wilfred, Saly, Bumble, James and Ted, his unknown, unimagined nephews and nieces. Given her determination never to speak of anything unpleasant, her letters only increased his feeling that Louise and the war were something he'd dreamed up.
For a while young widows, or girls who had once been engaged to officers in his regiment who hadn't made it through, made it fairly clear that his attentions would be welcome. He was nice-looking rather than conventionaly handsome, with thick dark hair, pale skin, brown eyes and strong nose, a combination that sometimes led people to assume a non-existent Scottish ancestry. Unable to cope with the possibilities on offer, he invariably withdrew with the excuse that he needed to focus on his research. His married friends had been kind after Louise's death but he felt uncomfortable in their houses, watching their family life unfold. He had tried it once. He had journeyed down to Hampshire for a perfectly undemanding weekend of tennis and cocktails, country walks and chatter, then found himself in the grip of overwhelming anxiety. As they trudged through waist-high bracken and folowed earth tracks through thickets of dense flowering gorse, he found himself jumping at every rustle or crack of a branch. He made his excuses straight after Sunday lunch.
Sometimes now he could go a week or more without revisiting the smels and tremors of the war, and a whole month without dreaming of Louise: that unknown Louise, ever pliant, ever accommodating. It was an irony that he thought about the dead Louise a great deal more intensely than he ever had the living woman, and with real physical longing.
Just once he had weakened. He was walking alone late when a woman stepped from a doorway.
'On your own?' she said.
He thought she had a slight west country accent.
'I say, you're a quiet one. You on your own?'
Inadequately dressed even for a mild winter's evening, she smiled hopefuly.
'Do you want to get warm?'
His first thought had been that he didn't feel cold. His second, that she looked nothing like Louise.
Her back curved away from him as she took off her clothes, folding them carefuly on a chair. Then she turned to him. Standing there, in just her stockings, her body thin and white and her bush of hair shocking and black, he was simultaneously aroused and appaled. She watched him incuriously as he took off his shirt and trousers. Then she lay back and opened her legs. Yet when he tried to enter her she was quite dry and he had to spit on his hand to wet her before he pushed hard against her resistance. He couldn't bear to look at her. As he took her he wished he had removed his socks. When he had finished she got up, went over to a bowl on a stool in the corner, half hidden behind a papier-mache screen, and wiped herself with a bit of cloth. He paid, noticing she wore a wedding ring, and went briskly downstairs into the dark where he drew mouthfuls of night air, with its smel of cinders and drains, deep into his lungs. He was lost. Too much had gone.
Nearly three years after the war, John Emmett came back into his life. There had been six weeks without rain. Night and day had become jumbled and Laurence often sat in the dark with the sash windows wide open and let the breeze cool him as he worked, knowing that when he finaly went to bed on these humid August nights he would find it hard to sleep. Only the bels of St George's chiming the quarter-hours linked him to the outside world.
Then, one Tuesday teatime, he was surprised to find a letter, addressed in unfamiliar handwriting, lying on the hal table. Later he came to think of it as the letter.
It had been forwarded twice: first from his old Oxford colege, then from his former marital home; it was a miracle it had got to him at al.
He sat down by the largest window, slipped a finger under the flap and tore it open. Late-afternoon sunlight fel across the page. Neat, cursive writing ran over two pages, covering both sides, the lines quite close together and sloping to the right. He turned it over and looked for a signature. Instantly, foolishly, he felt a jolt of possibility.
11 Warkworth Street
16 June 1921
Writing to you after so long feels like a bit of an intrusion especialy as you once wrote to me and I never answered. My life was difficult then. I hope you stil remember me.
I heard that you lost your wife and I am dreadfuly sorry. I met Louise only that one time at Henley but she was a lovely girl, you must miss her a lot.
I wanted to tel you that John died six months ago and, horribly, he shot himself. He seemed to have been luckier than many in the war, but when he came back from France he wouldn't talk and just sat in his room or went for long walks at night.
He said he couldn't sleep. I don't think he was writing or reading or any of the things he used to enjoy. Sometimes he would get in furious rages, even with our mother. Finaly he got in a fight with strangers and was arrested.
Our doctor said that he needed more help than he could provide. He found him a place in a nursing home. John went along with it but then the folowing winter he ran away. A month later a keeper found his body in a wood over thirty miles away. He didn't leave a letter. Nothing to explain it. We had thought he was getting better.
I know you saw much less of each other after school, but al John's other friends that I ever met are gone and you are the only one, ever, who John brought home.
I am sure you are a busy man, but I would be so very grateful, as would my mother, if you could talk to me a little about John. We loved him but we didn't always understand him. We can't begin to know what changed him so much in the war.
You might. I've written three letters to you before and not posted them; instead I just go over and over his last months. I know it is a lot to ask and I'm presuming on a feeling that maybe you don't share—that we had a bond—but could we meet? I wil understand if you feel you have nothing to say, of course; we knew each other such a long time ago and you have had your own troubles.
Laurence leaned back in the chair, feeling the heat of the sun. Mary Emmett. She was right, he would have liked to have known her better. He remembered a lively, brown-haired girl with none of her brother's reserve. He had first come across her while he was at school, then been surprised by how she had changed when he bumped into her again in Oxford at a dance three or four years later. Yet he had recognised her almost immediately.
Although she was not a beauty, she had an attractive, open face with—and he smiled as he remembered it—a schoolgirl's grin at anything that was at al absurd.
They were seated at the same large table and kept catching one another's glance, but by the time he could detach himself from his neighbours, to ask her to dance, her friends were wanting to leave. They talked for perhaps ten minutes, which he wished had been longer.
Then, not long before the war, he'd seen her again at the Henley regatta. It was soon after he'd met Louise, and Mary Emmett seemed to have an attentive male friend, but he recaled meeting eyes that were ful of laughter when they sat opposite each other at some particularly pompous dinner party. Candlelight shone on her pearl necklace and he thought he remembered the shimmering eau-de-nil satin of her dress. He had thought, if water nymphs existed, they would look much like her. He had a sense of connection which was far stronger than any actual contact between them and afterwards, impulsively, he had written to her. He had never received a reply and soon his life was overtaken by marriage and war.
He read the letter again and slowly the impact of her news sank in. What on earth had led the self-contained but confident boy he had known at school to kil himself, having survived four years of war?
John and Laurence had arrived at Marlborough on the same day in 1903. Laurence's first impression of school was of warm reds and rusts: one handsome, square brick building after another and the early autumn colours of huge horse-chestnut trees. He was smal for his age and after a sheltered childhood the changes came as a shock.
Amid the clamour and occasional brutality of a large public school, the two thirteen-year-olds had banded together with Charles, who had been there a term already, Rupert—who later died in Africa—and Lionel, who was destined for the Church. But it was John Emmett who was the unacknowledged leader. He appeared fearless and was dogged in the pursuit of justice. When he was younger, things simply went wrong for those who crossed him; as he got older, he would quietly confront anyone who made a weaker boy's life a misery.
John Emmett had very little interest in the sort of success that schoolboys usualy hungered for. Although good at most games, especialy rowing, he was unimpressed by being selected for teams; he driled with the cadets but made no effort to be promoted; he sang in the chapel choir but by sixteen was privately expressing doubts about God. He argued with masters with such skil that contradiction seemed like enthusiasm. He was a natural linguist. He even wrote poetry, yet avoided being seen as effete by the school's dominating clique of hearty sportsmen. Yet although many respected him, nobody would have caled John their best friend.
For the young Laurence he represented everything that was mysterious and brave.
John was notorious for his night-time adventures. One summer Laurence went out onto the leads of the roof, swalowing hard to try to conquer his nausea at being four storeys above the stone-flagged courtyard. There was nobody else he would have gone with. It was a perfect, absolutely clear night and the sky was filed with stars. Laurence looked up, feeling giddy as John named the galaxies and planets above them.
'Don't like heights, do you?' John said, matter-of-factly. 'Me, I can go as high as you like, it's being shut in that gives me the heebie-jeebies. But look,' he pointed, 'tonight you can just see the rings of Saturn with the naked eye.' He stepped dangerously near the edge, silhouetted against the bright night sky.
It was from his father that John had learned al about the stars. He would use his father's opinion to settle arguments decisively; Laurence could stil hear his solemn tone of voice: 'My father says...' When Laurence finaly went to stay with John, the year before they were to take university entrance, he found that Mr Emmett was in fact a bluff gentleman farmer, whose main topic of conversation was shooting, whose hobby was stargazing through his old telescope and whose closest confidant was a smal terrier caled Sirius.
'Dog star, d'ye see?'
John and his father seemed to understand each other without speaking and on several mornings Laurence woke to find the two of them already up and walking the fields.
He had liked the warm informality of the Emmett household. There was a freedom there he had never known. When Laurence's parents died, the Marlborough code meant that no one actualy mentioned his new status as an orphan. When John came into Laurence's study a day or so after his mother's funeral to find him red-eyed, he had asked him to stay during the holidays. The Emmetts lived in a large, rather isolated house in Suffolk. Rooms were dusty, furniture faded. The grass on the tennis court was two inches high and choked with dandelions and the worn bals were as likely to go through the holes in the net as over it. There was a croquet lawn of sorts on a slope so steep that al but the most skilful players eventualy relinquished their bals to the smal stream that ran below it. Mary, very much the little sister then, went in barefoot to retrieve them and tried to sel them back. She was always paddling in the stream, her legs were invariably muddy, he recaled, and she had a ferret she took for walks on a lead. Was it caled Kitchener? The folowing Christmas the Emmetts had sent him a present of an ivory-handled penknife with his initials on it.
He had it with him in France.
He looked again at her letter. Why had they lost touch? He supposed they had rapidly become different men on leaving school but the truth was that John had probably grown up more quickly than he had. Laurence remembered being surprised to hear that Emmett had joined as a volunteer at the beginning of the war. John was the last person to be swayed by popular excitement and at Oxford he liked to speak of himself as a European. The only jingoist in the Emmett family had been John's father, who toasted the King every evening and mistrusted the French, Germans and Londoners. Laurence thought, uncomfortably, of his own, discreditable motives for volunteering and hoped his friends would be equaly surprised if they knew that truth.
For a moment he felt a surprisingly intense sadness, the sort of emotion he could remember once feeling quite often. Now that odd, passionate schoolboy was gone, and, judging by the address on Mary's letter, so was the lovingly neglected house. John had been different when so many of them were so ordinary. Laurence counted himself among the ordinary sort. If the war hadn't come, they would al have become stout solicitors and brewers, doctors and cattle-breeders, with tolerant wives and children, most of them living in the same vilages, towns and counties they came from.
For much of the war Laurence had hung on to the idea that he would go back to the smal world he had been so eager to leave. Only when the end of the war seemed a possibility did life suddenly become precious and death a terrifying reality. Both he and John had returned, but now he knew that death had caught up with John and, moreover, by his own choice.
Laurence's second reaction as he read Mary Emmett's letter was a sinking feeling. He couldn't bring John back, nor could he tel her anything she wanted to hear, and he hadn't—as far as he knew—served near him in France. The truth was that he had heard nothing directly from his old school friend since they'd left Oxford.
At university they had effectively parted ways. John had gone into a different colege; his circle were clever men: writers, debaters, thinkers. Laurence had falen in with an easier set, who held parties and played games, thinking of little outside their own lives. Laurence had migrated to London, surrendered to the coffee trade and married Louise. John had apparently gone abroad to Switzerland, then Germany. Laurence had read his occasional reports in the London newspapers. They were usualy cameo pieces: Bavarian farmers struggling to make ends meet, the chocolate-smeling girls in a Berne factory or a veteran who had been Bismarck's footman. As tensions rose in Europe, he supposed John's smal contributions had slipped out of favour. During the war one of his poems had been published in a newspaper but apart from that his work had disappeared from view.
Laurence had nothing new to give Mary. He told himself that a visit to Cambridge would simply raise her hopes, and probably her mother's too. If she came to London he couldn't think where he could take her. But he couldn't forget the kindnesses shown by al the Emmetts when he was a lonely boy without any real family of his own.
Dressing for dinner with Charles, he took out his cufflinks and there nestling beside them was the little ivory-handled penknife. That decided him. He was deluding himself that any kind of book was taking shape and a few days away from stifling London could do no harm. But as he walked through the London streets to dinner, it was Mary's conspiratorial and almost forgotten smile which occupied his mind.
'But why the hel didn't you tel me?' he asked Charles later, as they sat back in deep armchairs, nursing their port.
Charles coughed, loud enough to make two men sitting across the room look up. His stil-boyish face flushed with embarrassment. 'Unforgivable. I was in Scotland when I heard. My cousin Jack's place. Damn cold. Then I forgot.'
'Why did he do it?' Laurence asked himself as much as Charles.
'Usual thing, I suppose. France? Seems to have taken some men like that. Mind you,' Charles reflected, 'he was home when the West Kents realy took a pounding. Back in England—smashed leg, something like that. Must have avoided the whole scrap. Perhaps he felt he didn't deserve the luck.'
Charles seemed to have regarded his military service as a bit of a lark. He'd embraced war as an escape from destiny in the form of the successful family leather factories and he flourished in the infantry. He had escaped death, serious injury or ilness for three grueling years and had been mentioned in despatches twice by the time the war ended.
They both fel quiet. Laurence gazed at the flare of copper chrysanthemums in the fireplace. Eventualy Charles broke the silence.
'Look, I'm sorry I didn't fil you in about Emmett. I know he was a joly close friend at school but then the Harcourts didn't make it either, nor did Sorely and that odd chap Greaves you liked so much, and that Scot—what was he caled—with the terrible temper. The one who joined the RFC? It's not as if we'd al been in touch and I rather thought you'd had enough of talking about that kind of thing. You know, with Louise and everything. No-go area and al that.' He reddened again.
'Lachlan. It was Lachlan Ramsay who had the temper,' said Laurence quickly. 'But yes, I did admire John. His odd courage; his independence. What may have happened after the war doesn't alter that. It's a shame.' He paused. 'Quite honestly, I wish I could say he was my friend, but he wasn't, not realy. Friendly, while we were at school, but not a friend. Hardly even that at Oxford. A few words if we'd met in the street, no more.'
As he spoke, one of the two older men who had sat across the room from them got up to leave. His companion rose to folow him. Charles, who had been glancing in their direction for the last half-hour, jumped up from his chair and went over to shake the first man's hand, and was then introduced to the other. The slightly younger man had a distinguished and inteligent face, the older one a slightly stiff military bearing.
As Charles sat down again he looked pleased. 'You know who they were, of course?'
Laurence never knew who anybody was, however eagerly Charles assumed that figures who loomed large in his own life were as significant in anyone else's.
'Gerald Somers,' Charles said triumphantly, and then when Laurence failed to respond quickly enough: 'Major general. Zulu wars. Boer scrap. Mafeking.
Enough medals for a jubilee. A real hero, not just medals for other men's courage. Of course you know who he is, Laurence. Mind you, he's not so popular with the powers that be now. Got some very unfashionable views on military discipline.'
Simply to be left in peace Laurence nodded. 'Of course.' These ageing generals loved their hanging and flogging, he thought wearily.
'Wel, they can't say much. Not to his face. Career like that and gave both his sons to his country. The other man was Philip Morrel. Used to be an MP. I'm surprised you didn't recognise him, Laurence. Though he's a Liberal, of course. His wife is Lady Ottoline, sister of the Duke of Portland. You know. Bohemians.
Laurence had at least heard of the Morrels and their circle, so felt able to nod. 'Absolutely. But why would Mary write to me?' he added.
Although even as he said it, he realised Charles was right—attrition had been high among their school friends. In the aftermath of the last few years, her choice was limited.
When he got in, Laurence sat down to write to Mary Emmett. He kept it brief, just his condolences and a gentle warning that he doubted he could throw any light on anything, but would visit as soon as she wanted. Then, with a sense of urgency—her letter had taken eight weeks to find him—he went out into the dark to post it.
When he returned he lay on his bed, unsettled by the heat, and by thoughts of John.
It was a perfect early September day, the sky a cloudless deep blue, as Laurence's train crossed the flatlands of eastern England. It was not an area he knew wel or found particularly attractive but on such a fine morning it was hard not to feel a sense of wel-being. As the train gathered speed leaving London behind, he had felt a wonderful sense of liberation despite the probable awkwardness of the day ahead. The fields spread away to the horizon, al bleached stubble and hayricks, and occasionaly a line of elms marking a road going from one smal vilage to another. Nothing seemed to move, although as they rattled across a level crossing a horse and cart laden with hay and two bicyclists waited to cross.
His mood stayed calm even as they drew into Cambridge and he left the train. The country summer had straggled into the city; Michaelmas daisies and roses grew in tired beds by the station, and a few ripe blackberries hung on sooty brambles in the no-man's land between the platform and the picket fence. On the platform a group of young women laughed in the pastel shade of Chinese parasols.
Rather to his relief, he recognised Mary Emmett almost immediately, standing outside the ticket office in a pale-green dress and a soft straw hat, her wavy brown hair caught in a bun at the nape of her neck. Her once laughing greenish eyes were solemn. But when he approached she smiled and he saw the girl he remembered in the older, thinner face.
She put out her hand. 'Laurence,' she said, 'welcome to Cambridge. Thank you so, so much for coming.'
She had a wide, pretty mouth and when she talked a dimple appeared to one side. She looked genuinely delighted to see him, and only dark smudges under her eyes hinted at sadness.
They took a bus, which drove slowly past the Botanic Gardens—a dark-green jungle behind tidy railings. The warm stone buildings of the ancient coleges lay on either side of them.
'Now,' Mary said as they got off by Magdalene Bridge, 'here we are at the crossroads of duty and pleasure: we could go home but if we do we'l get caught up with Mother and Aunt Virginia. She lives with us now, as a companion for my mother.' She made a face.
Laurence waited to see where the other road led.
'Or,' she continued, 'seeing as it's such a perfect day, we could go out to Granchester for early tea. We could take the bus or even punt. Do you punt?'
'Wel, I could punt more than a decade ago. I suppose I could test my surviving punting skils if you feel brave?'
'I can actualy punt myself.' She smiled. 'It's just much more fun to be a puntee.'
However he had thought the day might turn out, Laurence had never expected to be drinking lemon squash under trees so heavy with fruit that under their weight the branches had curved to the ground to form green-latticed caves. They made good time up the river. After tying up next to a couple of other boats, and swatting away midges at the water's edge, they walked through meadows to the tearooms. Apart from their footsteps in the dry grass, the only sound was a distant corncrake.
Mary asked whether he'd read Brooke's poem about the vilage and Laurence felt absurdly glad to be able to recite at least some of it.
'I met him, you know,' Mary said. 'I don't think he was very impressed—I was far too young and not nearly clever or beautiful enough for his set, but John liked him. They'd come over here and talk and read. That's how I first knew of the tearoom. But I love the river. Cambridge can be so dusty and yelow but the river is always so cool and green. It reminds me of our old house out here. I'd live on an island or a houseboat if I could.'
'You'l be horrified to know that when I was at Oxford I used to think you were like a water nymph,' he said. For a second he couldn't believe he had blurted out something so ridiculously inappropriate but she looked so delighted and happy at his absurd revelation that he laughed with her.
Laurence began to wonder whether the whole day would pass without either of them mentioning the reason for his visit. It was only the almost untouched seed cake on her plate that suggested Mary Emmett was more anxious than she appeared. He was fighting off sleepiness from the punting and the sun as he sat in his shirtsleeves, eyes slightly screwed up against the light. He had become adept at sensing the turn of a conversation so that he could head off any direction that led to Louise and sympathy. Now he found himself on the other side, trying to reach a place where John could be there quite naturaly.
'Is your mother al right?' It was a lame question.
'No,' said Mary. 'No, she's not, actualy. She was never very strong and she's just retreated from the world. Al the anxiety about John during the war, and then a brief happiness when he came back. Then it was soon obvious things were badly wrong, and she was scared and embarrassed by his violent outbursts. He got involved in a fight, miles away, and was arrested. He wouldn't talk about it but he would have been charged if he hadn't been admitted into a nursing home. Al the same, she wasn't sure whether she should have let him be put away—because we were putting him away; we both felt it. He wouldn't speak and something was wrong with his arm; it made his life even harder that he couldn't use it. He needed us. Needed somebody who loved him.'
'I'm sure he understood,' Laurence said. 'I'm sorry, that sounds such a cliché.' However, he was wondering whether John might also have needed distance from his over-protective mother.
'Yes, but the place was too far away and he was among strangers and I'm not even sure they—the people in charge—were al very nice people. Not very kind.
And the worst thing of al was that truthfuly it was quite a relief to have him out of the house.'
Her voice wobbled. Laurence automaticaly put out his hand to comfort her and cursed himself for being a fool as it neither reached her nor was noticed. After a second he withdrew it. There was silence for a minute or two, except for wasps buzzing round the jug of cordial.
'Do you realy think he was mistreated?'
'Wel, not actively mistreated, but not always understood. He was complicated.'
She described what she knew of John's last days, though the story she told was not greatly amplified from her long letter. John had settled into Holmwood, an institution in the market town of Fairford in the Cotswolds. It had long been a hospital specialising in neurasthenia. Before the war it had taken men and women in more or less equal numbers but soon it began to fil with troubled officers.
'Shel-shock: that's what they cal it now. To give them their due, they got John speaking and he'd put on a bit of weight by the last time I saw him.'
'Who was actualy in charge?' asked Laurence.
A Doctor Chilvers was in charge medicaly but his son had a share in ownership, I think; he seemed to have a lot of influence in how things were done. Although Dr Chilvers was quite old, he seemed to be doing his best. His son, George, was thirty-five or so but I didn't get the feeling he'd served in the war. He's a solicitor. I didn't like him. The staff were nervous of him, I thought. And either there's family money or they're doing quite nicely out of Holmwood. Is that unfair? I suppose it is.'
She rushed on, 'Why shouldn't they do wel? Somebody has to care for these poor men.'
'Did anyone expect things to turn out so badly?'
'I would have said suicide was the last thing he'd do. Earlier, maybe. Not then. I saw him about six weeks before he—escaped—and he was a bit restless. But in a way I thought that was good. He hated being cooped up; said he had things he needed to do, which must mean he intended to have time to do them in, surely? He talked a bit. About Suffolk. Lots about our father. He said he had regrets—he didn't say about what but I assumed the war. Yet that last time I thought he was more himself, if anything. In fact, I went back more hopeful than I had for ages. I even suggested Mother went over to see him.'
She stopped and breathed in deeply. They were both so stil that a sparrow hopped on to the table and pecked at crumbs. As she began to speak again, it flew a few feet away to perch on a chairback.
'She never did, of course. She never saw him again. That Christmas Day he was taken il in church or pretended he was. A Holmwood attendant folowed him out but John either knocked him out or just pushed him out of his way—it depends which version you believe. And John ran off and ended up dead in a wood. Heaven knows how long he'd been there. He could have lived rough for a while, I suppose. It was an awful, awful shock.
Anyway, apparently Dr Chilvers told the inquest—we didn't go; my mother would have been terribly distressed and I couldn't face it on my own—there was a blot on John's copybook at Holmwood: he'd "absconded" only weeks earlier. Absconded! When he'd gone to Holmwood voluntarily.'
She was sitting forward now, her elbows on the table. Sun filtered through the brim of her hat on to her skin. She was beautiful, he thought.
'After that they'd been keeping him under closer confinement for a bit,' she went on. 'That alone would have driven him mad. No wonder he broke out. But Chilvers' slimy son backed up the doctor and one of the attendants said John was volatile.' She looked upset and paused as if waiting for him to see the injustice of it al.
As if the rest of their patients were models of composure. They kept referring to what they caled a violent attack on their warder outside the church. Not pointing out it was the only way John could get away.'
Laurence must have looked puzzled because Mary added, 'Of course, men like John do kil themselves sometimes. I know that. In fact there'd been another death there—right in the house itself—only a few months before John arrived. But on the day John disappeared, they didn't cal the police out for twelve hours while young Mr Chilvers drove around, trying to retrieve their lost patient with minimum fuss. If they'd got others involved they might have found John before he did it.'
Although her hand was trembling slightly her voice remained very calm. She ran her finger down the side of her glass.
'But it was a stranger who died, you see. He'd left us years ago.'
Laurence wished he could tel her he had heard from him, wished he could have explained that stranger to her. He wanted to believe he would have made contact if he'd known John was in trouble, but he feared that he wouldn't. He should never have lost his friend in the first place.
'Look,' he began, unsure what he was about to commit himself to and whether he was complicating a simple, if sad, event. 'I could see if I could find out anything. I mean, I don't know if I would be able to do any more than you have, but I could at least ask around people he and I both knew. At school, mostly, possibly at Oxford. See whether any of them had heard anything from him since the war. I have the time.'
Even as he said it, he knew he was only setting himself up to disappoint her. So many in their year were gone now and John had had no intimates, anyway.
'People at school' would simply mean Charles Carfax. But her face brightened irresistibly, so he continued, 'At a pinch I suppose I could talk to the people at Holmwood, see if they come up with anything.' As he said it, he thought how unlikely it was that he would be any match for the professionaly discreet.
'When John died—afterwards—they sent a trunk with his things,' she said. 'There's not much in it, just clothes and books. Little things.'
A look of such extreme sadness came over her that he was embarrassed to be faced with her emotion and uneasy remembering his own reactions to Louise's possessions.
'But there might be something you'd make sense of. There are sketches and writings, a few photographs. You might see something, knowing a different side of John to us.'
He didn't know how to tel her that he felt he had never realy known her brother at al.
It was getting cooler. Laurence paid for tea and they walked back to the punt, now alone on its moorings. Light breezes made the return journey faster but chily. Mary sat, eventualy accepting Laurence's offer of his coat, while he made what seemed like interminable progress downstream. After a bit she took over and he surrendered the pole with gratitude. His shoulder muscles were burning with exertion but he was damp with sweat and soon felt cold. They were both weary by the time they were back on land again.
They walked the short distance to the Emmetts' new house in silence. Laurence, remembering their Suffolk home from years back, was surprised by the dul meagreness of the tal, narrow house they lived in now. The brick was greyish-yelow, the proportions of the windows cramped. Below the railings, ferns and mosses had encroached on the damp basement. What had happened to their leisured existence before the war?
An elderly woman opened the door. Was it the same maid he remembered from long ago, Laurence wondered; she wasn't in uniform but few domestics were now. He smiled encouragingly but she just motioned to them to come in.
'My aunt, Miss Virginia Peel,' said Mary. He hoped his smile hadn't been patronising.
Mary took him into a smal drawing room where, despite the warmth outside, Mrs Emmett sat by a fire. To cross the room and shake her hand, he had to squeeze between occasional tables and around a large chiffonier. Every bit of furniture that had looked at home in an affably neglected manor house appeared to have accompanied them to Cambridge. The effect was oppressive, the pieces heavy and grandiose. Weak light filtered in through thick lace curtains under a velvet pelmet.
Even Mary seemed to wilt. Her mother sat on a button-back chair like a relic of another age.
'Laurence,' she said and held out a soft hand, 'how good to see you again.'
He would not have recognised Mrs Emmett. She was much smaler than he recaled and a certain excitability, which had amused him when he was a boy, was entirely gone.
'How good of you to come al this way and see Mary. She doesn't get out nearly enough.' She looked towards her daughter. 'She doesn't see much of her old friends. I don't know why. Everybody used to love Mary.'
They talked politely, touching on her son for only a second, and then only to locate them al in time.
'That was before John died, of course,' Mrs Emmett had replied to Laurence's asking when they had moved to Cambridge.
Mary jumped in at this opportunity. 'I thought it might be nice to let Laurence have one of John's books. You remember we discussed it. As a keepsake.' He could tel that Mrs Emmett actualy remembered nothing of the sort and it crossed his mind that there had never even been a conversation on the subject, but Mrs Emmett smiled again vaguely.
'Oh yes, lovely. What a good idea. Certainly he should have something. Do you like poetry? John was very keen on poetry, you know.'
Laurence had worried that they would have to sit and have a second, awkward, tea, but Mary's mother seemed unconcerned with such social niceties and after a few minutes they were able to back out of the room.
John's things had been put in one of two smal rooms under the eaves. As they climbed the three flights of stairs, Mary said over her shoulder, 'You don't have to take anything. I simply wanted an excuse to show you John's things without having to explain.'
Their feet clattered up a last uncarpeted flight into a smal, peaceful room with a casement window. It held an iron bed, a wooden chair and a washstand. On the bed lay a trunk and a box. It reminded him a bit of school.
'We never used to come up here,' Mary said, as if the room stil surprised her. 'But my aunt needed John's old room, and now this is al that's left of him ... It's hard.'
She opened the wooden box first. A battered hip flask lay on top of a yelow and black striped scarf. Mary picked it up and held to her face, smeling it.
'A school house scarf,' she said. 'Not a Marlborough scarf and not his, though I like to think that a friend gave it to him to keep out the cold. He had it with him until the end.'
Laurence took the scarf from her. He didn't say that it had probably belonged to a dead man. He picked up the corner and saw what he expected: embroidered initials and a school number next to it. He wondered what the schoolboy MS142C had been like and what had happened to him. What sporting boys in what house in what school had worn these colours? School with its numbered individuals was just like the army, he thought.
Mary was rifling through the box. 'Holmwood sent it back to us. Most of what was with him, on his body, was burned,' she said hurriedly, turning her face away. 'But there should have been a watch. It had been my grandfather's and my father bought a new chain for it when John went up to Oxford. Though I suppose it could have been damaged.'
The corner of her mouth twitched so minutely that if he hadn't been watching her closely, he might have missed it.
'These were returned to us.' She turned round, holding out an oilskin tobacco pouch, a crumpled handkerchief and a worn woman's hair ornament. She then lifted up a lined sheet of paper with writing on it and a photograph. 'The contents of his pockets. Pathetic, realy. The note and photograph were in the empty pouch.'
He took the photograph from her. A deep crease ran across it and the corners were dog-eared. It was a picture of soldiers, taken from a short distance away.
The image was poor quality and overexposed along one edge. Nor had they posed for it; in fact, the group seemed unaware of the photographer. They were mostly young and unsmiling. Some were smoking in a huddle. The closest was more of a boy than a man, noticeably slighter and shorter than the rest. Standing alone, leaning back against a pile of logs, his eyes half shut but looking more relaxed than the others, was a sergeant. Close by were two officers; one was considerably older, in his late forties, Laurence guessed. The younger had turned half away from the camera. Could it be John? Mary didn't comment. In the background was a cobbled farmyard. A single bare branch overhung open stals with a covering of what looked like light snow.
He turned the picture over. In the corner was a fairly formal monogram in purple ink—the developer perhaps? He looked briefly at the sheet of paper; across the top was the word 'Coburg' underlined, and below it 'Byers' and then 'Darling' in older, penciled writing. Next to it in different ink was written 'B. Combe Bisset and then Tucker/Florence St?'
Who had taken the photograph, and why had John got it with him at his death? Impossible to know. Were Byers and Darling men in the picture? Was Tucker a street or a person? Combe Bisset was presumably a British location and Coburg a German one. But then he thought of al the nicknames they gave to trenches in France, a stagnant pit caled Piccadily and a sand-bagged Dover Way. As he thought, he was fiddling with the metal comb, a smal, cheap, gilt trinket. A unicorn's head surmounted its bent spikes, with what might be letters or simply decoration.
Mary set aside a battered tin of geometry instruments and lifted out a book on birds. He opened it at the bookmark. John had written down the margin:
'Wonderful golden orioles singing at La Comte. April '17.' The page showed a plump, bright-yelow bird with the caption 'Oriolus oriolus'.
'He and my father loved birds,' Mary said, as she handed him three more volumes. 'Heads in the air—birds and stars—both of them.'
On top was a wel-worn copy of The Iliad. Laurence remembered struggling through it at school. He put the other books on the bed and opened the Homer.
Sure enough, it was inscribed: John Christopher Rawlston Emmett, College House. He reached for a smal anthology with a cover in pristine khaki. He thought every soldier had been given a copy on embarkation to France. It was titled Spirit of War, a colection of stirring works for impressionable young men. He exchanged it briefly for Browning's The Ring and the Book. Mary handed him a book in a brown slipcover. Taking it from her, he read the cover: Karl Marx, Das Kapital. He prised apart the curled-up page corners and stared at the mystery of dense Gothic script.
Mary had puled some notebooks from under the remaining contents. The first was a mixture of sketches, poems and bits of prose. Here and there a cutting had been stuck in. She tipped a page towards him: it was a charcoal drawing of the old Suffolk house. The second book was smaler and the writing in it more cramped; folowing round the bottom margins of pages and up the sides.
Mary stood close to him and turned the pages slowly. There were sketches of infantrymen in a camp lying propped up with mugs of tea, and then one of a young soldier enveloped in a waterproof cape and huddled behind sandbags. They were awfuly good, Laurence thought; the sense of relentless rain was invoked with a few pencil strokes. The whole of the next page was a half-finished portrait of a nurse sitting by an oil lamp, its light accentuating her bone structure. Mary handed the open book to him. He turned the page again. On the left was a studio photograph: French undoubtedly—he had seen hundreds like it—of a solid young woman, posed naked but for her hat and boots. Her hands were clasped behind her neck, the hair under her arms and between her legs was as dark and thick as that under her hat.
Laurence looked up sharply but Mary was absorbed in the earlier notebook.
There were two poems on the folowing page. They both had the same title, 'A Lament'. The first, a sonnet, had the initials JCRE underneath. He remembered John's poem he'd read in the newspaper. This one was better, he thought. The second poem, although also handwritten, had been pasted in; the writing was quite different. It was signed 'Sisyphus'. It was long, with no real structure and incomplete sentences, yet its words painted a picture that brought the combined sensations and sounds of warfare back to Laurence so strongly that he found himself gripping the book tightly. The strange fragments summoned up the inescapable proximity to others and the simultaneous loneliness of life near the front line, of profound bonds between men dependent on each other, yet having perhaps to pass by the same men lying dead in some muddy defile.
Laurence wondered why John had stuck the poems in together. John's poem was highly competent, moving even, but diminished by the extraordinary quality of the unknown Sisyphus's work.
As Mary unlatched the trunk it emanated a faint and disconcerting stale male scent: sweat, tobacco, hair oil and mothbals. The contents were somehow depressing: towels, a worn tartan blanket, some cheap blank writing paper and envelopes. A pair of indoor shoes in need of a polish and lovat bedroom slippers lay over a couple of folded newspapers, presumably there to protect the clothes from the shoes. He picked up the top paper; it was dated the previous November. The front page had a grainy picture of the train bearing the Unknown Warrior arriving at Victoria Station. Under the slightly damp newspapers was a layer of clothing: much-washed vests, long johns and a box of colars. An army greatcoat lay under a thick navy comforter of the sort Laurence remembered wel, knitted by mothers, aunts and wives who had always believed that a chil on the chest was the most formidable enemy of al.
There were four unframed photographs tucked between layers of clothes. The first was of John's father standing outside Colston House with his dog and a shotgun. The next was a studio portrait of a very young John, and Mary younger stil, posed in a big chair. Some glue and a torn bit of dark paper remained on the reverse, so it had presumably been taken from an album. The third surprised him; he recognised himself, Lionel, Rupert and Charles in stiff colars and dark jackets, posing for the shot. The fourth was smal: a little boy in a sailor suit with dark hair and eyes who he guessed was John. He was disconcerted to find John had held such attachments to the past and felt a momentary discomfort at revealing the inner life of such a private man.
'But this is what I wanted to show you.'
Mary puled out a lined schoolbook. Again she opened it and handed it to Laurence. There were fewer words than in the earlier books, large, single ones or short phrases scrawled across the page. One read Göttes Mühle mahle langsam, mahle aber trefflich klein, but he had no idea what it meant.
The pictures were no longer portraits and smal landscapes. Ghoul-like faces—eyeless, formless—rose, dripping, out of some viscous glue. He turned a few more pages: bodies, German soldiers by the look of the uniform, thrown outwards by a central explosion. A rat was crouched on the corner of the next page, a subaltern's pips hanging from its claws and a human grin on its mouth. He turned over the page. A man slumped away from a post, almost on his knees but restrained by a rope with his hands behind him, a blindfold over his eyes. Dark, shiny penciling over his shirt indicated mortal injury. The lead had pierced the page at one point. Six soldiers were standing with their guns half raised. Along the bottom on both sides of the next double-page spread men walked, single file, with bandaged eyes, one hand on the shoulder of the man in front. They'd been gassed, Laurence assumed, or were prisoners. It was hard to tel from the uniforms. The quality of drawing was stil very fine, which made their impact acute.
Laurence turned the page again; he hated seeing al these nightmarish images here in front of Mary. Until now he had been unable to reconcile the boy he had known at school, as wel as the man revealed by his possessions and whose sister loved him, with the kind of person who would blow his brains out in a winter wood.
Now he had become privy to the preoccupations of a different sort of man.
There were a few blank pages, then one last drawing, in pencil. In it a girl lay apparently dead across some sacks, one arm thrown behind her, the other across her chest. Her head was turned to one side, her hair was tangled. What was most shocking was that her skirts were raised, showing her nakedness underneath. One stocking was torn, the other leg was bare, her foot turned outwards.
He suddenly realised that he had been silent for some time. When he glanced up, Mary had moved to the window and was half turned away from him, looking out. She stil clutched the striped scarf. There were tears on her cheeks but her crying was silent. She pressed one end of the scarf to her eyes. He left the book on the bed and went over to her, putting his arm clumsily round her shoulders. She stayed immobile for a second before turning towards him. He held her for a minute, conscious of the scent of her, and of the scarf, and of her hair against his face, the slightness of her body against his chest. It was the first time he had touched another human being, apart from trying to comfort injured men, he thought, since he had last held Louise in the darkness of their bed. But then he remembered the whore in Soho just as Mary broke away, covering her embarrassment by puling a handkerchief out of her sleeve.
'I'm sorry,' she said. 'I can't bear thinking what must have happened to him out there. After I found it I was going to burn it so that Mother never saw it, but it turned out she didn't want to look at John's things. She has his photo by the bed and that's enough for her. A tidy relationship.' She raised her eyes to his. 'She always did like everything to be nice and everybody to be happy. She can't cope with complicated things. I'm quite sure she wishes John had simply died in action like half the other officers in his regiment.'
It occurred to Laurence that Mary must feel suffocated in this claustrophobic house with two prematurely old women.
'Look,' he said, 'I'm happy to do anything I can to help but you're wrong in thinking I knew your brother wel. I knew him. I liked him. I liked him a lot. But that was a long time ago.'
Mary looked at him. 'You probably knew him as wel as any of us, then.'
She rummaged through the trunk, under the heavy layers of clothing, then sat back on her heels.
'No, wait a minute,' she said, hurriedly, 'I've got something in my room I want you to see. You stay here.'
Laurence sat on the chair, hearing her clatter down the second flight of stairs. It was stuffy under the roof, and moving John's things about had raised dust, which shimmered in the light. He walked to the window, lifted the latch and pushed. The window seemed stuck fast. Dead flies lay on the sil. He banged on the frame with the side of his clenched fist and then harder with his hand protected in the sleeve of his jacket. It burst free, explosively, and swung wide to alow in a rush of fresh air. Old moss and flakes of paint fel on to the floor; God knows when it had last been opened. The light beyond the slate roofs showed that evening was not far away. He looked at his watch. It was getting late. He was standing at the window when Mary returned with a manila envelope.
'Look, I'm going to have to be off soon if I'm to catch my train,' he said. Her face fel instantly. 'We can meet again,' he went on hurriedly, 'but I'm supposed to be at dinner in London tonight.' It was only with Charles but he had left it too late to change the arrangements. 'I've got half an hour.'
'John was engaged once, you know.'
Laurence found himself surprised, not because he couldn't imagine John liking women, but simply because he couldn't imagine him being that intimate with anyone.
'She was German, her name was Minna. She lived near Munich. A lawyer's daughter, I think. He met her before the war, presumably when he was traveling.
Wel, obviously before the war.' She shrugged. 'We'd never got to meet her. Her family had been going to come over in 1913 but then everything caught up with us and they never came. My father died late that year. John came home for the funeral and he never went back to Germany. Then, when war seemed inevitable, Minna's father forced her to cal off the engagement. A good thing probably. She was very young. It was made worse because she died not long afterwards. Appendicitis, John said.'
'There's no picture of her?'
'No. He did have one once although I never saw it after they separated. He took her death quite hard. But there may have been other people in his life that we knew nothing of. He left a wil before he went to France; they al did. When he came back from the war he made another wil. We didn't know anything about it and it wasn't with the family solicitors. He used a smal London firm. They sent us a copy. It wasn't very different—he provided for my mother and me—but there were three individual bequests as wel. One was to a Captain Wiliam Bolitho whose address was a convalescent home. One was to a Frenchman, a Monsieur Meurice of ...
somewhere that sounded like Rouen. Doulon—no, Doulens, I think—and the other was to a married woman. I've got her name downstairs. Sadly the Frenchman and al his family were untraceable. Even the vilage was gone. The solicitors are holding money in case he is found. There were no reasons given for any of the bequests.
'Captain Bolitho was in John's regiment. He survived although apparently he lost his legs. But nobody knew anything about the Frenchman or the woman. I wondered whether they had been...' She paused. 'Wel, whether they had been close, I suppose, and whether he would have written to her if they were. In the end I never tried to speak to her and she never contacted us, though the solicitors could have passed on any letter to us.'
She looked at him with an expression he found hard to read. Her eyes were steady and almost on a level with his.
'Look,' he said, quickly, aware of the clumsiness of his timing, 'I'm realy sorry but I do have to go very soon.' He glanced at his watch again. He was going to be lucky to catch the half past six train. 'But if you want me to try to contact Bolitho or this woman, I'l gladly make enquiries. Nothing that would embarrass you, enough to put your mind at rest.'
Although Mary was silent, she looked much happier.
'Might I take the note he had with him?' he asked. 'It might be useful.' Though he couldn't think how. She nodded and reached for it.
'Why don't you come up and see me in London?' he said. 'Next week, say? We could go to a concert, if you'd like that. Have you been to the Wigmore Hal? I could try to get tickets. We could talk more then. In the meantime I'l think whether there's anything else I can do.'
Mary visibly brightened. 'I'd love that. I went there with John just before he joined up and before it was closed down. It must have been before 1914, because it was stil a German business. The Bechstein Hal, it was then. They were stil playing Schubert and Brahms: dangerous German music.' She smiled again. 'John's favourites. It was the only time we'd ever gone anywhere like that together. It was only because somebody else had let him down at the last minute.'
He went downstairs ahead of her, said a rather perfunctory goodbye to Mrs Emmett and her sister and shook hands on the doorstep with Mary who was clearly trying not to cry. He wanted to say something to help her, but then she thrust a sheet of paper at him. He was puzzled for a second until he realised it was a copy of John's wil.
Speaking fast, she said, 'You probably think I'm just not accepting it, John's death. But I do accept it. We'd lived with that possibility for four years. It's realy his life I'm trying to understand. There's this hole where I should know things. And then there are things I do know—such as the people in his wil whom we'd never even heard of, and my impression that he was definitely getting better—that I simply can't make sense of'
He took her hands in his. She bit her lip, looking at him without speaking. 'I'l do everything I can,' he promised.
He caught a bus to the station and only made the train by running down the platform. Once in a seat, he rested his head against the window and his breathing calmed. The train gathered speed. He had to close his eyes against the setting sun and, drifting on the edge of sleep, he reflected on the afternoon.
He was disoriented by his encounter. It wouldn't be hard to be attracted to Mary Emmett—he had been in a way, al those years ago—yet he knew he was now responding to emotions and a vulnerability that had nothing to do with him.
He took out the wil. Mrs Gwen Lovel was the first beneficiary—or was it Lowel? The legal hand was clear but the letter 'v' less so. Her address was 11
Lynmouth Road, Kentish Town, London. Bolitho's address was a convalescent home at Brighton. Those bits would be easy, he thought.
Laurence managed to get home, change and stil be only a quarter of an hour late, but he was so tired he feared being poor company. He and Charles sat down to eat in an almost empty dining room.
'Everybody's on the moors,' Charles grunted. 'Lucky devils. But you look as if you've come hot saddle from Aix to Ghent.'
'Actualy I went and saw John Emmett's people today.'
'Did you, by God?' For once Charles looked surprised. 'What are they like? I heard they were cooped up in some ghastly place in Cambridge.'
'Mary's a realy nice girl. I hardly recognised her, though.' It wasn't true but he wanted to resist acknowledging the impact she'd made on him.
'Bad business,' said Charles, picking up his glass and half closing his eyes in appreciation of the wine. 'Have they taken it hard?'
'Wel, it doesn't help that he didn't leave a letter.'
'They've realy been through it,' Charles reflected. 'Pa died suddenly before the war, I heard from Jack—that's the Ayrshire cousin—and the Emmetts can hardly have come out with anything, once they'd paid off his debts. The mother was always pretty batty, he'd heard tel—must be where Emmett got it from—and more so when they had to sel the house. And before then, John gets engaged to some Fräulein and it takes a war to get him out of it. And the sister, Mary, my aunt said had been involved in some scandal with a married man. Takes a war to get her out of that too. Blown to smithereens at Vimy Ridge.' He added as an afterthought, 'Jack said he had been at school at Ampleforth with the felow. RC. Can't remember the name. Nice chap, though notoriously flighty wife.'
Laurence was shocked by the lurch of his heart. He was unable to distinguish whether his annoyance was with Charles, Mary or himself. To his astonishment and discomfiture he felt jealous. Mary wasn't what he'd taken her for. Immediately he knew he was being ridiculous. Not only did he hardly know her but she had not volunteered anything about herself to him and why should he have expected her to? He was being a fool. She must be in her mid- to late-twenties by now. Why shouldn't she have had another life, a life away from her family? Why shouldn't she have been happy for a while?
'John's father can't have been too profligate as John was able to make generous bequests in his own wil. One to a chap caled Bolitho.' Laurence knew he sounded gruff. 'Served with him, apparently. Do you know him?'
Charles's social antennae meant that, even unasked, he could provide chapter and verse on just about any officer or outfit he had come across.
'Bolitho? Bil Bolitho, I expect that'l be; he was with John's lot,' he answered, almost like a music-hal memory man. 'Good man. Legs shot off in 1917. Wel, not shot off but gangrene or something. One, anyway. Not sure about the other.' He paused, thinking. 'So Emmett left him some money? Not entirely surprising that he felt grateful, I suppose.' His expression belied his words. 'More surprising to find Emmett had any to leave. Jack's usualy spot on about stuff. Emmett and Bolitho served together in France. Emmett was inspecting a redoubt when it colapsed. Nothing to do with Jerry, just one of those things. Two other chaps with him died but Emmett wasn't far in and I heard that old Bolitho dug like fury and got him out. Banged him about, got him breathing. Heroic measures. Emmett must have remembered when Bolitho was invalided out.'
'And a Frenchman who's disappeared and a woman caled Lovel, or Lowel? Does she mean anything to you? She lives in London now, Kentish Town way.'
Charles thought for a moment. 'No,' he said. 'No. Can't say it does. No, don't personaly know any Lowels, Lovels or whoever. Or anybody at al in Kentish Town.' He looked amazed at his own falibility. 'The Cat, the Rat, and Lovel the Dog, rule al England under the Hog.'
Laurence stared at his friend, speechless.
'Richard III's nasty chums,' said Charles, happily. 'Only bit of history I remember from school. So, this Miss Lovel, an heiress too now, is she? Some floozy of Emmett's? Wel, at least she sounds English this time. Always a dark horse, that man.'
' Mrs Lovel, I think.'
Charles raised his eyebrows. 'Just so,' he said.
After the strangely disquieting day in Cambridge and the dinner with Charles, Laurence half expected Louise to come; she so often did when he had drunk a bit. Trying to avoid her, he delayed getting undressed. Eventualy he fel into bed around two, thinking briefly about the sun and the river. He must have falen asleep as the next thing he knew it was morning; he had been woken by a bee buzzing angrily between curtain and windowpane. He flicked it out into the day and lay back. Despite his aching shoulders and back, he felt content, relaxing in the early light, recaling his meeting with Mary, and he pushed away thoughts of her now-dead lover.
He considered the feasibility of actualy contacting people who had known John. What questions could he reasonably ask on her behalf? Nothing too wild; there was a limit to how far anybody wanted to look back these days. He simply hoped to give Mary some sense of her brother's war and of what others made of him.
He thought of his own sister, as he almost never did, and reflected how very little she would know about him if he should die suddenly. He puled out his bedside drawer and found the picture he had of them, side by side, just before she left to go on honeymoon and out of his life. He was already taler than her. Al these photographs looked so real, yet were as much ilusions and ghosts as oil paintings in a galery. He had left al those he had of Louise in their London house. He thought back to the family portrait of the Emmett children. Who was the baby, he wondered? Had they once had a younger sibling? He felt sorry for Mary, now the lone survivor.
He felt happy in a way he hadn't for years at the thought of simply walking over to the concert hal to check the programme. To satisfy his conscience, he wrote solidly al day. The pages at the end of it suddenly looked remarkably like a proper chapter.
He decided to start folowing up John Emmett's trail the next morning, although when he woke heavy skies threatened rain, putting him in two minds whether to postpone his day's plans or not. There was, after al, no hurry: John Emmett had been dead for nine months or so.
The postman delivered a letter from Charles. He took out the single, crisp page with a smile. Having inherited and swiftly sold the substantial business built up by four generations of Carfaxes, Charles had time to involve himself in other men's lives. Sometimes Laurence wondered whether, in the absence of war, Charles was bored.
10 September 1921
Before you turn detective, because any fool can see that's what you've got in mind, and probably a lady behind your transformation into Mr. Holmes, I thought I might help you by tracking down Bolitho. Turns out he's not in a convalescent home and not far away. Lives in a mansion flat in Kensington with his wife. Not doing too badly, I'm told, and quite happy to have visitors. Anyway, he's at 2 Moscow Mansions, South Kensington. I had an aunt who lived in the same block before the war, ful of faded gentlefolk. I think the Bolithos must be on the ground floor. You're on your own with the mysterious Mrs Lovel, though.
The folowing week, Laurence met Mary off the train at Liverpool Street. He stood right under the clock, excitement turning to nervousness and then to embarrassment as he realised two other men and a single anxious-faced woman were sharing his chosen rendezvous. It was a cliché. He was a cliché. He moved further away. There were a surprising number of people on the platform: a gaggle of girls in plaits with identical navy coats and felt hats puled down hard on their heads, while they, their trunks and their lacrosse sticks were overseen by two stern-looking ladies; it was obviously the beginning of term.
Al these journeys momentarily intersecting here, he thought. Al the farewels. A stout older man huffed by, preceded by a porter with a large case. From childhood, Laurence had always been drawn to inventing lives for unknown people. This man was a Harley Street physician, he decided, whom the war had saved from retirement. Now he was off to a difficult but profitable case in the shires. Laurence looked up at the clock; the Cambridge train was already ten minutes late.
Perhaps he and Mary would forever be meeting like this. He stil felt uneasy in stations. Memories of three journeys to or from France stil haunted him. The first time, nervous but confident, he was ridiculously over-equipped: a Swaine Adeney Brigg catalogue model, his uniform stiff, his badges bright and untested, chatting eagerly to new faces, wanting to make a good impression on the two subalterns traveling out with him. They were al so junior that they had no choice but to sit on wooden benches in the crowded compartments, back-to-back with ordinary soldiers. It was winter and the fug of cheap cigarettes, the range of accents and the stink of stale uniform was overwhelming. He observed the contrast between excitement in some men and grim disengagement in others.
The second time—when a period of leave in May, spent with Louise and some friends in Oxfordshire, had cruely reminded him of al he had to leave behind and that the gap between normality and hel was only a day's travel—had been hideous. He had sat on the train taking him back to the front almost unable to speak.
That time he had recognised the silences he had met on his first embarkation.
Much later, he had returned to England on a hospital train. Although he had traveled in reasonable comfort on this journey, when he got off it was to a sea of stretchers bearing casualties, some in blood-stained bandages, others apparently blind or minus limbs. The sight of them was more shocking, lying on a familiar London platform, than amid the chaos of injury and mutilation he'd encountered in the trenches. He remembered an orderly and a nurse leaning over one man. She puled his grey blanket over his head as she signaled to two soldiers to carry him away. Contemplating the horror of the man's long journey, the pain and disruption of coming home, just to die next to the buffers, Laurence had turned his head away.
He jerked back to the present. The landscape of khaki and grey faded away. The Cambridge train was puling in with a last exhalation of steam. He watched various individuals pass but he could not see Mary.
She had almost reached his end of the platform before he recognised her. With her hair covered by a deep-crimson hat and wearing a coat, she looked different: more sophisticated and more in control. Everything about her declared her a modern woman, he thought as she drew closer, yet her eyes were less confident as she searched the crowd and she clutched her bag tightly to her. He was grinning like an idiot; he could feel his cheek muscles aching. He waved, although it was quite redundant; she was near enough to have seen him already and then she was in front of him. Quite on the spur of the moment he kissed her on the cheek. She smeled of Lily of the Valey.
'Laurence,' she said, with her amused, crooked smile, 'it's so good to be here.' She looked round almost excitedly and took a deep breath of anticipation.
'We need to get a cab,' he said, gently ushering her through the crowds, his hand in the smal of her back. 'We've got plenty of time so we could have tea before the concert. If you'd like that, that is? Talk a bit and so on?'
'Talk a bit,' she said teasingly but then laughed. 'Oh Laurence, I love just being here. Getting away.' Her voice became more serious. 'We'l have a bit of time afterwards though, I hope?' He was very conscious of her body even through the smal area under his palm and through a wool coat. She broke away only as a cab drew up.
Within a quarter of an hour they were sitting over tea in Durrants Hotel.
'I struck lucky with Captain Bolitho,' he told her happily. 'Nice wife too. It al seems quite straightforward.'
His confidence that evening, the uncomplicated nature of the story he had to tel, was something Laurence would remember long afterwards.
Laurence had been surprised to get a letter by return of post from Wiliam Bolitho, suggesting he come to lunch the folowing day. He had taken a bus and then, folowing Charles's very precise directions, walked through the streets to Moscow Mansions.
Mrs Bolitho had opened the door. She was slim and of middling height with curly auburn hair and an inteligent face. Bolitho sat by a window in the sitting room with a blanket over his lap. The shutters were folded back and light poured into a slightly shabby but pleasing room. Some draughtsman's drawings, mostly of big but unfamiliar houses, hung on the largest wal, and on the wooden floor lay a rose and indigo Persian rug faded by the sun. One wal was lined with books; the other was dominated by an abstract picture of strong ochre and black squares and curves, with odd glued and painted newspaper scraps. Laurence had no idea what it meant, but he liked it.
Laurence turned as Bolitho reached out to shake him by the hand. It was a strong grip that matched the strength of character in the man's face. Bolitho had caught the direction of Laurence's gaze.
'It's Braque,' he said. 'Wel, not a Braque, obviously, but a copy.' Then he went on, 'It's very good to meet you.'
Laurence sat down in a deep chair opposite Wiliam. They talked for a while about nothing particularly significant, although Laurence was trying to gauge the man and suspected Wiliam was doing much the same with him, until Eleanor suggested they move through for luncheon. He tried not to look shocked when she removed a blanket, revealing one of Wiliam's legs apparently ending at the knee, the trouser neatly pinned up, and no sign of the other limb at al. She helped Wiliam into a wheelchair, bracing it with her foot, while he swung himself over.
'Can I help?' Laurence asked, although it was obviously a practised routine.
'No, no it's fine,' said Wiliam. 'Most chaps in my situation sit in the wheelchair most of the day but I get damn bored. I prefer to move about.'
Eleanor pushed the chair through double doors to the smal dining room where a table was laid near the window.
Any fear he'd had that the meeting would be gloomy and difficult was dispersed over a simple meal of cold meats, boiled potatoes, sweet pickled beetroot and a blackcurrant fool. The Bolithos were excelent hosts and the affection between them was tangible. Wiliam had been an architect before the war, he told Laurence, and stil hoped that he might find a job that would alow him to work again. Laurence glanced at his wife whose face was one of determined good cheer as her husband spoke.
'I was trained in Glasgow and studied in Vienna. There's so much I'd like to be part of—so much happening in architecture that's exciting, innovative...' His face lit up with enthusiasm. 'It's difficult, of course, but with al the new building in London I'm keeping my ears open. I write letters, I keep up with my reading and so on.'
He indicated a pile of journals on a table. 'Eleanor says it can be only a matter of time.'
'Sadly,' she said, 'they're as short of young architects now as they are of so many other professional men.'
Apparently ignoring her earnestness, Wiliam looked over his shoulder, his waving fork indicating the room and the painting behind them.
Alternatively, I do feel I might have a good future in forging Braques,' he said. 'Cubism seems to invite it, realy.'
An hour or more went by without Laurence realy noticing time pass but it was long enough for him to realise, as he had with Mary, that he was quite useless in controling the direction of a conversation. He let it find its own level. Eleanor held forth on the prospect of the Independent Labour Party ever winning an election. Her enthusiasm and inteligence were infectious and Wiliam, who must have heard it al before, looked on with evident pleasure. Laurence found himself teling them about his teaching and his reservations about the book he was writing.
'But obviously you want to talk about John Emmett's wil?' Wiliam said eventualy, with no embarrassment. 'Wel, one of the things we were able to do with his bequest was to buy a gramophone.' He looked towards the corner. 'Tidy, isn't it?' As Laurence folowed his glance, Wiliam added, 'I expect you're wondering where the horn is. You see, it's got a pleated diaphragm instead, it's the latest thing. I first saw it out in France, as we had one in the mess at HQ. A friend has just sent me Beethoven's complete works. They've just been recorded.' He picked up a couple of crimson-centred records and carefuly slipped them out of their brown-paper covers. 'Beautiful. And Bach as wel. There's much more interest in him these days. About time too.' He looked completely happy, Laurence thought. 'Frankly, Emmett's bequest changed our lives. The sum he left us surprised us both.'
'It was being able to move here, you see,' said Eleanor. Just fleetingly she sounded defensive. 'It wasn't al about luxuries, however welcome.' She smiled at her husband and then turned to Laurence. 'We realy wanted more room; with the wheelchair you need more space to manoeuvre—you can imagine. We were in Bayswater, but it was smal and Wiliam was a prisoner if he was on his own, and then there was Nicholas.' Laurence must have looked puzzled because she went on,
'Our son. He's nearly three now.'
Laurence tried not to let his surprise show on his face. Eleanor laughed.
'The flat seems a lot smaler with him around; he's never stil for a minute. Today he's at my sister-in-law's near by with his little cousins.'
She got up to carry the plates through to the kitchen and caled back, 'Moving here, living near her, has made a huge difference to us al. She's a widow—my brother Max was kiled at Cambrai. Now we can al start again.'
Laurence looked at Wiliam and saw a handsome man with thick, light-brown hair, which was just beginning to turn grey around his ears; the first lines of middle age only gave his face more expression. Any pity Laurence had felt for him on arrival had long subsided.
After they'd finished lunch, and Eleanor had left to fetch their son, the two men settled back in the drawing room. Wiliam took out his pipe and held it in his hand without lighting it.
'You were a close friend of John Emmett's, then?'
'Wel, the thing is, I wasn't a particular friend of his,' Laurence began. 'I was while we were at school, I suppose, but I'd hardly heard from him since; in fact I didn't even know he'd died until his sister—Mary—contacted me. It's just that his family were very kind to me when I was young and so I thought I might help them a bit by trying to find out more about his state of mind.'
'No letter, I gather? Or so the solicitor told us.'
Laurence shook his head.
'Hard. I'm unlikely to add to what you probably know already but I can tel you it was damned odd hearing about the bequest and, of course, hearing it with the news of his suicide.'
'But you saved his life, didn't you?' said Laurence. He wondered how Wiliam felt now that the life he saved had been thrown away.
'Not realy. In fact, not at al. I just happened to be there. Anyone would have done the same. They did, in fact.'
Laurence recognised English diffidence. No doubt he would have explained it like that too.
'It was in the run-up to the Somme. He was in a covered trench just outside Albert. It was an old one that had been blown in a while back and was being redug. They knew their stuff, those sappers. Though the chap in charge of the sector had come across from HQ at the time because there was some question of whether the earthworks were viable at al. Rightly, as it turned out.
'Emmett had gone down there with a corporal and two other men who were stringing up some cables. It was probably rotten wood that did it. We'd run out of decent material for revetment by then and we were reusing timbers that had been waterlogged. It had been hot and dry for weeks and I suspect the wood had simply dried out too quickly, even underground. You know what it was like.'
'Anyway,' Wiliam went on, 'I was just standing there in the sunshine, glad it was al quiet. I can remember it exactly because one of the men had just brought me a flint arrowhead. The whole river valey was ful of Iron Age remains. Every time we dug, these things were turning up—stone axes sometimes. Everyone knew I colected them so if they found any odd-looking bits they brought them over. I've stil got some.' He waved at a cabinet against the far wal. 'This one was tiny but a beauty; you could see where it had been chipped around the edge as if it had been done yesterday. Perfect. When, bang, there's this God-awful crack and a few seconds of dul rumbling under the feet, and the tunnel's gone. A great puff of dirt comes back out of it, smeling of damp and worse things, to be honest. That damn awful smel.
'My immediate response was that we were under fire and we al ducked down instinctively, but within seconds we realised the tunnel had gone. I started trying to tear at the debris and the earth with my hands, but it was hopeless, the entrance was almost completely blocked. The sergeant caled for proper tools and someone went for an orderly. I went in with the sergeant—Tucker, as I recal—and we took turns clearing it. Another lad helped. I think he was the servant of the visiting sapper officer.'
The name Tucker registered almost immediately with Laurence. Although a common enough name, it was also on the list John Emmett had with him when he died.
'It was Tucker who ran the risks, no question; we stil weren't entirely sure whether they'd found a shel. Tucker had had his run-ins with Emmett but on that day he was digging like a man possessed to get him out. He reached one of the soldiers in a few minutes or at least got hold of his feet. We puled him clear but he was in a bad way. Tucker cleared his nose and mouth but apparently he was gone within seconds—the man was his friend, someone said—and then the orderly arrived and had him taken off.
'One of the soldiers dug with anything he could find and while Tucker was stil dealing with his friend, I changed places, without much hope realy, and I found John there about twenty feet in. Cleared the filth away to help him breathe. The tunnel hadn't falen in al along its length. The nearest section had come right down and did for the man we'd got to first. Further in the timbers had held on one side and colapsed on the other, so they were at an angle across the trench. John lay under this; the top half of his body was towards us. He was conscious and had air, but his right arm was caught under him, his back and legs were buried by the earth and he couldn't turn his head. Even the timber above him was bowing and there was a steady trickle of soil. I don't mind teling you I was on a hair-trigger to run out of there. I always hated those tunnels, especialy re-digs. But slowly I calmed down and realised I couldn't smel explosive or burning.'
Wiliam turned in his chair, opened a carved box on the side table, took out a silver lighter and a tobacco pouch and proceeded to fil and light his pipe. He drew the smoke in, slowly and deeply.
'I started excavating round him, hoping to hel the whole thing wouldn't fal in.'
'And you got him out?'
'Wel, he was a lucky man in the event; scarcely a scratch on him, but he wasn't doing too wel down there. Covered in sweat, ashen in the light of my torch and gasping. Eventualy Tucker had to finish the job. I was too big, you see. Tal man, back then ... couldn't squeeze through properly. Every time I moved, I scraped against the sides and brought more stuff down, but Tucker was wiry, almost skinny, he could wriggle about down there. Until we had John out, I thought he must be bleeding somewhere, even wondered if he'd die before we'd got him clear. Ghastly look on his face. But nothing; wel, a broken finger and ankle, but nothing major that you could see. It turned out he'd also injured a kidney, which eventualy saw him sent back to Blighty, but what he was suffering from right then was fear, I suppose.
Simple, unaloyed fear. We weren't supposed to be frightened, not so that it showed. Now when you look back, you can see that fear was the rational response to much of it, but there was another set of rules then, wasn't there?'
Laurence nodded silently. He had never been able to say outright, 'I was frightened.' The band of iron round his chest might have been so tight that pain shot down his arms and his fingers tingled as he laboured to draw in a breath, but he'd always hidden it, or at least he hoped he had.
Bolitho went on matter-of-factly, 'The men could scream for hours out in no-man's land, especialy the young ones. Disturb your rest for a bit, rather like a neighbour's barking dog, but eventualy you'd learn to sleep through. Officers, though, were supposed to be above al that. You might have been a Sunday school teacher or a corn merchant back home, but get a commission and al your emotions had to be left at the door.' He inhaled on his pipe.
'And there was Tucker,' Bolitho continued after a while, 'who was close to losing his stripes for this and that, working like a dervish to get John out. Absolutely fearless; on his stomach practicaly keeping the ceiling up with his own body and the whole thing creaking in a way that made you remember how many hundredweight of earth was above it, lying with his body pressed against John, so close that he could have kissed him just by dropping his head a few inches. Yet when we finaly puled John clear, only minutes before the whole damn thing fel in with one last, long rumble, and Smith left in what was now his tomb—pray God he was dead already, not a squeak from him—I saw Tucker was looking at John with a sort of amused contempt and something nastier: triumph, I'd say. And he didn't seem that bothered by the corporal—Perkins was his name, I think—getting it, either, given the man was what passed for a friend.'
'And no bequest from John for him?'
Bolitho tapped at his pipe. 'Unlikely. There was definitely business between John and Tucker. Something going on.'
'Haven't a clue what it was,' Wiliam said breezily. 'Just an impression. Antagonism of some sort. Tucker had his finger in various pies. Buying and seling, doing favours, even dead men's effects, some said. He nearly went down over some rabbit-skin fiddle.'
'Rabbit skin?' Laurence wondered whether there was a whole lexicon of army jargon that had passed him by.
'You remember rabbit stew? Sometimes more stew than rabbit, sometimes the men claimed it was rat? Procurement people made a fortune on seling rabbit skins. Hundreds of thousand of pounds from clothes manufacturers to warm the slender necks of shop girls and kindergarten teachers, with fur colars straight from the mess kitchens. Only Tucker had seen the opportunity first and he'd been seling them localy. Argued he thought it was al just rubbish. Got away with it, but only just.
His mate, Perkins, who'd enlisted with him and who was definitely part of the scheme, caled him Bunny from then on, but nobody else would have dared.'
'How on earth had he got to sergeant?' Laurence asked.
'Wel, they were very short of NCOs at the start and he'd been a factory foreman, somewhere in the Black Country, so actualy he was quite good with the men
—the ones he hadn't taken against—and he was fearless, albeit vicious, or he would have been in trouble before. But there were always rumours. The men said he was a devil with the ladies and we'd nearly had him up on a charge for seling coloured water as a cure for the clap. The lads didn't like getting the lecture from the MO, and Tucker's stuff worked a treat because most of them never had the clap in the first place. First-timers, boys, with nothing worse than a guilty conscience. But we were a long way forward at that time, so there weren't a whole lot of mesdemoiseless in petticoats waiting for Tucker's blandishments. I seldom dealt with him directly but the man was a clever opportunist and, I can quite believe, a brute at heart. And he'd disappear from time to time. I suppose we thought he might have been out poaching.'
Again Laurence must have looked puzzled because Wiliam's expression changed to one of weary distaste.
'You must have come across them. Loners? Men made for kiling? Couldn't have enough of it, so went out to find the odd extra German for sport or mementoes?' He ran a finger across his throat.
Laurence nodded. Angels in the sky; bulets deflected by prayer books or cigarette cases; footbal armistices; berserkers. Battlefields acquired their own myths; he'd rarely found much truth in them.
Wiliam went on, 'Stil, John had him down for something else. He wouldn't say, or not to me—I was new to the unit then—but he clearly loathed the man. I went to see Emmett once he was strapped up and waiting to go. He was stil very pale but quite composed, and he asked me about Perkins, and where Tucker had been when the tunnel colapsed. He was more suspicious than grateful. I told him I hadn't seen Tucker at al until everyone came running and that he owed his life to him.
But I got the feeling that John thought Tucker might have had something to do with the accident itself. Perhaps that's a bit strong. He didn't say anything specific and he'd had a bad shock.'
'He didn't like smal spaces,' Laurence said. 'He had claustrophobia, I suppose. Even at school.'
'God.' Wiliam puffed at the pipe. 'Must have been hel, then. He was two hours down there, at least. Must have seemed like a lifetime. Anyway, a few weeks later everything goes up. John's in hospital, localy until the casualties start pouring in, then shipped home. Never gets a chance to cal it with Tucker. Not then.'
'And when he died he left you the money?' Laurence said. 'Do you mind me asking?'
'Of course not. It was as much a surprise to us as I fear it must have been to his family. In fact, when John's solicitors wrote, we asked them what the family's circumstances were. Didn't want to leave them in dire straits. Can't say but that the money was helpful—you can see how it is—but no reason for them to do without.
Chap said that he didn't know the family personaly but that John had left his people the house they were already living in, which he owned, and most of the rest of his estate. The solicitor seemed to think their needs were covered quite wel. Eleanor wrote to the family, too—partly with condolences, partly to try to find out what John had meant by it. No answer.'
Laurence stayed silent, trying to remember if Mary had mentioned a letter.
'They're not in trouble are they—the Emmetts?' Wiliam looked concerned.
'No. There's no question of that. His mother and sister would be grateful you saved him, even though the end came as it did. They just—wel, his sister mostly, to be honest—wanted to understand.'
Wiliam nodded. 'It's a funny thing,' he said slowly. 'I was angry when I heard John had shot himself. There were so many men who didn't come back, and then John makes it, and makes it in one piece, and then ... puts his family through al that. But Eleanor understands it. She saw plenty of men with their nerves gone. She was a nurse; that's how I met her. Shel-shock, that's what they cal it now, and it didn't seem to matter how strong a man was before the war; it could hit anyone, any time.'
The faintest of smiles flickered. 'Wel, not Sergeant Tucker, obviously. War had its own rewards for his sort.'
Laurence thought of Charles, another man whom war suited very nicely. Charles was an ideal officer: not over-imaginative, unflappable and robust. But what happened to those men who had found some pleasure in the fighting and the routines, once it was al over?
As to what pushed him over the edge,' Wiliam went on, 'who can tel? I've no idea. He came back from convalescence in England once he was patched up but I never saw him again. I'd been injured by then. We were wiped out, or damn nearly, at Lateau Wood. One leg virtualy blown off.' He pointed to the limb, which ended at the knee. 'Other leg went septic. I hovered between life and death—I don't remember a thing—and was nursed by Eleanor, who viewed their having to take off the other leg as a personal insult and wasn't prepared to put up with me dying after al her labours. I don't know exactly what John did when he got back. Seconded to another outfit's my guess.'
'And Tucker?' Laurence asked, not quite knowing why.
'No idea. I expect he survived. His sort tended to. Probably came home with his clap tonic and the Military Medal in his bag.'
Wiliam was starting to look tired. Laurence fired off one last question. 'I don't know if you were told but there were another two bequests besides yours. A Mrs Lovel. That doesn't mean anything to you, does it?'
Bolitho shook his head. 'The solicitor implied there were other beneficiaries, mostly to put my mind at rest about taking the money, but he was far too circumspect to volunteer names and I didn't ask.'
'Not Tucker, anyway,' said Laurence, feeling guilty that he'd been so much less discreet than the legal advisors. 'So there were limits to John's gratitude. And there wasn't any Lovel involved in the rescue?'
'No, I'm pretty sure not. Perkins died. I think it was Smith who was probably buried alive. There was Tucker, and the major's batman and a couple of other Welsh lads whose names escape me, if I ever knew them. But I don't think I remember a Lovel at al. Not there, anyway. Certainly never came across a Mrs Lovel.
What are you thinking: somebody's wife? Mother?'
'I haven't a clue. It's the wildest of wild cards. I hope to speak to her, if she stil lives at the address I have.'
'And could she even have been somebody's sister? A Miss Tucker or Perkins or whatever at one time, I suppose?' Wiliam said. 'Or maybe she was a young widow with hopes of being a Mrs Emmett?'
'Possibly. And a Frenchman—caled Meurice? No bels ringing?'
Wiliam shook his head.
It took Laurence nearly an hour to tel Mary about the afternoon and his impressions. She had not interrupted once although at one point she picked up a biscuit, broke off a piece, dipped it in her tea and carried it to her mouth, al without dropping her eyes from his face. He liked her for it.
'Bolitho was a good man. Perhaps you'l meet him one day. His wife too. If it helps, John's money must have made a big difference to a decent couple. There's a child too: a little boy.'
Mary looked thoughtful. Finaly she spoke. 'Thank you. It means a lot, even these little bits: John's war in mosaic. He never told us how he got injured. We didn't think much of it; we saw it more as a good way of keeping him from the fighting for a while. We didn't know Captain Bolitho had saved his life, only that he'd been in the same regiment. John simply wrote and told us that he'd been in an accident. He didn't mention the sergeant at al, but being trapped would have been helish for him: John hated being in smal spaces or, realy, being constrained in any way. Even rules irked him.'
Laurence nodded. It had been obvious at Marlborough. He wondered again why on earth John had rushed to volunteer, to become part of such a regulation-bound environment. 'But didn't Eleanor Bolitho tel you some of this in her letter?'
She frowned. 'They never bothered to write. None of the beneficiaries wrote,' she said, with a trace of bitterness.
'How odd,' Laurence said.
It didn't sit with what he'd seen of the Bolithos and contradicted what Wiliam had told him.
'Look, we need to push on to catch the concert, but I did wonder whether I should go and see Mrs Lovel soon. Unlike Bolitho, we realy haven't a clue how John knew her but she must know why she was a beneficiary. Although Bolitho was certainly surprised, he wasn't completely at a loss as to why the bequest came to him. One thing I did mean to ask you was where John was when he got in the fight you mentioned? Presumably he was wherever it was for a reason?'
'Never mind. It's probably nothing but then there's Coburg,' he went on. 'It was written on that list John had.' He could see he had lost her. 'It's just that Coburg's in Germany, in Bavaria. And you said John had been engaged to a girl there, in Munich I think you said, which is also in Bavaria.'
Mary didn't respond.
'I know it's al a bit far-fetched. I just wondered whether he'd had any correspondence with someone there.'
Mary stil didn't answer. She looked down at her lap, turning the clasp on her handbag and finaly raising a solemn face to him. 'He didn't tel me much. Ever.'
She seemed keen to change the subject. 'Look, I ought to give you some money. I do have some. From John. It's not fair that you do al this charging about at your own expense.'
She gazed at him intently. He couldn't help smiling. She was so beautiful and so alive. A long lock of hair had falen forward and curled towards her lips. She blew it away, then tucked it back behind her ear.
He almost let slip that he was enjoying al the 'charging about', but it seemed tactless. 'It's good to be busy, funnily enough,' he said. 'I haven't realy done anything, not since the war.' He paused. 'Not since Louise—died. Not realy. I've only been writing because I had to do something.'
Suddenly, her hand was on his, and stayed there, calm and warm. She said nothing.
They had to hurry to the concert hal. The concert began with Elgar's Salut d'Amour, and then there was some Debussy, which he liked less, though he thought how Louise would have enjoyed it. Next was a Brahms quintet, which drew enthusiastic applause. Mary was rapt. He was aware, al the way through, of her closeness.
From time to time her knee touched his. A couple of times he stole a glance at her in profile. The second time she caught him and returned a smal smile.
As they left the auditorium he left her for a moment while he went to fetch her coat. She was standing behind him as he queued. Reflected in the wal of mirrors above the attendant he saw that a man had stopped to greet her and had even taken her hand in his. Their bodies were very close as they talked, Mary's head bent towards his to catch his words. Then she looked towards Laurence's back and obviously said goodbye. The man was quickly gone. The attendant handed Laurence their belongings and he returned to Mary, expecting her to explain, but as he helped her into her coat she simply said, 'Wasn't that fun!' Her face, however, was serious and pale.
Al the way to the station he wanted to ask her who the man was but could think of no way to raise it that didn't seem clumsy. He told himself that if the meeting had been insignificant, surely she would have explained. As the wish to know loomed larger, the opportunity to do so receded. He could think of nothing else to say.
Mary kept looking at her watch in the dark of the cab. From time to time she gave him a nervous and, he thought, slightly distant smile. She was no longer eager to talk but anyway they made it with just minutes to spare. As she stepped up into the carriage, she placed a hand on his shoulder and kissed him on the cheek. He waited until her train had gone, waving with a joliness that he didn't feel.
He decided to clear his head by walking back. The city was quiet. The monumental architecture of the great financial institutions rose up either side of him, dark and oppressive. He supposed they had fought to protect these as much as they had the idea of vilage greens or royal palaces, had fought to keep things as they were. The dome of St Paul's came into view against the night sky, its silhouette softened by a veil of cloud. The night was cool and slightly damp; autumn was wel on its way now with leaves beginning to fal from the plane trees. He felt indescribably sad.
That night was the first bad one for a while. The banshee scream of shels. The distant crump of other men's catastrophes. The stink of burning and sweat, and al the time his heart pounding. He placed his hand on his chest to steady himself but his heart pulsed loudly through the dream. He put the whistle in his mouth. He was supposed to blow but couldn't get enough breath. Then somehow he was alone in the remains of a traverse, digging as fast and as desperately as he could. It was raining and Louise was there, under the earth. The wet soil made his hands ache with cold. His fingers found first her face and then her nose, entered her open mouth, felt the edges of her teeth. As fast as he dug, earth fel on her from above. Rain pooled in the crater he had dug to let her breathe and slowly, though he held her muddy hair, it filed up and she slipped away from him.
Finding a man in France was obviously far beyond his resources, so Laurence mentaly set Monsieur Meurice on one side. Kentish Town was another matter entirely.
He had decided not to write to Mrs Lovel but simply to go to her house on the chance he would find her in.
At four o'clock he arrived at the address given in John's wil. It was a smal, slightly shabby, dark-brick house, one of thousands like it in London. He noticed grass sprouting in the gutter and that a single spindly rose needed deadheading. Rain was pattering on a faded canvas screen hanging over the door and when he knocked, several tiny spiders were dislodged. No one came. He looked up at the grimy windows and thought how Mrs Lovel must have welcomed John's bequest. He knocked again and caled out self-consciously. 'Mrs Lovel.' He waited for a while and then turned away. A woman in a print pinafore was watching him from over a bowing fence.
'They're long gone,' she said. 'Those Lovels. Four—five years? She kept it nice but there's been another lot since and they've gone too. Bad drains.'
'Do you have an address?'
'No, but my daughter might. Used to help with the children. She liked her.'
She turned and went into her own house, leaving the door open. He heard no voices but a few minutes later a skinny younger woman came out with a baby in her arms. She handed him a grubby bit of paper with an address written in capital letters.
'That's where they were, last I heard.'
It was a fifteen-minute walk, through increasingly heavy rain, to a modest street, but one much less drab than the first address. The semi-detached house sat back behind a low hedge where large cobwebs held drops like jewels. The smel of privet after rain was one he always associated with London.
A tiled path led up to a dul black front door. He walked up and puled the bel, hearing it jangle in the rear of the house, and almost immediately he heard swift footsteps inside. The door swung open and a young woman stood there, her fair hair loose on her shoulders. She had a sleeping cat draped over one arm and looked surprised, as if she had expected someone else.
'Can I help you?' She was much younger than he'd imagined, just a girl realy, but her face was quite composed.
'Mrs Lovel?' Laurence began.
' Miss Lovel,' she replied. 'Catherine Maude Lovel.'
Laurence was suddenly and embarrassingly aware of how impulsive his decision to visit had been. In his haste to help Mary he hadn't thought of the effect of his enquiries on those at the receiving end. How the hel could he explain himself to the slender girl in front of him?
'I'm looking for someone caled Lovel who knew one of my friends.'
'Who?' she said.
'A man caled Emmett. Captain John Emmett.'
There was no sign of recognition on her face.
'He died a few months ago.' He was beginning to feel it was hopeless. Rain was starting to fal again.
'My brother was kiled in the war,' the girl said, matter-of-factly. 'But I don't know a John Emmett. Perhaps it's my mother you want? She's out but she should be back soon. I thought you were her, forgetting her key again. You could wait if you want?'
How could he have been so stupid? Of course this girl was too young to have known John. She was what—fifteen? Younger? But he had at least established that the family had a son who had fought. That was the likely connection to John.
He folowed her indoors with some relief; water was now trickling down the back of his neck. A daily woman, by the look of her, emerged from the back of the house. She took his hat and coat, shaking them out as she did so. Catherine Lovel showed him into a smal sitting room. It was neat, respectable, perhaps a little old-fashioned, and decidedly cold, but there were some good books in a glass-fronted case. He looked sideways and read those with larger lettering on their spines: Trolope, Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop, Sir Walter Scott, Tennyson, Wordsworth; it was more or less the sort of colection he had at home. There were even some bound operetta scores. The girl sat opposite him talking to the cat.
Eventualy he heard the door open, and the gasps and protestations of someone retreating from a downpour.
'Martha. Martha, oh thank you—no, I'm not soaked. I had my umbrela. Just take my hat and coat and put them in the sculery, not too near the stove, mind.'
A handsome woman, in her early forties perhaps, came through the door. She was dressed entirely in dark blue and, like the room, her dress was sedate and unremarkable. But she had an alert face, pale, fine skin and hair almost as fair as her daughter's, though fading with middle age.
Catherine jumped up and spoke before either she or Laurence had a chance to do so. 'He's looking for a man caled Captain Emmett.'
'Catherine—' Mrs Lovel looked anxious for a second but then her expression lightened. 'Not now, my love, I don't even know who our visitor is. Mr—?' She had a slight provincial accent.
'Bartram,' he said, 'Laurence Bartram. I'm very sorry to intrude, Mrs Lovel, but your daughter suggested I came in and the rain...'
Although Mrs Lovel had every right to be put out by his uninvited presence, she shook his hand and smiled. 'Quite right too, Mr Bartram,' she said. 'Catherine,'
she nodded in the direction of the door. 'Can you go and ask Martha to make tea? Stay and help her, I think.'
The girl made a face. She was younger than he had guessed. She left the room and the door banged slightly behind her.
'Look, I'm awfuly sorry to barge in like this,' Laurence said. 'It's obviously not convenient.'
'Not at al, Mr Bartram.' She sat down. 'It's perfectly convenient but I'm not sure how I can help you.'
'This is going to sound frightfuly rude, I'm afraid,' he began, 'but I represent the family of John Emmett. We, that is, they—his sister—gathered that John had left you a smal amount of money...'
A flush swept up her neck and face, and he regretted leaping in.
'But I never wanted the money. So much money. I never expected it. I never even knew about it until a letter came from a solicitor at the beginning of the summer.'
'No one has any problem at al with the bequest. Not at al.' Laurence spoke in what he hoped was a soothing voice. 'They were glad it had come to you,' he improvised.
Heaven knew what they actualy felt. He was embarrassed to see that she thought he was in some way attacking the propriety of it.
'It's just that John Emmett kiled himself. His family has very little idea why he did so. His mother's a widow. He has a sister. Forgive me; they just thought that you might have been a friend or the wife of a friend of his.' He didn't want to say outright that he'd just been told she too had lost a son. 'They never wanted to bother you.'
'Stil, I understand it no more than you, Mr Bartram,' she said. 'Until a year or so ago I had never heard of Captain Emmett. And then I received a letter from him. Just a few months later I hear that he has died in that dreadful way, leaving me al this money. Discovering that we had received this from a complete stranger, and a stranger who had then kiled himself, was very disturbing.'
'A letter?' Laurence hoped he hadn't sounded too excited.
'Yes. It was an odd letter in its way, but then it turned out to have been written only weeks before he took his life. It came in November last year. Captain Emmett said he wanted to meet me, that he had something to tel me about Harry, my son. I can't remember his phrasing but he was quite pressing. However, sadly, he never made an appointment.'
'Do you stil have the letter?' Laurence asked.
'Not any more. I'm sorry. But I knew men sometimes wrote to parents of friends who'd been kiled and I was grateful to hear from him.'
When she went to fetch the tea-tray he paced around the room. To one side of the door were two silhouettes: a boy and a younger girl. He presumed they were Catherine and her brother. There was a lithograph of a Gothic-looking castle and an old theatre poster in a frame. A young woman in an elaborate feather headdress stood singing, hands clasped. He looked closely. It looked like Catherine, but could be a much younger Mrs Lovel.
She returned, set a teapot, china and a plate of cake on a smal table, then sat in a chair with her back to the window.
'Did you reply?' he said. 'To the letter?'
'Of course. But he never wrote again.'
There was an awkward silence, which she filed abruptly.
'You knew Captain Emmett wel? It must be very terrible for his family.'
Laurence hastily swalowed his mouthful of Dundee cake. Crumbs fel on his tie. 'I was at school with him, but he wasn't a close friend. Not realy. Not as adults.'
'But Miss Emmett, his sister, she is a friend?'
'Wel, I suppose so. I don't realy know her either. I mean, not wel.'
She looked at him quizzicaly. 'My husband died when Captain Emmett must have been scarcely more than a child,' she said, effectively pre-empting his next question. 'He was older than me and had been an invalid for many years. He died in Nice when Catherine was three. Then my son was kiled in the war.' Her eyes dropped to her linked hands. She wore no jewelery. 'He was twenty-one. Now we are just the two of us.'
This time the silence seemed infinite. To say he was sorry seemed an absurd irrelevance.
'Harry volunteered as soon as he was eighteen. He was buried near Le Crotoy. But I am told his grave is lost.' She looked at Laurence. 'Captain Emmett must have been a friend of Harry's. Don't you think so? I met only one or two of his friends, and one died out in Flanders, but I don't remember an Emmett. Wouldn't he have told me?'
'I simply have no idea. But certainly one of the other bequests, apart from his family, was to an officer who served with him, so it's possible. Was Harry in the West Kents?'
This time it was she who had a mouthful of cake, so she shook her head. He put down his plate and when he looked up she had turned to gaze out of the side pane of the bay window.
'You know al these stories people tel about how they were lying in bed one night and their loved one walked in, or they were out walking and heard a voice caling them from far away, and soon after the news came of their death? How they just knew? Wel, nothing like that happened to me,' she said quietly. 'If it were possible, then it would have. We were very close, you see. He was quite a solitary boy and he would share things with me: stories, pictures, shels, birds' eggs.
'One afternoon Catherine and I went walking on Parliament Hil Fields. It was March and we were trying to fly a kite. We weren't very good: it was Harry's kite realy and he was so clever with it. Finaly it went soaring off and caught round a chimney. It looked like a flag: white, red and black, and I said to Catherine that we had better escape or we might be arrested as foreign agents.' She smiled, more to herself than him. 'We came back laughing to the house, just clutching the string, and when I turned a corner I saw him. The telegraph boy. Standing at the bottom of our steps, just out there.'
She turned her head a little towards the window.
'I held Catherine's hand so tightly that she cried out, and I turned round and I walked with her across the road and back to the green, and then I ran and ran, puling her along, and she kept stumbling and she started to cry, and I looked up and saw the kite, bright on the rooftops, and I knew it was no good. I couldn't turn the clock back an hour earlier, or a day, or a year, or three years. We sat on the grass for hours until it got dark and rather cold, and finaly a woman came out from the houses, and she spoke to us and was kind, and she and her husband walked us home and there it was—the telegram. My neighbour had it. She had told the boy "no reply". She knew, of course.'
The rush of words stopped. She swalowed hard.
'We hadn't been here that long. It had gone to our old address first. It was weeks since he'd actualy died. So, you see, I wasn't even thinking about him when I thought I stil had him, before I knew he was gone. Who knows what I was doing at the moment he died. Peeling an apple? Riding on a tram? Shopping at Swan and Edgar? Who knows what he was doing? I didn't. Was he kiled immediately? Did he linger in pain? I dreamed of it, of course. Not every night but often. As one does.'
Laurence thought how natural she seemed to think dreams of the dead were. He never admitted to anyone that he dreamed of Louise.
'I dreamed of him dying in every imaginable way, but it was worse when I dreamed he was alive. I could smel him, touch him, and then I'd wake up and it was new agony al over again. But you've lost someone yourself?' she ventured, obviously noticing his unease. 'Someone close to you? Not just Captain Emmett?'
Laurence said nothing for a few seconds. Finaly he said, 'A long time ago,' and knew she didn't believe him.
The room was starting to darken but she made no attempt to turn on the light, not even when she went out to the kitchen to send the maid home. When she returned, she seemed to have come to a decision.
'You know, I would very much have liked to know what Captain Emmett had to tel me. He probably knew Harry, possibly had some details about his death.
But I don't think I ever shal know now what he wanted and I don't want to try to find out. For a long time I did but I owe it to Catherine to make a proper life for her, not one overshadowed with grief.' She paused. 'It's different for me, of course. For me life is over.'
Laurence sat forward.
'I'm so very sorry,' he said, and he meant it. 'I wish I could help, I wish I could tel you more about John Emmett; there must be a connection but I've found nothing, yet.'
'No,' she said, 'I'm not asking for that.'
She looked down at her hands. It was obviously time for him to leave and in saying goodbye he was not surprised that she didn't ask him to keep in touch with her.
On the way home, Laurence was cross with himself for not asking her a bit more. However, he had been unnerved by the depths of sorrow behind her dignified exterior and it had seemed to him that she didn't want her daughter to overhear their conversation.
As he left he'd said, 'I don't have a card, but...' He plunged his hand into his coat pocket to find only the Wigmore concert programme. 'I'l give you my name and address in case you want to talk to me.'
He tore off a bit of the back cover and started to write. She didn't offer him anything better to write on and he felt a bit of a fool, but it seemed a courtesy after he'd invaded her afternoon without warning.
'Thank you,' she had said and then added, 'So you like music, Mr Bartram?' She picked up the programme as it lay on the console table.
'Yes, I do,' he replied.
'I was a singer once,' she said almost off-handedly. 'Classical repertoire mostly. I trained for over four years. I sang on the continent but gave it al up when my son was born.'
'The Elgar was wonderful at this concert,' he said after a few seconds. 'It made me feel that things were getting back to normal.'
He cursed himself for not thinking. He was talking to a woman whose life could never be normal again, yet she actualy brightened and nodded in agreement as she skimmed the programme before handing it back. He hovered on the doorstep for a second, made his farewel and walked towards the main road deep in thought.
People didn't just inherit money from strangers. There had to be a link and he would find it. He felt that he had at least established that John had a reason, even one known only to John, for the bequest. One he'd meant to explain, perhaps. But what had made him change his mind?
When Laurence got home there were, unusualy, three letters waiting. A plump one was from India and he set it aside for later. The second was from his publishers. The third was in unfamiliar handwriting.
Dear Mr Bartram,
There was something I wanted to ask you but I didn't want to speak in front of Wiliam because he needs to look forward, not back to the war. We al must.
However, you may not have realised, and it didn't seem the time to raise it, but I knew John Emmett for a while. I doubt Wiliam wil have thought to tel you.
I nursed him out in France and of course that's how I met Wiliam, too. I just wondered, for my own peace of mind, whether you were quite certain that John's death was deliberate. You see, although John may have been troubled, he was strong in his way. He had inner resources—talents. He wrote, he could draw marvelously. He had things to live for, however difficult his circumstances.
You do hear of people being careless while cleaning a gun, say (though I'd like to know how he had hidden a gun if he was being treated for melancholia). But I just hope somebody who didn't know him properly hadn't jumped to any conclusion just because he was il after the war. Someone told me that tens of thousands of men are trying to claim pensions for nervous conditions and they are probably the saner ones. Anyway, they are not al kiling themselves. I'm sorry to bother you and to ask you to keep my letter to yourself but hope, in time, you might be able to reassure me that things were properly investigated. John Emmett was an exceptional man.
Laurence read it twice and sat back in his chair. Her words on the need to face forward carried echoes of Mrs Lovel's determination but, knowing Eleanor Bolitho had been a nurse in France, he should have thought to ask her whether she knew John. Nevertheless, he had never considered for a minute that John's death could have been an accident. Was that naive of him, being so ready to believe the man he once known and admired had loaded his gun and shot himself in the—what? temple?
mouth? He'd had a corporal once who'd shot himself, though no one was sure whether it was because he was careless or had had enough. The shot had gone through his chin and taken off the back of his head.
Eleanor was right. He had accepted the story at face value because John was already unstable. It dawned on him that he knew very little about how John had died. Where had he got the gun? Plenty of officers had held on to their pistols, although it was officialy frowned upon, yet he imagined any nursing home would have searched their patients' belongings. John could have got one from someone else but that would mean that there was someone out there who knew more about the suicide and yet hadn't come forward. Given John was dead, it had never seemed to matter where the gun had come from.
Once Laurence started to consider what he did not know, or even what Mary might know but had not volunteered, he realised how little substance there was to the account of John Emmett's death. Where was the wood where the body was found, for instance? Mary had said it was on the edge of the county.
He puled out an elderly atlas of England from his shelves. Fairford was in south-east Gloucestershire, almost on the border where three counties met: Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. But Somerset, Monmouthshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire also shared boundaries, though much further away. How far had John traveled before dying? Where was the inquest held?
He wasn't sure whether acting as Mary's private detective was quixotic or ridiculous, but there were surprisingly positive aspects to it and not just the emotions he was trying to suppress regarding Mary herself. He'd enjoyed meeting Wiliam and Eleanor Bolitho and he was intrigued by Mrs Lovel. He had wondered briefly whether either she or her daughter had been John's lover, but the girl was far too young and he just couldn't see Mrs Lovel's charms appealing to a man in his twenties.
He was stil puzzled by John having that much money to leave. It didn't fit in with the gossip relayed by Charles. He could ask Mary, if he phrased it subtly. But at least John's wil had established a scale of things. Bolitho had received a goodish sum for helping John survive an accident, although Bolitho had represented himself as little more than an observer. Whatever Mrs Lovel had done, it was evidently of slightly less importance than that, judging by the size of the bequest. The lost or dead Frenchman, M. Meurice, had been left half the sum Bolitho had received. Doulens was near the battlefields of the Somme. Had Meurice helped John out there in some way?
Realisticaly, Lovel and Meurice had to be connected through John's military service. Bolitho certainly was and, anyway, war had been John's occupation for most of the years leading up to his incarceration and death, leaving little time for anything else. Was it possible that Mrs Lovel, like Eleanor Bolitho, had been a nurse in France? It seemed highly unlikely as she had a young daughter. Yet whatever the connection was, it had not existed, or had not been pressing enough, for John to recognise it in his previous wil, made in 1914. Yet perhaps that first wil had been made with very little thought of death as a real possibility. It was just a routine for al departing officers and they were al such gung-ho optimists then.
He muled over a few other vague ideas. Could Mr Emmett Senior have been married before, and Mrs Lovel been a half-sister of John's? Unlikely, he thought; she and her daughter were unusualy fair-haired and fair-skinned, while John, like his father, was dark-haired and brown-eyed. Anyway, in that case Mrs Lovel would surely have recognised the name Emmett instantly when she received the letter and he doubted John's father was old enough to have squeezed in an earlier marriage. It was equaly unlikely that Catherine Lovel was actualy an ilegitimate child of Mr Emmett and Mrs Lovel, making her a half-sister to John and Mary.
So, the uncomplicated and old-fashioned Cecil Emmett— a man whose main relationship seemed to be with his animals and the kitchen garden, and who refused to spend a night away from home—hardly seemed the type to maintain a handsome widow in a North London vila. His favourite phrase had been, Always set things right,' which he applied to everything from not leaving tennis bals in the rain to having cottages repaired for aged tenants while his own roof leaked. However, there were also Charles's alegations about his carelessness with money.
Could there realy be some connection with Germany? If so, Laurence couldn't begin to think how it could be unraveled now. By the time it began to get dark, he had decided to ask Charles to check the name Lovel with some of his army cronies. Charles would find the mystery irresistible. He should have asked Mrs Lovel for her son's regiment but Charles would enjoy finding it.
The one idea he'd been muling over since his first meeting with Mary was seeing Holmwood for himself. He had rejected his initial vague notion as reckless once he got home, but in the absence of other answers he was starting to think that it wouldn't be so difficult to carry off; he could simply present himself as looking for a place for a troubled relative. It would be a gesture to prove his commitment to finding out more about John Emmett.
The next morning he wrote to Mary to propose it again. She wrote back by return of post and with such enthusiasm that his heart sank slightly as he realised he was now committed to a deceit. However, his spirits rose at the rest of her letter, which described the easterly wind, leaves faling, Michaelmas undergraduates wandering about like lost schoolboys in their gowns, and how she had been to a recital in Trinity chapel which she thought he might have enjoyed. She added, almost as an afterthought, that she had found a few more of John's things although there was nothing remarkable among them. Next time they met, she'd bring them. She hoped this would be soon—she underlined the word soon. It was a very different Mary, more informal and light-hearted than in her earlier letter.
Buoyed up by her tone, he wrote to Holmwood immediately. Mary had said they had instaled a telephone system although he was in no great hurry. Wanting it to seem like an ordinary enquiry, he created an older brother, Robert, who owed quite a lot to a character in a book by John Buchan, but was, additionaly and essentialy, given to melancholy and seizures, having being injured at Loos. He went out to the postbox straight away, before he could deliberate any further, but after he'd posted his letter he wondered whether the fits were too much. On the way back, he picked up a newspaper from the news boy in the square; since he had started involving himself with John Emmett, he had found his broader curiosity for the world returning intermittently.
When he got in, not being in the mood to look at his work, he opened his sister's letter. It was ful of the usual cheerful inconsequentialities and devoid of any sense of what she was thinking, only of what she—or, more often, other people—were doing. He felt saddened by the distance that had come between them; even the vocabulary of her life seemed old-fashioned, as if time as wel as oceans separated them.
He thought back to school and the days when his parents were both alive. His father had been a handsome man who, his mother feared, had an eye for other women. Laurence remembered how funny this had seemed at the time, when he was fourteen or so, with his father in his late forties, and his mother sensitive to any straying glance or conversation.
'Oh Laurie,' she would say anxiously, 'your teacher, Miss Beames, do you think she might be generaly considered pretty? Did you see your father talking to her?' Or, whispered on a bus, 'Did you see the way your father looked at that young lady he gave his seat up to? Did you get the feeling he knew her already?' His sister would rol her eyes.
Who would be interested in that old man? Laurence had thought to himself then.
He wondered who young Wilfred, his eldest nephew, took after. At the end of the year he would find out. When he had eventualy read his sister's latest news, he was alarmed to find that his oldest nephew was being sent to school in England after Christmas. He could tel that his sister wanted him to be Wilfred's guardian. He rather hoped the boy had not inherited too many characteristics of his sister's stout, red-faced husband but he was nonetheless glad his dead parents had living grandchildren.
Now he scanned an account of a vast industrial explosion in Germany and briefly felt compassion for the families of the dead, whatever their nationality. Pity was like blood returning, painfuly, to a leg with cramp. The other lead story concerned the hunt for the kiler of a senior police officer who had been shot dead as he left his office. The policeman had been involved in two high-profile cases with violent foreign gangs. A police spokesman said there were stil no clues but there was an increasing problem with the number of side arms in circulation after the war. Laurence thought, briefly, of John. Would he have kiled himself anyway, even if he hadn't had a gun?
In an opinion piece he discovered that Brinsmead Pianos had opened under new ownership. He read this article in more detail. Louise's piano—his piano—had been a Brinsmead. He thought the firm had been broken by the piano workers' strike of the previous year. Guns. Strikers. Discontent. He found himself wondering how Eleanor Bolitho would see it al. An editorial in his paper viewed Brinsmead's reemergence as a triumph of capitalism over the Bolshevist threat. From what Eleanor had said of her political beliefs, he thought she might rejoice in the workers asserting themselves, even if it did lead to a dearth of music in middle-class parlours.
Next to the pianos was a poor picture of a politician and an ilustrious army commander, speaking together at a public meeting in Birmingham. They were arguing that war, any war but especialy the Great War, was not a matter of heroism but endurance. They had been heckled at first, the article said, but the hecklers had themselves been shouted down. Laurence recognised the men; it was the pair Charles had been so excited to meet at his club: Morrel, the former MP, and the retired general, Somers. He had been wrong in his assumption that the retired officer would be a stickler for the harshest discipline. Perhaps speaking out now was another form of courage.
It was interesting, Laurence mused, reading on, how some people were beginning to feel they could say these things now without their patriotism being caled into question. Charles had told him that another MP—Lambert Ward—whose own recent service with the Royal Naval Reserve had provided him with a shield of valour, had demanded executed deserters be buried in military graves with al the other falen soldiers. Charles himself was surprisingly indifferent.
'Who cares?' he said. 'One way or another, they're al gone.'
Until John Emmett rose from the dead into his life, Laurence had almost convinced himself the war was history but now he saw that its aftershocks rumbled on and on, and that peace had nothing to do with signatures and seals on a paper.
He started to read about the paper poppies they were making for Armistice Day this year. It was a new idea—started in America. He couldn't imagine wearing one; he even disliked fresh poppies—but perhaps some families wanted a visible sign of al they had lost.
The wind had got up and the windows rattled. He tore a strip off the page and wedged the frame fast. He returned to the mutilated newspaper and started on an obituary of a centenarian who had fought under Elphinstone in the First Afghan War and survived the massacre at the Gandamak Pass. His last thought as the paper slipped to the floor was how smal wars used to be.
Over the next week his own eagerness to get going was matched by a lack of any action elsewhere and yet he couldn't settle to writing. Charles had bought a car and had been trying it out by motoring from one friend's house to another across the southern counties. He wouldn't be back for a day or so. There was no further word from Mary. What was she doing, he wondered. How did she pass the weeks in Cambridge?
After a couple of days' reluctant progress on his book, a letter finaly brought good and bad news. Dr Bertram Chilvers, Holmwood Nursing Home, Fairford, Gloucestershire (proprietors Dr B.G.S. Chilvers MD, and G.H. Chilvers) would be delighted to show him round his establishment and discuss possible treatment for Captain Robert Bartram. Trains ran from Paddington to Fairford, changing at Oxford. The station was on the outskirts of town but it was only a ten-to fifteen-minute walk. If Mr Bartram let them know what train he would be catching, a car could be sent to fetch him. If he required accommodation overnight, it could be arranged at the local hotel. It would be helpful, it concluded, if he could obtain a letter from Captain Robert Bartram's doctor to assist in an assessment of his condition.
'Damn,' said Laurence aloud. 'Damn, damn, damn.'
He considered forging a letter of referral but realised almost as soon as he'd hit on the idea that it was hopeless. Doctors al knew each one another and anyway he was sure to get the vocabulary wrong and they'd smel a rat. At the very least he would have to account for the absence of such a letter.
Suddenly he thought of Eleanor Bolitho. Could she help him construct a plausible document? While she had as good as asked him not to disturb Wiliam again, he could, under the guise of answering her letter to him, ask for help. He dashed off a note to her before dining at Charles's club.
When he arrived in Pal Mal, he could tel Charles was eager to talk, but they got dragged into a smal group digging in on their positions on the gold standard.
Finaly, as brandy was brought into the smoking room, Charles, who had been fidgeting with impatience throughout the latter part of their dinner, could describe his attempted pursuit of Mrs Lovel's son.
'Truth is, old chap, he doesn't exist. Bought this new book, fresh off the press—bound to come in handy: Officers Died in the Great War. Five dead Lovels in there. Not a lucky name. But not our man. The first...' He counted off on his fingers: 'Colonel Frederick Lovel: career soldier and far too old from what you've told me.
Number two: Captain M. St J. Lovel RFC—a possibility, but then we have number three: his brother Lieutenant H.B.E. Lovel. He died in 1917, but I think you said our boy's an only son. Four, Captain Bruce Lovel, went down with Kitchener on the Hampshire en route to Archangel in 1916. Best hope,' his finger hovered, 'was five: another subaltern, Royal Fusiliers, enlisted in London, nineteen years old: Richard Ranelagh Lovel. Promising but he's too early: missing in action, Mons, 1914.'
'Missing?' Laurence said.
'Yes, missing, but it's pretty certain what happened to him. I checked. Was seen badly wounded but pressing on. Seen to be shot again and faling, and by his adjutant. Know that man myself, as it happens. Married to a cousin. Third cousin, realy. I'm off to see him for the weekend. Two soldiers in his platoon saw this Lovel's body but they had no chance to bury him. Body gone by the time anyone got back there. Whole place was unrecognisable by then. Him too, no doubt. So it's simple,' he concluded dramaticaly. 'Your Master Lovel didn't die in the Great War.'
Laurence responded slowly, without pointing out that it wasn't his Lovel. 'Perhaps, though I can't think how, he isn't dead, then? Perhaps he survived?'
Charles was beaming before he had finished the sentence. Laurence had gone exactly where he intended.
'No suitable Lovel dead or alive, old chap. Al checked. Friends plus Army List. Of eight surviving Lovels, four left the army: one's a barrister; one lives on an annuity; two returned home north of the border; one went to South Africa; one, a Lovel-Brace, is a Hampshire landowner. One Lovel is stil serving and currently head of the Staff Colege. No dead commissioned Lowels in the right place either. I remembered you weren't sure of the speling the first time you mentioned him, or rather her, the heiress of Parliament Hil. Perhaps the lady's a fraud?'
Laurence thought that Charles was much cleverer than he let on and that he also had a great deal too much time on his hands.
'No,' he said, 'I'm quite certain that she had a son and that he was kiled. She thought John might be a friend of his.' To manufacture grief like hers, he thought, would have required the skils of a consummate actress.
He left late, declining Charles's invitation to bring Mary Emmett to the Savoy next week. He knew Charles would try to pick up the bil, which Laurence would indeed have trouble meeting, but he also wanted to keep Mary to himself for the time being. As he walked home briskly in the cold he realised that his one certainty—
that the deaths of Emmett and Lovel were connected—had been obliterated by Charles's energetic enquiries.
That night he wrote to Mary and remembered to ask whether he could have the photograph of the soldiers in the farmyard. He wanted to see if Wiliam Bolitho could identify any of those in it. He told her that he had not realy advanced his search and he hoped she wouldn't be disappointed. Even so, there were some things he kept to himself.
In the morning a letter came from Eleanor Bolitho. She agreed to meet him the next day in a teashop he'd suggested near the British Museum. She would have to leave spot on four to fetch her son, she said.
When he arrived she was already waiting, her elbows on the table, reading a book. He read the spine of it as he struggled for a moment to pul his arm from his coat before sitting down. It was John Galsworthy's The Man of Property.
'Helo,' she said evenly, putting the book to one side.
Eleanor didn't seem a person for light chatter or any degree of deception, so he simply expanded on the explanation in his letter and the need to fabricate a medical history for a mythical brother. But first he told her what he knew of John's deterioration once he got home. It seemed only fair. He explained Mary Emmett's fear that her brother had been mistreated at Holmwood and added some of the ideas he'd had about John's death.
For a few seconds her face showed no discernible emotion. Then she said, simply, 'I don't doubt she's right. There are far too many greedy, amoral people taking advantage of sick men and of their families, who are bankrupting themselves to have their loved ones looked after. Or,' she added darkly, 'so they believe. I've heard about a couple of such places. Something should be done about them. This government should do right by ordinary people. We should have a different sort of politics now that everything's changed so much. We shouldn't be trying to do things the same way, which ended up kiling and mutilating half the men in Europe.'
She paused just long enough for Laurence to signal a waitress. Her pale, creamy skin was flushed.
'Did you ever read any of John Emmett's poetry?' she asked abruptly.
Laurence's heart sank. He didn't want any diversion at this point. 'Not realy. Only the one that was published in the paper.'
'Do you like poetry?'
'Yes. Some of it, anyway,' Laurence said, hoping she wouldn't ask him to explain which bits.
'Wel, John's poems, his early ones, were very much a young man's work: pretty pastoral scenes usualy with a pretty Dresden shepherdess: his little Minna, sitting in them.'
'His fiancee. He was engaged to be married in about 1912, I think. She was a German girl. She died. When he talked about her I always felt it was Goethe and Schiler and Schubert he'd realy falen in love with.' She was silent for a second. 'Didn't you know about Minna?'
'Mary Emmett told me but I'd forgotten her name.' He was trying to calibrate the extent of Eleanor Bolitho's knowledge of John Emmett. He'd previously assumed a very slight relationship.
'And now you're also wondering how I knew so much about John?' she asked, in a slightly teasing tone and looking him straight in the eye.
'And about poetry?'
'Wel, the answer to the second question is that before the war broke out I was reading English at Cambridge—at Girton Colege. We couldn't graduate but we could study. I wanted to be a teacher. But circumstances changed,' she paused, 'and I became a nurse. Which has been a more useful skil, as it turned out.'
She breathed in deeply.
'The answer to the first question is that when John came into my field hospital, it was al very quiet; lovely, very early summer weather, I remember. Beds made, bandages roled, shrouds waiting, quarts of iodine and carbolic acid and chloroform, but no patients. Not yet. We had half a dozen soldiers plus two young officers who were il rather than injured. One had jaundice, I think. And a Canadian major who'd been kicked by a horse. We were waiting for the big push. It was uncannily quiet, in fact. Quite eerie in its way. Not far from the hospital Irish soldiers were digging pits, great long graves, for al the dead they were expecting. The other nurses and I kept taking water out to the men; they were in surprisingly good spirits, standing there cracking jokes while up to their knees in earth amid a sweep of grass and wild oats. Anyway, John was brought in from his regimental aid post one afternoon; he'd been injured in an accident. He had various middling injuries. But he seemed quite shocked and had bad flank pain. By the next day he started bleeding quite heavily from a kidney, so we kept him in.'
And your husband was brought in then too?' Laurence added.
'Good heavens, no, this was much earlier than that. I met Wiliam when he was fighting for his life. No, there was just John and the three others. They were the only officers.'
'Can you remember what the major's name was?' asked Laurence.
'No,' she said. 'I haven't a clue. I'm sure they didn't know each other beforehand, if that's what you're thinking, and the major was moved out in a day or so.
The boys were just boys. They ate together and played draughts. Only John was there for any length of time.'
'The MO wondered, though only to me, whether John might be adding blood to his own urine. But we never confronted him.'
Laurence must have looked puzzled, because she added, 'He appeared to be bleeding from his kidneys, but the blood could have come from anywhere.'
'You mean he was faking it?' Despite himself, he was shocked.
'Faking the degree of visible damage? Possibly. But not faking the fact he was hurt or needed care.
'After a couple of weeks things heated up and he was sent back home, lucky man. The injury had saved him. The mass graves were filed and overfiled, but he wasn't there. But when he was there and when nobody else was,' her voice dropped a little, 'I was on night duty and he couldn't sleep. The trench colapse had realy rattled him.'
'Being trapped,' said Laurence.
She nodded. 'In those circumstances you get to know a man quite wel.' She looked sad.
'You were saying about his poetry?' Laurence said, remembering the limits on her time and that he had once seen another poem of John's—when he was in Cambridge with Mary.
'Al I was going to say was that after John was injured, he stopped,' she said briskly. 'Writing poems. He said it had gone. He said he had been a minor poet at best and now not even minor. It wasn't true but it's what he felt.' She hesitated. 'They were al in touch with each other,' she went on after a while, 'the would-be poets
—and there was a sort of magazine he put together, even after he stopped writing himself. It had al kinds of stuff in it. Some was pretty awful, to be honest, but John said it didn't matter if it helped people to stay sane. One or two were marvelous. I remember him reading some to me. It was very late at night and warm. We had the windows wide open and you could smel the countryside. In al that misery, it was a single perfect hour.'
Laurence watched her face. She had been in love with John Emmett, he thought.
'Can you remember any of their names?' he asked.
'Most of the ones I read had pen-names. Some of their subjects were pretty strong, not likely to go down wel with the general staff. And he wasn't supposed to circulate poetry, not poetry like that. You weren't realy even supposed to keep diaries were you? Though I imagine that was honoured more in the breach than the observance, as they say. John said he knew who most of the poets were but nobody else did.'
Laurence suddenly remembered the other poem he'd read from John Emmett's trunk in Cambridge.
'The name Sisyphus doesn't ring any bels, does it?'
'The man in the myth doomed to push a boulder up a hil for ever?'
She paused. 'Yes, there was a Sisyphus. I'd have forgotten except that, much later, John showed me a couple of his and asked what I thought of them. They were realy, realy good. But I've no idea who Sisyphus was in real life.'
'So, how did you come to know that John had other troubles? Neurasthenia?'
'Wel, I saw him a second time. The last winter of the war. He was admitted in a state of colapse: congested lungs, a fever, but more than that. He was a broken man, much worse than before. He scarcely spoke. He couldn't sleep. He had nightmares if he did. He had black moods. Just right at the end he started to improve a little. He came out for walks despite the cold.' A ghost of a smile flickered and was gone. 'But it didn't last. I suppose, looking back on it, the strange business of his paralysed arm was part of it.'
'Paralysed arm?' Laurence was puzzled.
'Yes. Towards the end of this second stay, he began to lose the power of his right arm. He said he'd had pins and needles and weakness since the earlier trench accident and then, suddenly, he couldn't use it at al. He couldn't write properly, do up buttons, cut with a knife: al those kinds of things. Major Fortune tried the usual tests: skin pricks, offering him a glass of water and so on, seeing which hand he used if he was caught by surprise, but he was consistent; his hand hung useless at his side. They decided it didn't matter as he was going home anyway. It was going to be someone else's problem.'
She stopped quite suddenly and then looked at her watch.
'So,' she went on, 'we could use some of that for your fictitious patient. You could say to the Holmwood people that your brother is presenting with hysterical conversion—that's the proper name for John's arm problem—plus insomnia, sudden alteration in mood and feelings of guilt after this head injury; they're classic symptoms.'
Laurence stopped her. 'Would you mind if I wrote this down?' he said. As he scrawled on another piece of paper, he looked up at her; she looked much more cheerful and seemed almost to be enjoying the fiction.
'Say it seems obvious that he'l always be an invalid. They'l like that if they're dishonest: the thought that they might keep him and his pension for ever.' She attempted a scowl. 'You could say he has mostly refused medical help until now. That might help explain the lack of a medical report, and emphasise that he generaly had a bad war. You men like those sort of euphemisms. And you can say that poor Dr Fortune—the MO at our field hospital—died last year.'
Laurence raised his eyebrows.
'Heart attack at work,' she said. 'Unjust after al he'd been through. Though you could make up a few horror stories from your own experience, no doubt.'
'I was quite lucky actualy,' said Laurence, quickly. 'Nothing realy terrible ever happened to me. Nothing especialy bad. Not to me personaly.'
Eleanor looked at him for a long time. He felt uneasy under her gaze.
'Didn't it?' she said finaly.
They sat over the table for another half an hour or so while he scribbled notes. She even suggested that he give her name to Dr Chilvers. She had at least been John's nurse and she was prepared to blur the time and place where she had looked after her patient.
'Anything to make life a bit more difficult for these charlatans,' she said. 'They should be struck off. If they're real doctors to start with,' she added portentously.
Laurence thought that Eleanor made an impressive enemy but he didn't want her to see that he was amused.
At four, just as she had warned she must, Eleanor rose to leave. As she was pushing her chair back, he suddenly thought of something else.
'Do you know whereabouts in Bavaria Minna came from?' he asked. 'Does Coburg ring a bel?'
'Sorry,' she said, shaking her head. 'I don't think I ever knew.'
'Did you know her ful name?'
'No. He didn't talk much about her. Not to me. Though I think her first name was realy Wilhelmina. She had an older brother; I do remember that.'
'Did you see John again?' Laurence asked as he helped her on with her coat. 'After the war?'
'No,' she said. 'No. I married not so long after the war ended. But we kept in touch by letter from time to time. I liked him. He was special. And very alone.'
'I suppose John had a pen-name too?' he said, just as they reached the door. Why the hel hadn't he got his ideas together until she was on the point of leaving?
She thought for a while. 'It was Charon,' she said rather sadly. 'The bearer of the dead.'
There were two letters waiting for him when he returned home. He tore open the one from Mary as he walked upstairs. Out fel two photographs. One was a cheerful portrait of John in a rowing vest, taken at Oxford, he guessed. The other was of the group of soldiers; the picture he'd seen that day in Cambridge. Even alowing for the fact it was of poor quality, there was something grim and defeated about the men. He picked up the letter.
It goes without saying that the happy photograph is precious to me. John never looked so carefree after he returned from France.
I am sorry I've been slow to write—I've been quite busy and my mother has been unwel. It occurred to me that I know so little about you, although talking to you helped me. You have a skil for understanding—maybe because you are a writer.
Perhaps we could meet once you have been to Holmwood? The set-up there is not quite what it seems, I think. But I don't want to influence you.
Laurence was stil sufficiently objective to recognise that she was being disingenuous in the last sentence. Nor was research into Norman architecture likely to fit anyone for insights into the human condition. Stil, he wondered whether he might bring Mary back to his rooms one day. What would she think of it? The rooms were wel proportioned, and she would like the views over London. He opened the piano lid and pressed a key; it reverberated endlessly. God knows when it had last been tuned. It had been Louise's pride and joy; in the end it was the only thing of hers he could not face putting in a sale. The piano stool was covered with a worn tapestry of a horn of plenty, embroidered by his mother.
The bedroom, on the north-east corner of the building, was always colder than the other rooms and tonight the wind was wailing round the corner of the building. He felt suddenly despondent; his reactions were those of a boy, not of a man, a former soldier and a widower. Underneath his romantic fantasies he recognised a much darker physical desire for her. It had first swept over him when Charles had implied that she was not the innocent girl he had taken her to be. Surprised by the knowledge of her passionate affair, he had also been aroused by it, as wel as the fact that, unknown to her, he possessed this piece of her secret self. He lay there in his chily bed, remembering what it felt like to have a woman beside him, her naked legs against his where her nightgown had ridden up, her back curved into him and his arms around her warmth.
He woke feeling sick and shivery. His eiderdown had slipped off and the sheets had bunched down the bed, leaving the rough blankets irritating his skin. His ears were hot and ringing. The usual formless horrors slipped away from him once he switched on the light and straightened his sheets. He lay back. How could he ever explain al this to Mary or to any woman, he wondered, and despaired.
He knew it was useless to stay in bed; sleep would not return. As he walked into the other room he remembered that he had forgotten to open the second letter. There was the large, even handwriting: perfectly straight across the page as if Charles had internalised the ruled lines of the nursery. It took him three sides to communicate that he had been away for the weekend, that the Alvis was a marvel, that a group of friends Laurence had never heard of were on particularly good form, and that he had something quite rum to tel Laurence. It ended firmly: 'We need dinner, old man. Not the Club. Fancy a bit of a change. How about the Café Royal? At seven on Thursday?'
Although he woke up tired, the folowing day was clear. He decided to go over to the Bolithos and show Wiliam the photograph. It crossed his mind that the implicit bargain in exchange for Eleanor's help with Holmwood, was that he didn't bother her husband, but he promised himself that he would not linger.
Eleanor was out when he arrived. Their charwoman opened the door. He felt a degree of relief. Wiliam seemed genuinely pleased to see him. Despite the chil from half-opened windows and a strong smel of paint, the main room had taken on a feel of spring since his last visit.
'Chinese yelow,' Wiliam said, 'Eleanor's work.' He looked down ruefuly at the floor where a couple of yelow drips had hardened. 'She's a rather impulsive handywoman. But sit down. Ethel wil make some tea.'
'Look, I can't stay,' Laurence said, 'and I am awfuly sorry to pester you again but I wondered if I might show you a picture? I'm simply trying to identify the men in it.'
Wiliam seemed perfectly calm when he took the photograph. Though Eleanor had said he needed to move forward, he showed no sign of distress. If he hadn't known otherwise, Laurence would have thought he was a man glad of company and eager for something to do.
Wiliam turned slightly so that natural light fel on the picture. 'Wel, that's John, you may have realised that?'
Laurence nodded; it confirmed his guess.
'And the others, wel, that's odd—it's the MO, Major Fortune. Good man. A volunteer who never even had to be there. Must have been fifty if he was a day: a perfectly good career as a surgeon at St Thomas' Hospital. And, oh, there's Sergeant Tucker—the man I told you about, looking pleased with himself.'
He held the photograph out to Laurence and pointed at the figure leaning back against a log pile. Tucker was a sinewy, almost feral man. The others looked pretty miserable as they puled on cigarettes or gazed down at their feet, but Tucker just looked calm.
'I don't know any of the others; at least—no, the one on the end there, I don't know what he's doing here, but he's the man who helped pul John out of the tunnel colapse. The sapper major's servant. I was thinking about him after we spoke last time and I remembered that he could do the most astonishing tricks with numbers. Give him fifty numbers and he could add them, subtract them, whatever you liked, in seconds, or work out sequences: you know, one—three—five and so on, only much harder ones. The lads used to try to catch him out. He was there while Major Whoever-it-was was bileted with us. He was a prodigy, though he and his officer reminded me a bit of a circus ringmaster and a performing elephant. Wonder what happened to him?'
From the hal, they heard someone come in. The front door closed. Laurence could hear Eleanor talking and the voice of a smal child. The door to the room opened. A smal boy with dark-auburn curls rushed in and climbed on to Wiliam's lap. When he saw Laurence, he buried his face in his father's chest. Eleanor folowed her son, her expression drawn and irritated.
'Mr Bartram,' she said, tightly, as if she'd caught him out in some peccadilo.
'I'm sorry,' he began.
' What a surprise,' she said. 'I'm sorry I wasn't here, although perhaps you'd anticipated that, but as you can see we're quite busy this afternoon. Perhaps you could come back another time? If you let us know beforehand we might arrange an easier day?'
'Eleanor...' Wiliam began, while the boy turned to look shyly at Laurence, but his wife ignored his attempt to head her off.
'I'd like to give Nicky his tea now and Wiliam is tired.'
She looked fixedly at Laurence and under the intensity of her gaze he finaly said 'I'm realy very sorry. I shouldn't have come without warning.'
'But he needed me to identify a photograph,' Wiliam interrupted firmly. 'I wasn't much help, but I got a couple of the men, though I've no idea where it was taken.'
Eleanor put her hand out and he gave it to her. She looked at it briefly. 'John Emmett,' she said. 'Of course. He must be getting more attention dead than he ever did alive.' She handed the picture back.
'Eleanor...' Wiliam began.
'Wel, it's true,' she said, 'when he was alive he was an embarrassment. His moods, his obsessions, his unpredictability: al too difficult. Not a modest hero adding lustre to a county drawing room, but a man who couldn't cope, shut away in some rotten asylum. Now he's dead we can al think about how we wish we could have helped him, or, if we couldn't, how it would have been better if he'd been blown to smithereens with his reputation intact.'
Wiliam said less mildly, 'I don't think that's entirely fair.'
Laurence thought again how wel she knew John Emmett and wondered whether Wiliam noticed or minded her evident loyalty to the dead man. He decided now was not the time to defend Mary.
'No, I'm sorry,' she said. 'Whatever my feelings, I'm being rude. But I realy must go and get Nicholas's tea now.'
She hung back and Laurence realised she was expecting him to go first. He tucked the picture in his walet, said a hasty goodbye to Wiliam, who seemed diplomaticaly unaware of the degree of tension in the room, and he smiled at Nicholas, stil on his father's knee. The little boy smiled back. Eleanor led him out and closed the door behind him.
By the front door she stopped, looked up at him and spoke quietly but fiercely. 'Just because Wiliam's stuck here and can't get out doesn't mean you can just come and go as if he had no life except to assist you. I helped you as much as I could. Wiliam did too but we want to move on. John's dead. We're not. We're very grateful for the money but it doesn't buy you or Miss Emmett a right to our lives.'
He got to the Café Royal first that evening. Charles arrived, slightly late, ful of apologies and long technical explanations about the Alvis. He seemed quite good-humoured as if having it break down was al part of the fun. When finaly they were settled, Laurence regaled Charles with his brief and difficult visit to the Bolithos.
Charles seemed hugely amused.
'Oh Mrs Bolitho, that Bolshevik firebrand. She's famous for it. Not a girl to cross. Joly clever. Good person to have on your side, though.' He picked up his glass and held it up to a candle so that its garnet-like depths glowed. 'Ask Mr Lenin.'
'Is she realy?' Laurence asked. 'A Bolshevik, I mean?'
'Wel, she's certainly a fighter. Damn good nurse, I hear, but my mama wouldn't have had her in the house before the war. Suffragette, Fabian, bluestocking: that kind of thing. Not that my mama knew her not to have her, of course. Didn't have her sort in Warwickshire, but Mama read about them in her paper and always said she wouldn't receive anybody who thought females should have the vote.' He sighed. 'Poor Mama. She must be turning in her grave. Stil bending Father's ear in paradise and al that. Not paradise for him realy. Stil, I should think Mrs Bolitho's politics would make even Ramsay MacDonald's hair stand on end.'
'Good Lord.' Laurence found he was ful of admiration rather than shocked. 'And Wiliam?'
'Heaven knows. Never met him. Not likely to now, realy. Suppose he must go along with it if only for a quiet life. But he's probably counting his blessings: Mrs Bolitho was always a bit sought after. Healing hands, that kind of thing. Pretty too. General surprise when she married old Bolitho but then nurses do that: marry their patients and so on, even without legs. There's a child, isn't there? So his wounds haven't stopped him enjoying the benefits.'
He beamed at Laurence. In anyone else such a statement of the obvious would seem prurient but Charles simply seemed happy for his felow officer.
'Lucky man,' he added.
Laurence was just about to ask him more about the circumstances of the Bolithos' marriage when Charles dropped his own thunderbolt.
'Motored down to Lewes last week and guess who I met there?'
He left a pause for Laurence to go through the motions of guessing.
'Surprise me,' Laurence said, slicing into his turbot.
'Wel, I was staying at Frant, you know, Toly Pitt's house. Third cousin. He married a lovely girl—not realy a girl, she must be twenty-eight if she's a day. She was engaged to some cavalry man who got it right at the start, but then she meets Toly, love at second sight, a year or so back and then she inherits Frant off one of those useful aunts these girls have, and it turns out Toly loves her too. We had a spot of dinner and a joly good walk along the coast. You know how these weekends go.'
Charles was momentarily diverted by his pheasant, but after another mouthful he went on.
'Anyway, this Octavia is a lot of fun but keen on church, that kind of thing. So we were off for luncheon in Tunbridge Wels with someone Toly knew from the regiment when Octavia decided we should al go to church there rather than in the vilage. To cut a long story short, halfway through the service Octavia obviously sees someone she knows across the way: lots of looks, little smiles, fingertip wiggling—delight, surprise: that thing they do—and she whispers to me during the interminable sermon that it was a girl she'd known from driving some sort of canteen lorry for returning soldiers at Victoria Station in the war. Steaming tea, fragrant English girls—
welcome back warrior—you know. When we're al peeling out, rather relieved to be swapping the chily sea of faith for a good roast, she's chatting away to her, obviously trying to persuade her to join us or come over the next day.
'"I'm afraid I can't," says our new chum, just as we come within earshot, "I'm staying with a friend. He's not wel enough to travel." Then Octavia sees me and Toly's sister coming over together and introduces us: "This is Mary Emmett. Charles, I think you must have been at Marlborough with her brother, John?"'
Laurence had been folowing his own train of thought while Charles's story slowly circled its way to a conclusion, but Charles's words jerked him back into the conversation.
'Aha,' said Charles triumphantly, spearing a parsnip, 'thought that'd make you sit up. So I said, of course I did and I was sorry to hear the news, terrible thing, etcetera etcetera, and I can see why you're so keen to scout about for her—nice-looking girl, though a bit of fresh air needed to put a blush in those cheeks—and I said al the things you'd expect. So then I said, "And I think you know my great friend Laurence Bartram," and she was completely thrown. The look that crossed her face was not of fondness and grateful admiration at your very name, but nearer to horror, to be honest. Anyway, after that, I regret to say, old chap, she couldn't get away fast enough. Though Octavia had extracted a promise from her to come round—hard person to refuse, Octavia—the next time she was in the area, and got her address in Cambridge, she didn't even stay to meet Toly and nobody could be intimidated by old Toly. But then later I thought Miss Emmett didn't want my friend Laurence to know she was in Tunbridge. But why on earth shouldn't she be? And why should he care?'
'Where did she go?'
'Heaven knows. I wasn't going to follow her. She was quite on her own and she just trotted off down the Pantiles. Almost as if she were scared we'd folow her. Octavia thought she was embarrassed about her brother: suicide, scandal and so on. In fact, I got the distinct impression that Octavia rather thought I was de trop for mentioning it, though it was she who brought up the subject of John in the first place, but I think Miss Emmett was fine with al that. It was me knowing you, I'm certain, that caused al the consternation.'
Finaly he stopped, looking expectantly across the table. As Laurence tried to appear indifferent to what he'd just heard, the silence lengthened until Charles couldn't resist adding, 'What do you think?'
Laurence longed to check whether Charles was certain that Mary had said she was staying with a man, but to do so would be to make himself look a fool. He hadn't been concentrating at the crucial point in the rambling story. Wasn't it her mother who was supposed to be needing her care? He felt irritated by Charles's speculations and, above al, he felt angry with himself.
Eventualy, and it must have been obvious to both men that it was an effort, he said lamely, 'Yes, I seem to remember she had friends down there.' Then to move away from a gratuitous lie to one of his oldest friends, he added, 'Did she look wel?'
Charles looked at him closely for a second. 'Wel, as I said, I thought she looked a bit tired.' Of course he'd said that, Laurence thought, and stopped himself from asking any more questions.
Are you al right?' Charles raised an eyebrow. 'Your fish is getting cold.'
Charles's plate was empty but for a couple of game chips, which he transferred so quickly from plate to mouth with his fingers that the action was almost imperceptible. He wiped his hands and moustache with his napkin.
'Do you know, I think you're a bit keen on the mysterious Miss Emmett, Laurence. Who could blame you? She's a handsome girl and since Louise died you've turned yourself into some kind of recluse, so personaly I'm delighted to see an old friend back in play, but, for what it's worth, whatever she was doing last Sunday, it didn't look as if it was making her particularly happy.'
'I don't know,' said Laurence and stopped.
He realised as he spoke that behind the vague reply was a profound truth. The chasm of what he didn't know was huge. Mary was the least of it. Everything he thought he knew when he was eighteen had been meaningless. Everything he had thought his at twenty-one was gone. That was undoubtedly why he was devising hare-brained schemes to chase dead men and why he was so fond of Charles who had seemed old at thirteen and would seem young at eighty.
For want of anything else to say he blurted out, 'I'm actualy going down to the home, asylum, cal it what you wil, where John Emmett was a patient. Next week. Just to see whether there's anything I can find out for ... Mary.'
'Wasn't that somewhere in the Cotswolds? Oxfordshire? Gloucestershire?' Charles asked.
'Fairford. The nursing home is caled Holmwood, it's in Gloucestershire. It's an hour or so west of Oxford by train.'
'Wel,' Charles said, brightening up, 'no need to go by train. We can both go in the car. Good to try her out after her temperamental fit the other day and I haven't got much on during the next week as it so happens. We could leave early, stay a couple of nights somewhere and come back after you've spied out the land.'
Reading the expression in Laurence's face, he added quickly, 'Unless you're taking your Miss Emmett and want to go a deux, of course?'
When Laurence shook his head, Charles continued, 'Wouldn't get in your way. Have a walk. Take the air. Lovely countryside. Who knows, even pick up a bit of gossip?'
To his surprise Laurence found the thought of going with Charles, even traveling in his car, was a pleasant one. Al the same, he needed to explain more about his enquiry.
'I'm afraid I'm not exactly going as myself,' he started. 'I mean, I am going as myself but I'm not going to represent Mary Emmett. We didn't want the Holmwood people to be aware of my specific interest in John's death. I've sort of invented a brother—Robert—whom we might need to place in the care of a nursing home. Bad experiences in Flanders...' He tailed off.
'Wel, you are a dark horse,' said Charles happily. 'Reminds me of Buldog Drummond. Marvelous read.'
The journey started off more like a voyage. It had been raining al night and it continued to pour as they drove out of London at dawn. There were very few other vehicles on the road. Charles swerved vigorously to avoid standing water on some streets, yet water seeped in round the passenger door. The interior of the car smeled of leather and oil, and the windscreen and side windows were soon misty with condensation. But by the time they reached the country roads beyond Slough the clouds broke up, and when they stopped briefly at an old inn at Hurley at midday it was beginning to get slightly warmer as the sun emerged.
Laurence's back ached as he puled himself upright. It had done so since the war. 'You've got an old man's back,' Charles said as he swung himself nimbly out of his seat.
After a pint of beer, they crunched back through rusty drifts of leaves and bright-green spiked conker cases split open on the steaming path. When they returned to the car, Charles puled back the roof and strapped it down, then took out two woolen scarves, goggles and a map, giving Laurence the less disreputable scarf. Charles set his goggles in place and looked every bit the fearless aviator his driving suggested. Once Laurence got used to the noise and the air rushing past, he relaxed. When they stopped the car a couple of times for Charles to look at the map, he could hear birds and smel the earthiness of the damp countryside. They made little attempt at conversation; Charles occasionaly shouted a brief commentary on the car's performance, which was mostly lost to the wind and the engine, and Laurence made vaguely appreciative gestures with which Charles seemed satisfied.
At one point, where the road was straight and wide, he slowed to ask whether Laurence wanted a go, apparently indifferent to the fact that his friend had never driven a car in his life. Having received a firm refusal, Charles lit his pipe and drove on, occasionaly beating off the sparks which dropped on his coat.
They passed through Maidenhead, Henley, Walingford and Wantage: towns of Georgian brick houses and pale stone bridges with broad and tranquil views of the Thames.
Henley was the only place Laurence had visited before, for the 1911 Regatta. It had been one of the hottest weeks of a blazing summer. He'd stayed with an aristocratic Oxford companion: Richard Standish. The house stood a little way from the town, its park slightly raised above the river. The first morning he had got up early. The air was warm even before the sun rose and as it came up a veil of mist lingered over the water. It was silent at the river's edge, the surface dark and unbroken between the reeds. Standish's people had a large house party. He and Richard and a cousin of Richard's, al unexpected guests, had to share a long attic room in the servants' quarters, under the eaves where they could hear doves cooing while they lay on top of the bedclothes in the stifling heat. It was the week Laurence had met Louise.
Louise, then seventeen, was also staying with friends: a large, noisy family with five daughters. He had sometimes wondered whether their meeting and subsequent attraction had al been based on the fantasy that was that regatta week. Louise was being pushed by her mother to set her sights beyond her mercantile roots. He was lonely and without any family. That week he was ensconced with his titled friend while Louise was nestled at the heart of her ebulient hosts. In those contexts they both seemed to offer what the other most wanted. In fact, when he tried to remember when he first saw Louise—surely this was a crucial moment in any tale of love—he was hard put to separate the pale blur of cream and blue dresses, spinning parasols and straw hats, the chattering and the giggles, into separate young women.
John Emmett was there too, he suddenly recaled, though where he was staying he was not sure. He had forgotten that fact completely but now it occurred to him that was actualy the last time he'd seen him. Into his mind came a picture of John standing barefoot on a slip in a rowing vest and shorts, slender but wel muscled. It had slipped his mind that John was such a good oarsman. He was not a dedicated one; although he could have been first class, he always maintained a position of ultimate disengagement. Was that just the pose of a very young man, he wondered? But John had rowed for his colege, which must have required some commitment.
Was there a girl beside him? He rather thought there was, smiling and laughing with an easy familiarity under a ridiculous hat. Was that his fiancée, the Bavarian girl? Had she ever come to England?
Just as Laurence was basking, content and almost hypnotised by the vibrations of the car, luled by memories of summer and cool water, a bump in the road and a mutter from Charles startled him and instantly his mood plummeted. Of al of them, excited and noisy, it seemed that only he was left. That June, eating strawberries in the shade of pavilions or watching the dripping boats lifted from the river, such a thing would have seemed impossible. They were al so much there, so permanent in their world. He had occasionaly wondered if it was actualy he who was dead and excluded, while the others continued together, missing him from time to time, but busy somewhere else. Suddenly, surprisingly, his eyes stung and a desperate fear swept over him that he would weep, sitting in the front seat of Charles's car, traveling along autumn roads in England, and that if he did so he would be crying not for the dead but in terrible self-pity that things he'd enjoyed had been taken away.
He lifted his head to the oncoming wind, glad that his smarting eyes were hidden.
They passed a flock of children coming out of a vilage school. Several girls in pinafores waved, while smal boys in short trousers and boots shouted at the sight of the car. Charles hooted twice. Smoke rose from cottage chimneys. A dog ran out at them yapping and in danger of hurling itself under the wheels in its fury.
They came through Wolvescot, right on the border between Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire according to their map, and gathered speed going downhil between an avenue of trees. Charles jabbed his finger vigorously out of the side window and, leaning forward, Laurence could see some sort of tal, dark tower emerging from a dense copse on a nearby hil. There was something Gothic about it, isolated in the English countryside.
'The Foly,' Charles shouted. Laurence remembered it from an outing at school; they must be nearer than he thought to the Wiltshire border.
The countryside became more undulating; the sun was almost directly in their faces, yet it was getting colder. Laurence puled up his greatcoat colar around the scarf and sank lower in his seat. Charles had come up with the name of both an inn and a smal hotel, suggested to him by friends.
They finaly roled into Fairford along a narrow street of honey-coloured, terraced houses. They passed the hotel, a tidy Georgian house, just as they came into a large market place and stopped. An inn, the Bul, occupied almost one ful side of the square. Its low, mossy roof and smal windows gave it an appearance of great age.
Charles stood by the car, looking from one establishment to the other. He puled off his goggles; each eye was surrounded by a disc of white in his grimy face.
'Shal we try the inn first?' he asked, to Laurence's surprise. 'Vilage hostelry by the look of it; sort of place one might find oneself buying a drink for a local and picking up a bit of gossip. Hotels only have guests, strangers like us, nothing to be gained there.'
Not for the first time, Laurence looked at him in admiration.
As they walked into the dark, low interior of the inn, the landlord appeared, looking surprised, wiping his hands on his apron. Charles took a large, plain room with double windows overlooking the market square, while Laurence chose a much smaler bedroom with a beamed ceiling and a tiny fireplace, but a view towards the spire of Fairford church. A boy brought in their bags and they agreed to meet in half an hour.
After a while there was a knock on Laurence's door and a plump girl stood with a large jug of steaming water. 'D'you want the fire lighted?' she asked.
Laurence shook his head and took the jug from her. He heard the squeak of floorboards as she went downstairs. He hung his coat in a wardrobe that smeled strongly of camphor, then, stripping off his jacket, shirt and vest, poured the contents of the jug into the bowl on the washstand and leaned forward, steeping his arms halfway to his elbows. His skin tingled with the sudden heat.
Peering into the speckled glass over the basin, he realised that his face was as creased and filthy as Charles's—no wonder the landlord had looked surprised.
He was quite stiff and weary, as if he'd had a day's exercise rather than a ride in a motor car. When he'd washed he lay down on the bed and puled the eiderdown up over him for warmth. The bed sank deeply beneath him, softened by age; it reminded him of school where generations of boys had shaped the mattresses into hammocks. Under the feather pilow was a horsehair bolster.
He lay on his back, looking at a ceiling yelowed with age. With his ankles crossed and his hands on his chest, he was as stil as an alabaster knight. Al he needed was a smal dog under his heels, he thought. He was drifting. The eiderdown became an ancient flag over the catafalque. He remembered a cathedral where his father had taken him as a child. Military colours and standards hung high in a side chapel, flag after flag, generation after generation: stained, torn, repaired and decayed.
The lower ones were stil dyed deep red and blue, and retained threads of tarnished gold; the highest had faded into soft, bone-coloured gauze, the distant regiments and battle honours that they represented as invisible as their mottoes had become. He must have been very smal because his father had been holding his hand.
An insistent rapping at the door woke him.
'Laurence. Are you coming down?'
Laurence looked at his watch but had to strike a match to read it. He'd been asleep for nearly two hours. He swung his feet out of bed and puled on his discarded jacket.
'God, Charles, I'm sorry. I must have just dropped off' he said as he opened the door.
'Not a problem. I've been having a little look around, spoken to our landlord: font of wisdom, and he's happy to serve a simple dinner in the parlour. You dress and I'l see you downstairs in a quarter of an hour, say?'
'Yes. Of course. Sorry, just went out like a light,' Laurence said.
When the door closed he lit the lamp then scrabbled to find a clean shirt and socks. He peered in the glass again, damped down his hair and combed it through with his fingers. He hardly recognised the man with the deep lines round his eyes and a few first grey hairs. When had he got so old?
Downstairs a coal fire burned in a back room which smeled of smoke and tar. Plates of cold tongue, chunks of fresh bread and some cheese had been set out on a table next to a stoneware jar of pickles.
'I hope the beer suits you,' Charles said. 'Local brew but the landlord assures me it's good.'
Laurence was ravenous and the food was much better than he'd expected. There was occasional laughter from elsewhere in the building but muffled by thick wals, and from time to time a heavy door slammed shut. Otherwise the only sound was of their knives scraping on the plates. The beer was as good as Charles promised and when the girl he'd seen earlier came in to take their plates and refil their tankards, he sat back, content.
'Nervous about tomorrow?' Charles asked.
'I expect I should be but in truth I'm quite curious.'
'See what you can extract for Miss Emmett?' Charles looked amused as he puled out his tobacco pouch.
'Actualy, it feels more as if I'm doing it for John himself and, less creditably, my own curiosity. But it's certainly because of Mary's suspicions about how the place was run. Eleanor Bolitho, too—she was pretty damning about these set-ups. Not that I can do a thing about it anyway.'
Charles was concentrating on tamping his pipe.
Laurence went on, 'It sounds terribly worthy, doesn't it? I realy just want to get a look at these people.'
'You need to keep an open mind, that's al,' Charles said, slowly. 'Not because I personaly doubt for a minute that things go on that would make your hair stand on end. In fact, from what I've heard, quite literaly there's electric stuff and so on. Wouldn't be alowed on a chap in Wormwood Scrubs, yet their families empty their coffers for it.' He reached for the pickle jar. 'But what realy bothers me is that you're not a very good actor. Never were. Seriously, old chap. Think you're so British, sang-froid and so on, when realy your face is an open book. When you go in and meet Dr Caligari, you've got to be believing they might help Reginald.'
'Just testing you.' Charles continued, unperturbed, 'Take the embarrassment of the unhinged Bertie Bartram off your hands. Possibly even make him better.
Return him to the bosom of his relieved family. Or keep him safely out of it. You've got to look as if you hope they can work miracles, not as if you suspect them of negligence at best and atrocities at worst. You've got to forget everything those girls told you. I mean you're dealing with mind doctors. They'l be on to you in a minute.
Wel, half an hour, certainly. Probably charge you two guineas to boot.'
'Thank you,' Laurence said simply.
'Stil,' Charles said after a moment's pause while he sawed an inch-thick slice of bread off the loaf, 'they're not entirely popular in Fairford by al accounts.'
'The landlord?' Laurence guessed.
'Wel, I only had a brief chat. Explained we were down here to find a place for your brother, stricken war hero and al that. Turns out he—our landlord—was at Mons same time as my lot, and lost a nephew in the Glosters. Main gripe seems to be that Master Caligari—what is the man's name?'
'If you mean the son, it's George Chilvers.'
'Yes, wel, young Chilvers didn't fight. He had been a keen cricketer, so was apparently healthy, and he's not a medic himself, so no reserved status. Bad feeling al round especialy as most of the lads in these parts fought together and took a drubbing in '17.'
'But that doesn't mean that Holmwood itself is suspect,' Laurence said.
'No,' Charles conceded. 'Apparently one of the older attendants who made it back lost an arm. Worked at Holmwood before the war, when it was a place for mad gentlefolk—men and women. Came home, hero's welcome, medal, expected to get his place back as Dr C had promised, but young Chilvers laid him off three months later while Pa was away. Said he couldn't pul his weight. He—the ex-employee—believes he was got rid of because he didn't approve of young Chilvers'
'But why on earth should a warder have an opinion, or anyone care if he did, about his employer's marriage plans?'
'Because, old chap, it seems that Chilvers married a wealthy heiress.'
And so?' There was obviously more to come.
And she had been a patient at Holmwood. That's how Chilvers Junior met her. She'd tried to kil herself.' Charles couldn't keep a triumphant note out of his voice. Laurence was astonished that he'd managed to keep this juicy morsel of gossip to himself for so long.
'Wel, you were obviously a lot more alert after our drive than I was.'
'I'm hoping to find out more tomorrow. Our man, the disgruntled warder, usualy comes in for a drink on Wednesday lunchtime. He's bringing a friend who stil works there. So I plan to be in the bar with a generous walet while you are interrogating the Chilverses.'
Despite sleeping so deeply before dinner, Laurence was pleasantly tired when he got back to his room. A smal fire was burning and the thin curtains had been drawn, the water bowl emptied and his bed straightened. He opened the window a little, slipped between the cold sheets and slept until morning when he woke with an aching bladder and, loath to use the chamber pot, went briskly downstairs, the linoleum cold under his feet. On the way back up he crossed with Charles going downstairs with equal urgency.
Half an hour later after a agreeably silent meal of thick bacon, dark-yolked eggs and blood-pudding, they planned Laurence's day.
'Got the wind up yet?' asked Charles hopefuly.
'Not realy. Either I get some information or at least a general feel for the place or I make a complete fool of myself, get away quickly and never have to see them again.'
'Or they could take you for a maniac and strap you into a straitjacket,' Charles said benignly. 'But although the locals may grumble, the place is quite wel thought of by the nobs. Landlord, the wonderfuly named Cyril Trusty, by the way, tels me that they've had various scions of the great and good tucked up in there.
Lord Verey's heir for a start, and the son of a bishop, though Trusty can't remember which one. Not much of a man for matters theological, our landlord.'
'And where do al these pilars of the establishment stand on shel-shock, then?'
'Wel, I don't think Verey's been giving speeches in the Lords,' Charles said. 'Probably not too keen for the world to know the heir's of unsound mind.'
Laurence decided to walk up to Holmwood. It lay on the edge of the smal town, the landlord had told them, sketching out a pencil map.
'You'l know it when you see it,' said Cyril Trusty. 'High wals and spikes on top. To stop them scarpering. Impale 'em instead. Doesn't look as old as it is. Bits added on. Solid. Paid a fortune to instal proper asylum locks just before the war. Had to get a man from London. Ordinary locks won't do for lunatics. Ingenious type, your madman, they say.'
Laurence's appointment was at eleven and he set off along the riverbank with a quarter of an hour to spare. Where the path reached some water meadows he looked back to see the fine church standing on higher ground. It reminded him that the churchyard at Fairford was the last place anyone had admitted to seeing John Emmett.
Which way had he gone then, Laurence wondered? Not across the meadows, obviously, as that would have led him straight back towards Holmwood, the direction he was taking now. Not due east, as he could see a wide river and no sign of a bridge. And if he'd turned down into the market place, along the main road and towards the station, surely he would have been identified, if not as himself, certainly as an outsider: a patient. Beyond the church lay farmland as far as Laurence could see, with a few stands of beech and a Dutch barn right on the horizon. John must have headed that way.
Presumably the main service on Christmas Day was Matins. John's disappearance could have been discovered no later than midday, once the church party got back to Holmwood at the latest, though the youth he'd stunned in order to escape must surely have raised the alert before then. That left three to four hours or so of decent daylight to look for him. But it also meant that John would soon have needed shelter.
Could he have known anyone in the area? Could someone have come to fetch him? It would have needed a car. Branch-line trains ran a reduced service on Christmas Day and, anyway, he was sure the police and Holmwood people would have checked at the station. But in concentrating on how, he was no nearer knowing why. Where was John going so determinedly and who could he have persuaded to help him if that was what he'd done? And why hadn't that person come forward?
He had a sense that he was almost on to something when the sight of what he guessed were the closed gates of Holmwood distracted him. A large iron bel pul was set in the wal beside a smal nameplate. He couldn't see Cyril Trusty's promised spikes but he noticed that the smal upper windows, at least, were barred like a prison. The rooms up there must be dark, he thought. The building he was approaching was tal and square, its roof shalow and, unusualy for the area, he noted, of slate rather than Cotswold stone. That added to its slightly sombre appearance but the man who opened one gate a minute or so later had a perfectly pleasant expression on his face.
He stood back to let Laurence through. Inside, an oval of grass was studded with a few falen crab apples. A cream Bentley was puled up by steps to the front door. It was one of the few cars Laurence could recognise. He thought of Charles, who was able to identify anything on wheels at any distance and by any visible part.
Charles would love this car. Perhaps one of the eminent parents was visiting a son?
'Could you come this way, sir?'
A graveled drive wound away behind a shrubbery but they were heading to a pilared porch on the left.
'Sorry.' Laurence caught up. 'Just admiring the motor car.'
'Mr George's car,' said his guide. 'He's a great man for cars. Dr Chilvers now, he stil takes the trap if it's fine, but Mr George loves a beautiful bit of machinery.'
They came into a half-paneled hal. Stained glass in the door filtered a wash of colour on to the stone floor but the space was mostly lit by a skylight three storeys above. The building was absolutely quiet, smeling of beeswax and, faintly, of cooking. It took Laurence back instantly to his prep school. Wide stairs curved up to a landing while several doors led off the hal. The man knocked at the nearest one and opened it without waiting for a response. The room he entered was a large, book-lined study, a room to receive guests rather than treat patients.
Dr Chilvers looked more the rural doctor than hospital physician. Dressed in a shapeless country suit, he was a spare man in his sixties, his hair sandy grey and wavy above a pale, almost waxy face. As he stepped forward his eyes held Laurence's. His handshake was firm. The doctor's demeanour was presumably intended to put Laurence at ease but, perhaps because he was here under false pretences, Laurence felt decidedly on edge.
'Come in, come in.'
Chilvers indicated an upright leather chair, then sat down himself behind a wide and tidy desk.
'You came up last night? Stayed at the Regent? It's comfortable enough and the owner is a good man. Used to work for us, in fact, but took on the hotel when his late father became il.'
'Actualy, I'm at the Bul.'
Chilvers looked surprised. 'The Bul?' he said, as if, although he recaled it, it was an effort to remember where it was. 'Wel, there's not much alternative, when the Regent is ful, I suppose. We do have a couple of guest rooms here but we tend to keep them for family. Of patients, that is. Especialy ladies traveling alone or where a visit seems likely to be distressing.'
'Did you come by train?' Chilvers asked.
'No. I motored down with a friend.'
'Quite so. Quite so.'
Again Laurence had the feeling that it would have been better to have conformed to expectations.
'You're here about your brother,' Dr Chilvers said in a slightly brisker tone of voice. He put on his spectacles and puled over a sheaf of paper from the right-hand side of his desk. The first page was blank.
'I should tel you at the outset that at present we have no room at al. We take a maximum of eight patients. This permits us to give highly specialised care, adapted—I think I may say with confidence, very finely adapted—to individual patients' needs. However, I would anticipate a vacancy, possibly two, in the very near future. One patient returning home. Very much improved. The other into longer-term convalescent care. We could be looking at—' He reached for a large morocco leather diary, opened it, leafed through a few pages. 'Certainly before New Year. Late December, I would imagine. Would that be suitable?'
Chilvers evidently mistook for something else Laurence's look of alarm at the conversation's swift and specific direction, because he continued, 'Of course we haven't discussed your brother or what we could do to assist his condition, but I feel it is important not to hold out any false hopes for an immediate solution.' His eyes met Laurence's. 'Families come to me, some accustomed through rank or wealth to resolving a problem with some immediacy. But in these cases a swift and satisfactory outcome is not always possible. Despair is not susceptible to the usual processes of society. It is not just those who enter here but their families who may find their circumstances have very much changed. We help them al adapt.'
Chilvers had made this speech before, Laurence was sure. He nodded again, then he found himself saying aloud what he was thinking. 'It sometimes feels as if the fixed points have moved. It's as if we can't be sure how things might fit together any more.'
He spoke quite urgently and stopped, suddenly embarrassed, but Chilvers did not seem to find it odd.
'I think the essential aspects of human nature remain unchanged,' the doctor responded. 'Love, fear, jealousy, indolence, opportunism, hope—even nobility of spirit—but the relationship of one to another may have altered; some aspects may have moved to the fore, others have receded. Of course for every man whose response is to tread carefuly, recalculating those fixed points,' he paused and looked at Laurence, 'others abandon it al and live lives of remarkable recklessness.
'It seems to me,' he continued, 'that one might argue that man has evolved to be a warrior; indeed, few generations have escaped that role. Of course, I was not there,' he gave a respectful nod to Laurence, 'but I judge, from speaking at length to many of the recent war's more invisibly injured, that what was hard for them was a lack of clarity—in orders, aims, even as to whether engagements had been won or lost, and the constant anticipation of random catastrophe. The realisation that the traditional skils of the top-class fighting man—strength, courage, dexterity with his weapon and so on—might not be rewarded, not even by a heroic death, but rather, that a man's fate depended almost entirely on the inequities of fortune. It exploded profound understandings of what it meant to be a soldier.'
Laurence stared out of the window where crimson Virginia creeper blocked a ful view of what was obviously a lawn beyond. After a matter of probably a few seconds but which felt like several minutes, Chilvers seemed to throw him a lifeline:
'Have you read your Homer?'
'At school.' However, he'd known men who had their Homer with them on the battlefield. He'd heard less talk of Homer's inspirational qualities as the war ground on.
' The Iliad gives us an impeccable account of battlefield injuries. No machine-guns, no tanks, no aeroplanes, but the injuries themselves—those ancient and terrible descriptions—and their prognoses, are absolutely accurate. Injuries to the brain, piercing wounds to the liver, known even then to doom the afflicted. But what does Homer not show us?' Laurence knew no answer was expected and Chilvers moved on without pausing for one: 'The casualties die swiftly, if dramaticaly, and at the end of each day the living usualy retrieve their dead, then get back to a campfire and their comrades. No mention of mutilation or lifelong physical disability there.
Laurence finaly found his voice. 'There wasn't much mention of al that in The Times, either.'
Chilvers gave a dry laugh, dispersing the intensity. 'True, but then The Times was for fathers and commanders of earlier wars: the mouthpiece and the vindication of the establishment. The Times was information, The Iliad a celebration. The Iliad was a romance stiffened by historical fact. The Times was fact with fiction as emolient.
'You'd be surprised at how many men I see, men who thought war would be something like Troy. Not the regulars, of course; they were emotionaly better suited to the stresses of conflict, and not so much the conscripted, who were either resigned or resentful. But in the volunteer there is shock, bewilderment, even a sense of betrayal. They couldn't compare their war to the Zulu wars, not that half-naked men with spears didn't have a trick or two to teach them. The Boer War was fought against God-fearing farmers, not a proper army, and, anyway, we won. Their grandfathers could have told them a thing or two about conditions in the Crimea, but many of those old combatants were never able to speak of it at al. So these young men go off with a few weeks of basic training, and three thousand years of Homer in their pockets and, more dangerously, in their heads and, in every sense of the phrase, they come to grief. When they get home, reeling with Homer's deceptions, the Times readers at the breakfast table tel them they've got it al wrong.'
Al those barely contained arguments he'd had with Louise and her parents, Laurence thought, with him trying to control a degree of anger and exhaustion which they didn't deserve. They had no idea. Any of them.
'In this war,' Chilvers said, 'men weren't fighting for the King or for Britain and certainly not for "little Belgium", but for apple blossom in a Kentish orchard or the smel of caulking ships on the Tyne, or the comradeship of a Rhondda pithead. Men find it easier to risk their lives for provincial loyalties.'
'Or because they have no option,' Laurence said. It was odd, though not unpleasant, to find himself on the receiving end of a wel-honed lecture, but he could hear a note of bitterness in his own voice. 'And they returned to find that the things they thought they were fighting for suddenly seemed hopelessly sentimental and irrelevant.'
Chilvers made no reply and Laurence continued, brusquely, 'I didn't join myself until late 1915, when I could see conscription was imminent.' He felt ashamed for lying unnecessarily.
He failed to say that the circumstances which led him to do so began when when, after a single, clumsy sexual encounter—his first—which he thought Louise had found distasteful and which she certainly tried her hardest to avoid ever afterwards, she had become pregnant. Perhaps it had damaged their relationship more than it had their prospects. They were engaged at the time and he was working for her father. He could not tel Louise, much less her furious mother, how much he had wanted her: the curve of her lip, the fine bones of her ankles in white stockings, the womanly smel of the back of her neck, under the weight of her pinned-up hair, so different from the flowery perfume she wore or the hot linen scent of her dress. Feeling her under him, as he pressed deep inside her, he had felt complete. Neither Louise's obvious discomfort, nor even his own dawning shame could diminish the deep joy of it. As a result, they simply brought forward their marriage, but she miscarried soon afterwards. Having married her, he swiftly felt an appaling need to escape.
For the first months he was amused, watching her set up the smal but handsome house bought with her family funds. As the countries of Europe issued ultimatums and mobilised their armies, he looked on as she chose curtains and furniture with her mother, selected a housemaid or a lapdog, played the piano and invited her friends round. Al the while he had a sense of his life becoming immeasurably smaler. He knew his own horizons were not vast when he met Louise and he disliked himself for being unable to enjoy her complete happiness in making them both a home. She was not even particularly demanding; there was simply an implicit invitation for him to admire her domestic skils. He had acquiesced in everything.
His first positive, independent action in marriage had been to lie to her and tel her he had received his papers. They had been married just eighteen months. She never knew that he had volunteered.
So he had gone and, despite the news coming in from the front, he sat on the train to Dover almost exhilarated at the opportunity of war. Al that folowed had seemed entirely merited by this first act of treachery.
'You were working until then?' Chilvers asked, breaking into his daydream.
'In my father-in-law's business. My wife is dead,' Laurence added quickly to cut off any possible question.
'I am sorry,' Chilvers said, and paused.
After some seconds he spoke again.
'But we must speak of your brother.' He took out his pen and wrote down the details of the fictional Robert's name, date of birth. 'You said in your recent letter that he had been in a sanatorium in Switzerland and that his own doctor has died, so I assume you have no access to his records? Never mind, sometimes it is easier to come to these cases without preconceptions. I am sure we can track them down if we need them, but military medical records are, I have found, lamentably inadequate.'
Laurence felt a lessening of tension. One major hurdle had been cleared easily.
It had taken Charles and Laurence some time over the previous week to place Robert in a suitable regiment. 'Instant pitfal, this,' Charles had said. 'You can count on someone's cousin having been in the same outfit, however obscure it might be, and that same cousin being clapped up in Holmwood. You know how it is with cousins?'
Laurence had no cousins but through Charles had observed their mysterious degree of social penetration.
And for God's sake keep him out of the Artists' Rifles; being mad is practicaly a prerequisite for joining.'
In the end Charles had suggested an empire regiment. 'That's where a lot of oddbals ended up.' They had debated the merits of the Canadian and South African Expeditionary Forces.
'Anyway, Chilvers was far too old for service, even as a medic,' Laurence had said, 'and his son was never a soldier, and Holmwood's a tiny place, and it's not as if the existing patients have a committee of acceptance. It's not White's, Charles.'
He was finding that dissembling was moving from a necessity to something approaching a game with someone to share it with. Charles had given him a long, appraising look.
'Queen Victoria's Own Madras Sappers and Miners,' Laurence now said confidently to Chilvers.
'Do you have a connection with India?'
'Yes,' said Laurence. At least my sister— our sister—lives out there with her family.' It was strange to be teling the truth, briefly.
'And you have other siblings?'
Chilvers wrote carefuly, his expression attentive. Laurence tried to ignore a pang of guilt.
'Your brother is unmarried?'
'This must be quite a burden for you,' Chilvers observed matter-of-factly. 'The sole responsibility for an invalid is never easy.'
'I have an aunt,' Laurence said. He needed the aunt to provide a place where Robert was currently domiciled.
'Any ilnesses before the war?' he asked.
'We both survived diphtheria as children,' Laurence said, letting the imaginary brother share his infections. 'Otherwise just childhood diseases.' He was becoming more relaxed, soothed by the anodyne questions.
'Any sign of previous mental instability? In your brother's case or with any other family member?'
Laurence was briefly surprised; it was not as if shel-shock was hereditary.
They went on to discuss Robert's general background and then his present condition and treatment, al mapped out for Laurence by Eleanor Bolitho. Laurence had learned it by heart and hoped it didn't sound too pat.
'I should warn you,' said the doctor, 'not to expect miracles and not to be disappointed if there are setbacks. What we sometimes see is that when a patient is taken out of his usual environment to this place where there are few expectations of him, least of al to be the man he once was, and with our regime, good food, plenty of rest and encouragement to move beyond his war experiences, he visibly improves, sometimes quite fast. Splendid for his loved ones, of course. But sometimes the cost of dismantling the habits he may have assembled to help him bear the unbearable—abandoning him unarmed, as it were, to confront his memories—may leave him vulnerable. We've had men who arrive here refusing to sleep, or who never speak. We have men who compulsively folow exact and occasionaly quite outlandish routines: who won't remove soiled clothes or bathe. One, I recal, kept his ears plugged with wool and Vaseline jely. Al of these protections are barriers; al serve to keep them as solitaries. We try to equip a man with better ways to confront the terrors he suffers but there is nevertheless a dangerous period of raw, unprotected insight.
'There was a mother once whom I particularly recal; her son came in as a living body inhabited by a dead man. He lay in the dark, mute, apparently unhearing, curled up, facing the wal. He responded to neither heat nor cold, pinprick, bright light nor sudden noise. To be honest, I thought it was a hopeless case. He was very frail: his temperature was always abnormaly low, his pulse slow; we wrapped him in blankets and hot-water bottles, and we chafed his hands. We fed him by tube.
'We did everything for this patient. My son urged me to have him removed to a larger, probably more permanent institution, but his mother begged me to keep him. She didn't want him moved again. She sat there, stroking him, talking to him. About his dog, about fishing. She brought the seasons into the room: leaves fel, snow drifted, corn ripened in the fields, the pond at home dried up, the barley was gathered in, the wind brought down an old barn. She continualy changed the photographs by his bed. She put books there for him, which she selected carefuly and replaced every so often. Sometimes they were children's picture books, some were boys'
adventure stories. One was about Captain Scott's expedition, I recolect.
'And slowly, over months and months, he improved. Astonishingly, he improved. His senses came back. His wits came back. He began to eat, to talk, to read and to smile when he saw his mother. To remember. Eventualy she suggested he should be alowed home for a weekend and we agreed. He cut his throat in his mother's bed on his first evening back. He wrote one line to say he simply couldn't live with his memories. His mother told me she sometimes wished he'd been kiled outright in Flanders or that she'd accepted him as he was before we treated him.'
Chilvers was obviously stil moved by the case. He looked drawn and tired. Laurence felt uncomfortable, hearing this tragic account in response to his own lies.
Chilvers took off his spectacles and started to polish them. 'In a little while, I shal get my son to escort you round the premises and explain a little of how we treat such cases as you go along. I find that is usualy the most effective way of covering al the possibilities.' He rang a smal bel. 'But in the meantime, no doubt you have questions of your own?'
Laurence struggled to articulate the apparently innocent but potentialy fruitful enquiries he'd planned with first Eleanor and then Charles's help, and the questions that he felt Chilvers would expect him to ask if he realy had a brother in need of care. For reasons he could not put his finger on, their discussion had unsettled him. He also knew that he had come prepared for a charlatan, even a sadist, and Chilvers, although perhaps a little certain in his ideas, was neither. Confronted with Chilvers'
insights, and given that the man had naturaly enough heard plenty of stories of war from his patients, Laurence was acutely aware that it was he who was in fact the impostor.
'By the way,' the doctor said, 'I wondered how you heard of us. I assume it was a personal recommendation?'
Laurence flailed. 'Yes.' Could he name the Emmetts? Would the family of a runaway suicide have suggested he put his brother in the same institution? Suddenly a conversation he'd had yesterday came to him.
'It might have been Lord Verey, I think. I met him at a dinner. For charity,' he improvised. 'And I mentioned Robert only towards the end.'
The room was silent. Laurence thought that he probably cut an implausible figure as a dining companion for the great and good.
Then the doctor said slowly, 'As I believe I mentioned earlier, we are always discreet, but I think Lieutenant Verey's case—a very sad situation—could be considered one of our successes. His physical injuries were so severe that I thought at first his state of mind was entirely contingent on those limitations. It was also obvious that he would need virtualy ful-time nursing care and I had some doubts as to whether he would be suitable for Holmwood at al. We pursue quite... vigorous treatment here and to have cases that are not susceptible to any kind of improvement is bad for the morale of the others, quite apart from taking up a bed that might be better used by another. But his lordship was very insistent—perhaps at that stage he felt a confidence only a father could—and he was happy to support the hiring of extra nursing staff. Young Verey improved more than I could ever have hoped.'
Before Laurence could respond, and while he was stil trying to disguise his relief that his improvisation had succeeded, there was a knock on the door and a man, probably in his middle thirties, came in. Though the newcomer was slimmer and lighter-haired than Dr Chilvers, the similarity was such that Laurence realised it must be his son. There was a certain formality in their response to each other but presumably that was because Laurence was there.
'George,' the doctor said. 'This is Captain Bartram.'
Laurence shook hands with George Chilvers. Even-featured and of average build, he was as handsome as had been reported and in a way Laurence suspected would be attractive to women. His reddish-gold hair was slicked to a sheen and his trim figure was enhanced by expensive tailoring.
'Perhaps you could show Captain Bartram around?' the older man suggested. 'After that, we might meet to discuss any further questions he might have.'
They moved into the hal. A slight man in his twenties was crossing it from one room to another. His trousers were so loose, Laurence noticed instantly, that they had been gathered in deep folds and were held up by an old tie used as a belt. The man stopped when he saw them and started to go back into the room he had just left. Doctor Chilvers moved towards him and placed a reassuring hand on his arm, nodding towards his son and Laurence. Laurence observed Chilvers' firm but comforting demeanour: while he talked, he kept his hand gently where it had lain and looked the man in the eye. Eventualy the younger man smiled slightly and glanced at Laurence.
'How do you do?' he said softly and then hurried into the next doorway.
Laurence was surprised how exhausted he felt when he got back to the Bul. If he had been able to admit his real interest to Chilvers, he felt the doctor could undoubtedly have helped him. Except that if he had mentioned John, Chilvers would probably have disappeared behind a screen of professional reticence. Seeing the place had been helpful and fairly reassuring, but Chilvers' own perceptions had both disturbed and moved him.
A couple of hours later, he and Charles were exchanging information: his incomplete impressions for Charles's more substantial progress.
'Wel, apart from the fact that our disgruntled one-armed friend and his chum could drink both of us under the table, it's been a useful exchange, ale for il-wil. I was glad when the landlord caled time, though,' Charles said. 'But to start with: there's something his sister either didn't know or didn't tel you. Emmett was front man on a firing squad. Dr Chilvers told the coroner that his patient had been very troubled by the execution.'
'Neither Mary nor her mother attended the inquest,' Laurence said. He was certain Mary had no idea. 'But, God, poor man.' He'd known one young officer who was ashamed that he'd faked ilness to get out of presiding over a firing squad but, as the subaltern said, he would have felt ashamed either way.
'And another odd thing,' Charles remembered. 'This was probably just a straightforward bit of trouble-making but the sacked employee commented in passing that given that one of Emmett's main symptoms was paralysis of the right arm, it was strange that he'd managed to shoot himself with it.'
Laurence sat forward. 'Are you sure?' Although the symptom tied in with what he already knew.
'Sure he said it, sure Emmett had it or sure that he was naturaly right-handed? Al three. I can remember him on the cricket pitch. Good bowler. Chilvers'
evidence stated that Emmett's right arm was useless. Police surgeon was equaly certain that he couldn't have done it with his left. Perhaps because it would have been the wrong angle? Anyway, my man had been involved in the treatment, which at the subtler end was a matter of trying to trick John into forgetting his arm didn't work: handing him a book, or whatever came to mind. They tried tying his other hand behind his back for days at a time, and, at the more dramatic end, giving him electric shocks to stimulate the muscles.'
Charles said ghoulishly, 'Regular Dr Frankenstein. Are you sure you didn't see wires?' But he didn't wait for an answer. 'Strangely, he'd shot himself through the heart, not the head.'
'Less messy. Definitely no letter?'
'Nothing much at al, I think. I did ask. A few bits and pieces and our joly old school scarf near by. Faithful til death and al that. Neatly folded. Coroner saw the deliberation as evidence of intent. Removed it to be sure of his shot. Much what you'd expect except for no note. Damn hard on the family, not having a letter. I suppose they got the scarf. Not much consolation.'
'It wasn't Marlborough colours actualy—Mary showed it to me—and hardly his sort of thing anyway, I'd have said. But where was he between-times?'
Charles shrugged. 'There were any number of barns and outhouses he could have holed up in until the hue and cry had died down, they say. They reckoned if John could have got hold of some food, he could have survived a week or two before he emerged and sauntered off to get a train. Perhaps not from Fairford, where they'd probably circulated his picture, but from a neighbouring vilage perhaps.'
'Do you know exactly where they found him?'
'The Foly. On the hil. We passed it yesterday. I pointed it out—at Faringdon. Wel, obviously we al knew it from school.'
The location came as a shock. Foly Wood had been such a strange place, always in shadow. But it made it much more likely that John had gone there of his own volition. Why was it more painful to think of him seeking out somewhere familiar to end it al, Laurence wondered? He thought of the young Holmwood patient who had died in his mother's bed. Was that a last frenzied act of rage or a final refuge in the safest place he knew?
'Frankly, when I realised both the degree of disaffection even in the man currently employed there, and the fact that we are never likely to be coming back, since I for one would certainly choose an alternative therapeutic establishment if I were to suddenly believe that I was Napoleon Bonaparte,' Charles said, 'I came clean, or cleanish. That's when I learned some interesting facts about Emmett's time there. Most interesting of al, he had visitors. An army friend and two members of the family.'
'"Army friend" could be anybody,' Laurence said, although he recaled that Mary had given the impression he had few left. And Mary visited, but I thought that his mother stayed away.'
Charles lowered his voice, although the room was empty. 'Yes, Mary did visit. In fact, two sisters did. More than once.' He paused. 'One was dark-haired and cross, though a bit of a looker, as the man who stil works there tels it: presumably your Miss Emmett; and the other was red-haired and crosser.'
'Eleanor Bolitho?' said Laurence, astonished, simultaneously realising that there could be any number of redheads in John's life.
'That's my guess,' said Charles. 'Do you think it's true that redheads always have tempers?'
'Charles,' Laurence butted in, 'when did these so-caled sisters come, did you ask him that?'
'It was Eleanor,' said Charles, 'because one time she brought her boy with her. Moreover, in addition to my deductive guesswork, and though both girls gave their name as Emmett, our man overheard John saying his fond farewels and he caled her Ely. He remembered thinking it was a rather sweet, feminine name quite at odds with her personality.'
Laurence laughed. 'What had she done?'
'Wel, the only thing she approved of was the food, I gather. Demanded that arrangements should be made for John to be accompanied on daily walks, if they weren't prepared to let him out on his own. She took him out once but they wouldn't alow it the other time she visited. Dr Chilvers was away and they needed his permission, they said. She was impressively furious and al else folowed. She inspected the library and declared it inadequate. Was incensed that al the patients wel enough were made to go on church parade. Harangued Chilvers Junior about John's room; he had been moved to one of the barred ones. She said he was hardly likely to jump out, although my man pointed out, with a certain degree of satisfaction, that jumping out, in a manner of speaking, was exactly what he did when he got the chance. But she was angriest of al to hear that John had been put in close confinement simply for leaving the building without permission. Close to tears in her fury, apparently.'
'They were right too about not letting him out alone,' said Laurence. 'Though, in fact it was churchgoing that was to give him the chance to escape. So perhaps the Holmwood people knew him better than she did.' He kept to himself Eleanor's assurance that she had not met John after the war. 'And actualy, I found Dr Chilvers quite impressive. 'It was the son I took a dislike to.'
'Even my complainant says the old man's a decent chap, dedicated to his patients, if a bit on the zealous side. But he's not wel, goes up to London for treatment. Probably a hopeless case, he reckons. Says the doctor's lost stones in the last year. It's when he goes away that young Chilvers gets to impose his stamp on the place: changes treatment, sacks people at wil. The old man rarely stands up to him. And of course the staff know it wil al be his when his father shuffles off his mortal, so they mostly toe the line. Not many jobs in these parts.'
Laurence thought that if he'd been less focused on his own deceptions, he would have guessed Chilvers was il from his palor and thinness.
Charles was gaining momentum. 'And he was shot with a Luger.'
Laurence looked up, sharply. 'Wel, that should have made it easier,' he said. 'To track down, I mean. Not many of those in circulation. No recuperating German officers in Holmwood. Plenty of our lot got hold of them but it was a side arm for the flashy type.'
'I had a Luger,' said Charles, after a momentary pause. 'Stil have, in fact.'
'How?' said Laurence and immediately wished he hadn't.
'I captured it.' His eyes caught Laurence's momentarily. 'Off a dragoon Hauptman to be precise. I was a good shot, it was the best side arm around and I was keen to live.'
'But did John have a Luger—or any gun at al?'
'Al the witnesses thought not. But they would, wouldn't they?'
There was a long silence.
'You're stil thinking he wasn't the Luger type,' said Charles.
Laurence didn't answer. He was thinking that George Chilvers was precisely the sort of man who would have a Luger, had he not been the sort of man who avoided military service completely, but he felt irritated with himself for both pointless thoughts.
'Wel, lots of us weren't the type for lots of things, but we changed,' said Charles.
There was another, longer silence.
'In fact the records showed he'd turned in a perfectly regulation Webley at the end of the war. It came up at the inquest, of course. Which was in Oxford, by the way. Doesn't mean he hadn't acquired anything else, though. But what did you make of the place? How do they fix them up?' Charles looked hopeful.
'Straightforward, realy,' Laurence said, thinking back. 'Dr Chilvers believes routine splints the broken mind in the same way that a splint holds a broken leg.' He realised he was quoting him almost verbatim. 'They have to get up at the same time each day, they have to take meals. They're alowed a short rest after lunch, otherwise they're not alowed to return to their rooms and sleep during the day. Chilvers said this is partly to counteract the insomnia that's a major problem. Church on Sundays.'
Thinking of church brought him back to Eleanor's complaints.
'Chilvers said he didn't care whether they believed in God or not.' He remembered this clearly, because it seemed quite a worldly view from an otherwise old-fashioned man. 'He said it was good for them to have the pattern established. They have to confront the outside world—some of them have huge problems with people, apparently—and church services give an opportunity for this within a familiar context. And he said they didn't realy have enough to do on Sundays. 'A bit of a walk and some singing is good for them; it's al exercise, in its way, Chilvers had said.'
'Not surprisingly one or two are quite angry with God, but, as a general principle, we like to have these things out at Holmwood,' the doctor had added. He had been close to a smile, Laurence had thought.
Charles was uncharacteristicaly silent.
'There's a ward, I suppose you cal it, holding two men at present, for those whose physical condition is poor,' Laurence continued. 'Some patients are injured, but young Chilvers explained that some melancholics simply cease to eat. Here they are fed and treated for physical ilnesses before they get the mind stuff. These two both looked pretty sick to me. One had a tube taped to his cheek. I couldn't wait to get out of there, to be honest.
'Apart from that, it was like any officers' convalescent home. Piano, comfortable drawing room, newspapers, though Dr Chilvers told me earlier that occasionaly they withheld these if current events were likely to distress occupants. A smal library; actualy I didn't think it looked too bad, though I didn't do an inventory of the titles.' He smiled at the thought of Eleanor's inspection. 'Tennis court. A couple of inmates helped with the garden from time to time, young Chilvers said.
Found it calming. Both Chilverses referred to treatment rooms, but I was shown only one. It has a bath, water nozzles, sitz baths, hydrotherapy, al rather old-fashioned, it seemed to me.'
'My man says they have al the latest electrical stuff,' Charles interrupted, 'though I suppose they don't want to frighten a potential paying customer.'
Laurence remembered that Eleanor had talked of electric shocks being given to those with false paralysis of limbs. She talked as if it were fairly standard.
'I realy didn't see anything like that. Sorry, Charles. But what was interesting is that young Chilvers told me that al comforts were withheld for what he caled
"misbehaviour". They have to earn them. And there's a secure floor: the top floor, where patients in a state of agitation are confined. The windows were barred, I noticed, from the outside. Presumably that's where John was incarcerated. I was shown only an empty room on the second floor, made up ready for a new arrival. Nice enough.'
'Why not keep them downstairs if they think they're going to leap out?'
'I suppose downstairs they could escape more easily?'
'Did they say anything about suicide to you?' Charles asked.
'Wel, only in a general way. I mean, for God's sake, Charles, I could hardly interrogate them on their failures. Young Chilvers said that it had happened, though very rarely, in the twenty years that Dr Chilvers had been running the place. It seemed rude to ask what "very rarely" meant in numbers.'
He had been quite pleased with how he'd raised the question of his fictional brother's threats of suicide. George Chilvers hadn't looked particularly surprised.
'Six,' said Charles.
'Suicides. Four since the war. One other was actualy just discharged, and one was before the war, but, listen to this: that one was a girl of twenty. She got out somehow, lay down on the tracks just outside Fairford Station and waited for some hapless train driver to chop her in three. Her family asked for a post-mortem, which the coroner granted, and, as it turned out, she was five months pregnant.'
'Was that why she was depressed?'
'It might be why she kiled herself but it wasn't why she was melancholic in the first place. She'd been admitted eight months earlier. Nearly a scandal, certainly there were nasty rumours. Staff reckoned she was sweet on young Chilvers; a single man then, of course. One female nurse—now dismissed—had said Chilvers had been found with the naked patient in a bathroom. He was using a high-pressure hose on her: she was soaked and squealing. Chilvers insisted it was treatment for hysteria. A different attendant, who went up to check her room when the alarm was first raised, says he saw a letter addressed to Chilvers in an envelope on her desk.
At that point, naturaly, nobody knew she was dead, but when he went back to check later, no letter.'
As there had been no letter after John's death, Laurence thought, though the incidents must have been years apart.
'My man said that "these sort of letters" seldom helped anybody anyway,' Charles went on. 'They were just self-pity. "The same old stuff they were on about every day," he said.'
'Did people realy think George Chilvers was the father of the dead woman's child?' said Laurence. 'Or is that just a sacked man's bitterness?'
'I think they did. Though apparently some said Chilvers Senior could have drugged her to have his way with her. But probably that was black humour. He's a widower, has been for years. Married to the job. Al the same, it had to be someone from inside; she never left the place, and George Chilvers already had a bit of reputation as a lady's man. Mad ladies. Sad ladies. I got the impression that his eventual marriage to another patient was not so much for the money but forced upon him by his old man to prevent a further scandal.' He paused. 'Wel-made chap, from al accounts—wel, the account I got'
'I suppose he's handsome enough in his way,' said Laurence. 'But patients? Surely he could find someone who wouldn't put his reputation at so much risk?'
'Wel, he's not a doctor like Papa, so I suppose he could get away with it. Perhaps he's attracted to highly strung girls. Young ones. Lonely. Rich. Can't have been difficult.'
'Yet he is a solicitor, and you said Cyril Trusty seemed to think they'd done wel out of a couple of bequests, but then I suppose doctors do, don't they? Quite often?'
'Except the clientele must be rather younger than the run-of-the-mil spinsters of a practice in Bognor Regis. The Holmwood patients wouldn't be expected to die in the normal run of things,' Charles said, 'though one of my Bognor great-aunts was quite mad. Great-Aunt Caroline. She should have been locked away, without any question. Would have saved a mass of trouble.'
He absent-mindedly tore off a piece of bread and soaked it in his beer.
'Al this talk of George Chilvers' love life diverted me,' Charles went on. 'We were on suicides: John, most recently. Before him, there was some flying ace who hanged himself, apparently at the prospect of going home, though he had pretty hideous burns so it's a bit more understandable. A major in the Glosters who seemed better but turned out not to be, and after him a chap who certainly made his mark on the establishment. Apparently they've got some kind of atrium, with a glass roof, several storeys up?'
Laurence nodded. It was a slightly grandiose description of the entrance hal.
'He got out on the roof through the attics and threw himself head-first, not off the roof into the garden as you might expect, but in through the skylight, and dashed his brains out on the flagstones in the middle of the house.'
'Good God,' Laurence said. 'How appaling. The poor people who found him.'
'Poor chap himself, I'd say,' Charles observed. 'Not poor George Chilvers, as he'd recently made up a wil for him. Mind you, no personal bequests, so scandal kept at bay with this one, but a tidy little chunk to Holmwood itself. In gratitude. So my man says.'
Laurence was looking forward to regaining the peace of his own territory, though it was only when they stopped for a light lunch that he and Charles had any further discussion.
'So. What's your next step, old chap?'
'Hard to know. I didn't like young Chilvers, although Dr Chilvers seemed professional yet sympathetic. The place itself gave me the wilies, but then the condition of the men who end up in places like that doesn't exactly bring peace of mind. I didn't feel as strongly as Mary, or Eleanor apparently, that something was rotten.'
He wondered, but didn't say, whether this was simply because, unlike them, he knew about war and what it could do to men's minds as wel as bodies. Though Eleanor must have seen much of it too. He also had the first solid information that directly contradicted an account given to him by anyone involved in John's life.
However, Eleanor Bolitho was already so cross with him that it was hard to contemplate querying her story or any approach to her that might bear fruit. What if, by some coincidence, John had known two red-haired spitfires? He was grasping at straws, he knew.
'Wel, wil you be settling your poor lunatic brother there?' said Charles. 'I imagine it wil come as the greatest relief to the family to see him locked up.'
Laurence didn't answer. He was considering what it would be like to have a brother, even a mad one. Would he put him in Holmwood? Despite Mary, despite Charles, he thought he might. His reservations lay with the son—too glib, too wiling to generalise about the imagined experience of battle.
At one point they had been peering into the smal ward. The nearest man lay in bed with his eyes closed. There was a zinc bowl on the nightstand and a sour smel of vomit about him; a bottle of what looked like milk hanging above the bed was passing down the tube into his nose.
'FE again,' said George loudly. 'Flanders Effect.'
The man in bed was startled. His head on the pilow shook and his fingers clutched at the blanket. George made no attempt to soothe him. Laurence thought he detected a flicker of disdain in Chilvers' face but it was quickly replaced by a perfectly businesslike demeanour.
'Some of these people should never have been expected to fight in the first place,' he said.
Laurence agreed with the sentiment but found himself unable to answer. He suspected his reasons for believing it were quite different from Chilvers'. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask the man about his own service but he kept silent, thinking that however delightful it might be to prick Chilvers' confidence, it was hardly worth provoking him.
'Do you know,' Laurence said now, 'I realise that I more or less forgot about Robert once I'd left Dr Chilvers' study. I don't think I mentioned him to George more than once or twice. Must have looked damned odd. He didn't ask me either, too busy seling the place. Stil, I suppose it doesn't matter now. Not likely to see him
—any of them—again.'
Charles gave a slow smile. If it hadn't been Charles, reliable, straightforward Charles, Laurence might have thought there was something devious in it.
'My man,' said Charles. 'I saw him again, last thing, as the lad was putting our bags in the car. He said Mrs Chilvers, Mrs George Chilvers, late resident of Holmwood, was a bit sweet on John Emmett. Or vice versa. Or mutualy. Can't have pleased George too much.' He attempted to look inscrutable but couldn't resist sounding pleased with himself. 'Now there's somebody it might be worth talking to, if we could ever get near her.'
He paused, but when Laurence didn't respond, added, 'Apparently everybody there thought that Emmett had been moved up to the top floor as a punishment for talking to George's wife. Not for some faling-out with a warder or trip out without a pass.'
Laurence felt faintly exasperated that Charles had come out with this only now.
'Did you find out where she—where they— live?'
'Used to live in a flat above the old stables near Holmwood but Dr Chilvers thought it better for her to live away from somewhere that had mixed memories for her. That was recently, though. After Emmett's death possibly? Now they live out of the vilage—in a biggish house; she was a wealthy woman, of course—in a rather isolated position. That was courtesy of our good host Cyril Trusty. He says George Chilvers has just about got her locked up. Some of the servants at Holmwood—
maid, cleaner, cook—do turns there. Not a great improvement on her original circumstances.'
'What a bloody odious man,' Laurence said, louder than he intended.
'Ah, Sir Laurence, knight-errant. Dragons skewered, enchanters foiled, moustache-twirling seducers thwarted, dungeons breached. Damsels in distress a speciality.' Charles's smile took the sting out of his words.
'I'm being ludicrous, aren't I?' Laurence said.
'Not at al, frankly. Though I'm not sure where it al goes from here.'
'I just can't think what to tel Mary. I had mixed impressions of Holmwood so I'm hardly likely to produce a coherent line for her. The firing squad link would horrify her and I can't tel her about Eleanor. She might go round there and God knows what scenes there'd be.'
'Laurence,' said Charles patiently, 'you're not a hero in one of Mr Drummond's books and she's no swooning maiden. She survived her brother's death—
whatever the cause. She asked you to look into it a bit. What did you think? That they were al going to be palpable vilains, keeping the deranged wretches chained up in the dripping celars? Then how on earth would they have taken in so many wealthy and often wel-connected families for so long? Or did you hope they were going to come clean and provide a tidy solution at your command? Yes, he did have a gun hidden away. Sorry, slipped the mind. Yes, we found a letter behind the wainscot only last week. Turns out he had some incurable wasting disease and wanted to save his loved ones the pain of watching his prolonged expiry.'
'But what if he didn't exactly kil himself?'
Charles looked incredulous.
'No, hear me out. Maybe someone didn't put a gun to his head but deliberately drove him to it. What then?' Laurence was astonished at his own recklessness.
'Wel, I'd ask who?' Charles said, surprisingly calmly. 'Who could have done? Who would have done? Why?'
Laurence thought for a few seconds before saying without great conviction, 'George Chilvers. He'd be top of my list.' He stopped, faced with Charles's look of astonishment. 'No, of course you're right. Is it more likely a depressed man kiled himself or that he was murdered by persons unknown? It never entered Mary's head and even Eleanor doesn't think that. Forget I said it.'
Reflecting on Charles's assessment the next day, back in London, Laurence was stil surprised at the perspicacity behind his comments. He started to write to Mary about the trip but gave up after two muddled paragraphs. In the end he simply agreed they meet as she'd suggested. But by the time he'd stuck down the envelope, he'd also decided on one further journey. After that, he thought he would stop living someone else's life and get back to his own. His slender manuscript lay on the edge of the desk, very tidy, but, to his shame, a fine layer of dust covered it. He drew an M on it with his finger.
He went out to post the letters. The sky was palest blue with fast-moving clouds. He walked as far as Coram's Fields, where he sat down on an empty bench.
There was a folded newspaper abandoned on the damp wood and he read the headlines. Opposite him an old man was tossing crumbs to a dozen squabbling pigeons.
A nursemaid holding a wel-wrapped smal girl by the hand walked past, pushing a perambulator. Laurence smiled at the child and she looked back at him curiously as she passed by.
As he walked home he read a piece about the next month's Varsity match. Having finished with the paper, he put it in the dustbin beneath his own steps. He looked up to see his neighbour, a man who rarely left his rooms, appear in the doorway. There was invariably a faint smel of cats about him. He thrust out a letter to Laurence.
'It's for you,' he said, almost reproachfuly. 'Picked it up with my own post.'
Laurence examined it, failing to recognise the handwriting. His neighbour nodded and retreated back to his flat. Laurence's eyes folowed him briefly. It was possible the man was no older than he was but life had aged him.
He hung up his coat and opened the envelope, expecting it to be from a woman: the writing was what he vaguely thought of as artistic. His eye went to the bottom of the page. This time the letter was from Wiliam Bolitho.
It was very good to see you the other day. I realise Eleanor may have given you a different impression but I have enjoyed our brief talks. I rather envy you having a meaty task to get your teeth into, though I continue to regret Emmett's death. He was a decent man. You must not take Eleanor's rebuffs to heart. Eleanor is very defensive of those she loves. It is a sterling quality—I doubt I would be here were it not for her—and I count my blessings even though she sometimes overrates threats to my welfare.
What I wanted to tel you, though I fear it may be of slight use in your enquiries, is that I remembered the name of the major who was bileted on us in 1917 and whose batman helped rescue John Emmett in the tunnel colapse. The man who was in your photograph. Calogreedy was his name. Name like that, can't think how I ever forgot it. Ex Indian Army man. God knows what his servant was caled; al I can remember of him is his accent—broad west country—Somerset, perhaps, if that helps at al. It's quite a coincidence but yesterday I was checking some smal investments I have and I noticed a firm caled Calogreedy and Weatheral were quoted on the stock exchange. As far as I can tel, their business is locks, safes, strong-rooms and so on. It was such an unusual name that I remembered the major instantly and I thought there might, just, be a connection.
I hope this is helpful and that when things are calmer we shal meet again. In the meantime I shal take the slightly clandestine step of handing this to Ethel to post.
Laurence ran back downstairs to where his scavenged newspaper lay on top of the rubbish in the bin. Self-consciously he looked around to check he wasn't observed and smoothed it out on the wal, brushing tea leaves off its back page. He suddenly had an image of Louise's father scrutinising the financial pages, making gruff noises of approval or concern and occasionaly putting a mark against certain figures. He remembered Louise's mother objecting to her husband tucking his silver propeling pencil behind his ear while he read. For a brief moment, his father-in-law felt more real to him than any memory of Louise.
Laurence's fingers traveled down the columns. Calogreedy and Weatheral were there; their shares seemed to be healthy. He put the paper back in the bin. The next day he would try to find out where they did business.
He was relieved that Wiliam Bolitho had been in touch; Eleanor had been so adamant that he was causing her husband distress that he had been almost persuaded of it, although, if anything, Bolitho seemed bored by the constraints on his actions. John's death must have eased the Bolithos' circumstances, but it could never have given Bolitho any kind of life. Fleetingly, he wondered whether Eleanor could have been petitioning John for financial help but Eleanor was only a colateral beneficiary anyway. Had she simply become over-involved with John while she nursed him? Or was it a passionate love affair, independent of war, and was it reciprocated? The period when she would have visited John at Holmwood would have been wel after she got married so an enduring love affair seemed unlikely.
He wondered whether Eleanor knew about John's role in the firing squad. Whether she was friend or nurse, it was not unlikely she shared his secrets. Not that this one was his alone; there would have been plenty of others at an execution, of course.
He stared at the photograph he'd received from Mary and remembered Chilvers' evidence to the inquest, stating that John was preoccupied by the event. This photograph was one that John had carried with him to his death. Bolitho had identified John, Tucker and the sapper's servant. They were al men involved in the trench accident, yet this was clearly winter and Bolitho had said the colapse took place in the heat of summer. Could they also have been part of a firing squad? Although the presence of the medical officer meant it could have been an execution detail, there were also plenty of times when soldiers clustered together, looking glum and waiting for action. Yet who could have photographed the men and why? Whose was the monogram on the back?
He'd never seen an execution but tales of them circulated from time to time. Sometimes he thought that their circulation was deliberate; it made it clear to nervous soldiers that whilst the Germans might be aiming to kil them on one side, the forces of their own military discipline were equaly lethal on the other. Like every other aspect of the war, horror stories abounded. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who'd been involved. The officer who was supposed to deliver the coup de grâce fiddling with a jammed revolver; executioners caling out to a friend or brother tied to a stake; right down to the straightforward humiliations: the condemned soldier losing control of his bowels or bladder, the young ones crying for their mothers. Better to go towards the guns or through the wire.
Trench tales were always about removing choice, he reflected; the good soldier was a resigned soldier. The good soldier never wasted time thinking about alternatives.
Finding Major Calogreedy turned out to be Charles's easiest task so far. There were only two Calogreedys who'd seen service in the war. Calogreedy and Weatheral had offices at Lambeth. A telephone cal established that Calogreedy was in the office, running the business, and had indeed seen action in France. Laurence made an appointment to go over and see him the folowing Friday at midday, ignoring Charles's efforts to lure him to a party in Suffolk.
'But we're celebrating,' Charles had said and added, 'Funny choice of day to track down this Calogreedy.'
It was not cold so he decided to walk. He passed down a peaceful Kingsway towards Aldwych but as he got nearer to the Strand he seemed to be crossing the tail-end of a crowd, the bulk of which he could see pushing westwards towards Whitehal. The mass of people were hardly moving. Just out of sight, but stil just audible, was a brass band. He listened and recognised it as a hymn. He knew the words to it. 'Victor, he rose; victorious too shal rise, They who have drunk His cup of sacrifice.' Hearing it so unexpectedly made a great impact on him. Although he was far from sharing its sentiments now, the music was as powerfuly evocative as ever; to his horror, the conflicting emotions made him shiver.
As the hymn died away he realised with a shock the significance of Charles's apparently throwaway remark. Almost simultaneously the bels of Big Ben rang out over a nearly silent London. Eleven o'clock. It was Armistice Day. This year there was a ceremony at the new Cenotaph and a few of those around him were wearing the paper poppies. They looked oddly frivolous but the expressions on the faces in the crowd belied that. Whether the crowds wanted to see the King or wanted to honour their dead, everybody was looking back, either in sorrow, as here, or in jubilation—going to the races or, like Charles, preparing for a party. The country was divided: between those who wept and those who danced.
Except he was doing neither. Only three years had passed, yet he had forgotten it was the eleventh. Peace descended more abruptly around him now than it had in 1918; he could hear the flutter of squabbling pigeons on a window ledge. The sky above him was uniformly grey.
He remembered when the news had come through in France. He'd been in a makeshift stable, examining a sick horse. They were trying to decide whether to shoot it. The horse was coughing and roling its eyes as a young farrier tried to restrain it. Its jaw was dark with saliva and it looked completely mad. The new adjutant had rushed in but was stopped in his tracks by the sight of the deranged horse. Then he said, 'It's over.' And for a second Laurence had thought he meant they should hurry up and shoot the horse. Once he understood what the officer realy meant, his first thought was that it would be marvelous to have a clean colar every day. His second had been a feeling of such profound pointlessness that even remembering it now made him want to weep.
When the silence came to an end, he crossed over Waterloo Bridge, which was bitingly cold in the wind, and then moved into the shelter of buildings on the south bank of the river. He walked briskly along York Road towards Lambeth. The business was easy to find: a middle-sized factory abutted the road. Above a wide archway the words 'Calogreedy and Weatheral' were speled out in ironwork. The buildings were quite old but the sign looked new. When Laurence entered the gateway a young man in a dark suit came towards him.
'Mr Bartram,' he said, holding out his hand. 'Would you please folow me, sir?'
Calogreedy's office was just across a smal yard. Laurence stepped forward and greeted the tal man who had stood up behind his desk. As the door closed behind them, a distant background of banging and grinding became fainter.
'The men al wanted to come in, business as usual, but we stopped for the commemoration,' said Calogreedy, shaking Laurence's hand and nodding back towards the yard. 'I said a prayer. It was appreciated, I think, but one never quite knows.'
Calogreedy was obviously a military man, upright and with decisive movements. He had dark hair, a neat moustache, blue eyes and weathered skin. He was about forty-five, Laurence guessed. The entire wal behind him was covered in photographs. Some looked recent and were of what Laurence presumed was the factory floor: with workbenches, presses and tool racks as a background to ten or so men in overals. One picture was of Calogreedy shaking hands with a government minister. The more faded ones were either regimental or apparently taken in India: a tiger shoot, a magnificent picnic overlooking a fort in the foothils of some mountains, and one of what looked like the 1912 Durbar. The King and Queen stood pale and stiff under a silken canopy, dwarfed by ostrich-plumed officers, jeweled maharajahs and ornately decked elephants. It might as wel have been another century.
'Wel, to start with, you've certainly found the right man. Funnily enough, the only other serving Calogreedy—I believe—was my brother Godfrey. He's a director of the company, too, and might as easily have been here today, but I'm clearly the man you are after. Basil Calogreedy. A regular. Indian Army.' He nodded to the photographs. 'Sappers.'
Laurence wondered, briefly, whether Calogreedy had been in the same outfit as his fictitious brother, Robert.
'Came out in 1919 and bought this business. We've been expanding ever since. Weatheral was a sleeping partner. Very much asleep, in fact, as he passed on before the war, but the name means something in the locks and safes world so we kept it. Doing wel. Factories in Birmingham and Bristol. Unfortunately, we live in hard times: men come out of uniform and there's no job for them.' He sat back, placing the palms of his hands flat on his desk. 'Outcome: desperation. Burglary. Petty theft. Solution: good locks. Al the men I take on have been in uniform. We owe it to them. Find they can't get skiled positions because they've been out of their trade for four years and some fifteen-year-old is being trained up for a pittance.'
He shook his head in apparent disbelief at his own words before his attention returned to Laurence.
'I can't think I've much to contribute but perhaps if you fire off some questions, something I say wil be of use. Strange business, your friend's death. Sadly not unique, though.'
'It was very hard for his sister and widowed mother,' said Laurence. Then, hesitantly, 'Do you remember an incident in 1916? I believe you were passing through a vilage near Albert where there was a colapse of a major trench system. Two men kiled, one injured? My friend was one of those men.'
Calogreedy wrinkled his brow. 'It happened al too often,' he said, but it was obvious that he knew what Laurence was talking about. 'I wasn't actualy there on that occasion—I was surveying another stretch. It was my servant who helped get the men out. They were lucky. Lucky not more men were down there, I mean. I'd been sent forward because the diggers were anxious about the stability of the trenches; they were pushing ahead at terrific speed. HQ wanted them back in commission, but they didn't have the materials to prop the new tunnels adequately and the ground was chalky; tree roots a problem, as I recal, and they kept running into abandoned German trenches. Anyway the colapse simply bore out my judgment. Three or four men, including your felow presumably, were underneath when it caved in. Byers, an officer and an NCO got the survivor out.'
'Byers?' said Laurence, remembering the name on John's list.
'Yes. Leonard Byers. He was my servant—a good man; tremendous aptitude for figures. Farm boy. Bit of a phenomenon. If commissions were awarded on intelect alone, he'd have been an officer of engineers. As it was, he just proved that if you had a good batman the war could be a very much more congenial experience.
Started off as a bit of a joke, getting him to do mental arithmetic. Lads used to throw questions at him and lay bets on how long it would take him to tot up forty numbers, that kind of thing. He was always quicker in his head than anyone doing the same sum on paper. Heaven knows where he got his abilities from; left school at twelve and, from what he tels me, they never got the farm to pay. But I've kept him with me. Man who showed you in.' He nodded at the door. 'He married one of our lady typewriters the same year we set up and I've half a mind to bring him on to the management side eventualy. One day. Just need to persuade Godfrey who is a conventional chap. Can't see the brain behind the rough edges.'
'Byers was your mess servant in 1916?' Laurence asked. He had temporarily forgotten that Calogreedy was rumoured to have kept his batman with him when the war finished. It was not so odd for a regular officer but usualy the relationship became one of master and valet. The making of such an easy connection, after so much information that had seemed to go nowhere, caught him by surprise. He was looking for a Byers, and for the batman, and now they had turned out to be one and the same.
'Was there a Darling or a Coburg there?' It was a very long shot and he wasn't surprised when Calogreedy shook his head. His mind was evidently stil on his employee.
'He's had a tough time recently because of al the palaver over the death of his cousin a few months back. Poor chap was murdered. In cold blood. Can you believe it? Policeman came here to tel him as the nearest surviving relative. He took it badly. Can understand why: his cousin makes it unscathed through three and a half bloody years in France and someone does for him while he's milking cows. As I said: desperate times—desperate men. But have a word with him in a while; he'l be in his office until late.'
'I do have one other question.' Laurence hesitated. 'It's a slightly strange one. Perhaps this should be for Mr Byers himself and you may not know the answer anyway, but was he ever part of a firing squad?'
It was obvious he had hit on something. Calogreedy's face answered for him.
A bad business. He realy shouldn't have had to do it. I was on leave or I would have stopped it. He was forced into making up numbers because so many had dysentery at the time and even then there was a bit of malice in his selection, I think. The condemned man was an officer, you see.'
Laurence stiffened. The execution of an officer was virtualy unheard of. He struggled for a second to take it in.
'His own men were loath to do it,' Calogreedy said, 'but once the sentence had been handed down and confirmed, I expect the powers that be wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. At least Byers didn't know the man, but neither did he realy know anybody else on the squad except for the sergeant and a couple of the officers. And although he was a country lad he wasn't even very good with a gun. Needed spectacles.'
An officer executed?'
'Yes. Poor felow. Cowardice, I imagine. Of course you can't make exceptions but stil, he was very young, I gather. There were chaps out there who couldn't have commanded a tea party, much less an assault on a machine-gun post.'
'Remember his name? No. Absolutely not, if I ever knew it. Not very good on names. I dare say you could find out. Careful how you go with Byers—touchy subject. Al this stuff in the papers now: accusations of summary justice and so on. Though it beats me how you can expect much subtlety in military law, not in the field, not when there are men out there who couldn't find their way into battle with a map. So deciding theoretical degrees of guilt when the German guns were rumbling in the background ... Wel, a lot seemed to depend on local morale and setting examples, nothing consistent about it. But, d'you know, I only ever read of one other officer being executed. They were tougher on the whole: good schools, independence, team sports, values. Byers won't welcome talking about it, I can tel you. I'l have a word. Smooth things over. You'l need to be persistent.'
It was obvious that Calogreedy had little else to share with him and Laurence stayed only long enough not to seem impolite. He was eager to speak to Leonard Byers and Calogreedy made it easy for him by taking him across to a smaler office on the far side.
'Look, it's almost their lunch hour. He might feel more relaxed off the premises. Take a walk, that kind of thing.'
Calogreedy strode ahead, pushing open a door. Laurence looked up at the spitting rain without enthusiasm. Inside the office, surrounded by graphs and diagrams, Leonard Byers sat hunched over a desk between hefty files, writing notes against columns of figures in front of him. He didn't hear the door open or see them standing there at first. When he did he looked embarrassed, jumping up while straightening his tie.
'Sorry to disturb you,' Calogreedy said, 'but curiously it turns out that although it was me that he had come to see, you were, in a manner of speaking, realy the man Mr Bartram was after al the time. He was hoping you might be able to help him look into the death of his friend. Anyway, take your time. Nothing urgent to do here.'
It might have been Laurence's imagination but he thought he detected a look of wariness cross the younger man's face. Although it was gone almost immediately, he looked uncomfortable even as he belatedly reached out his hand.
Calogreedy paused in the doorway. 'Difficult times. But try to help him, old chap. I'd be grateful, you know.'
Leonard Byers had a pale, serious face, a faint shadow of stubble on his chin and purple holows under his eyes. One lens of his wire spectacles was cracked. Laurence remembered that he had only recently, and violently, lost a close relative. Most people stil assumed that talk of death meant talk of the war, but here they both were with enough distance from it to have experienced death in peacetime.
Byers, who was slight in build with inteligent eyes, looked younger than his years. He must be in his mid-twenties at least but could have been five years younger. He faced Laurence unsmilingly. A farm boy, Calogreedy had said. Yet here he was, translated by the war into an urban clerk on the banks of the Thames.
Byers motioned him to a spare chair and sat down behind the desk.
'I'm sorry,' Laurence said. 'I gather this is a difficult time for you. Death in the family. Not a time to answer questions, perhaps?'
'My cousin, Jim,' said Byers, 'back in the summer. But it's al right, ask what you like. If the major thinks it'l help.' He looked unconvinced. 'Nothing'l bring Jim back.' He took off his spectacles and held them in front of him.
Laurence could hear a slight west country burr in his voice.
'You must have been close?'
'Wel, close as lads. We were the same age to the month. Almost like twins when we were young 'uns. Up to al sorts. I was the clever one but he was the sportsman. Strong. Ran like the wind. Star of the vilage cricket team before the war. When they stil had a team. But when he went back to the farm in 1918 and I folowed the major here, he wasn't so happy. Didn't say as much, mind, but I could tel he thought he'd got a raw deal. It was just him and the old man. I should've gone to see them more, but it's a long way and I was helping the major get things going. Then I met Enid—she's my wife now—and we were saving. But I should have gone down. It wasn't fair on Jim.
'The farm hadn't been properly run in the war. Couldn't get the labour, it was al girls and old men. Didn't buy in new animals, let a few bils go unpaid. Couple of bad harvests, didn't keep the repairs up to scratch and it's an old place, needs work on it al the time. After the war, for al the talk, nobody gave a...'
He seemed to struggle to find a respectable word.
'Nobody cared if a tatty little farm went to the dogs. Stupid thing is, neither of us had to fight. We were needed at home. Essential work, they caled it. But to tel the truth, I was bored and wanted to see the world.' He frowned. 'Which I did. And we both thought that girls would be al over a man in uniform. Which they weren't. And once I'd joined up, then Jim wasn't going to be left behind in the mud at Combe Bisset. Went to find some nice foreign mud of his own. Come Christmas, he just signed on the line. Went in as a private, came out with his stripes. Uncle looked like he could carry on with the lads we'd got, but then he fel off a roof he was fixing and his leg was never right, and of course eventualy the younger lads were itching to get into uniform too.'
'Your uncle?' The conversation had moved a long way from where Laurence intended it to go but he wanted to gain the young man's trust and Byers seemed wiling to talk about his family catastrophe.
'Yes. That's what made it worse. The old man had been pretty wel bedridden since Jim'd got back. But he liked to sit in a chair by the window upstairs. He saw it al.'
'He saw the person who did it?'
'He did that. Though a fat lot of help it's been. Man in a hat and a coat. That's only half the population, then. Arrived by car probably, though left it out of sight.
My uncle said he heard it but never saw it. He'l have been right about that: his eyesight's not great but his hearing was always spot on. So it was a man with the nerve to drive within earshot of the house and to see off our dog, and she's a nasty bit of work. A man who carried a gun and didn't hesitate in using it at close range. Twice.'
'Once in the chest and then a second, head shot, once he was on the ground. The police said the first shot would have done for him. He can't have known anything. The second was just to make sure.'
'How extraordinary,' said Laurence. 'Did the police have any ideas at al who it might have been?'
'No. I mean, Jim'd never been anywhere, excepting after he joined up. We were brought up on the farm. Both his parents died when he was very young. My father died of lockjaw when we were boys. My uncle looked after my mother and both us cousins in return for her keeping house. She passed on just before the war.
Anyone Jim knew, I knew. I'd have known if he'd got into any kind of trouble. We had the same friends, got into the same trouble—but only the schoolboy kind: scrumping, girls, playground knuckle fights. Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened to Jim until the day somebody came al the way out to the farm and shot him.
Nothing to nick, either. No reason to it.'
'What kind of gun was it?'
'Not a shotgun. A pistol. Kils him, then blows his face off,' Byers said bitterly.
Laurence was surprised. When Byers had spoken of a final shot to the head, he'd been thinking of a single bulet, a military coup de grâce.
'They might of got his tyre tracks,' Byers was saying, 'and had some hope of tracing the car, the major says, but the police and the local doctor had driven backwards and forwards down the same track by the time those clods thought of it. Mashed into nothingness, it was. But what did they care? Single man, mucky farm.
Probably thought he'd been after some other yokel's wife.'
'How dreadful for your uncle.'
'Yes. It was. He comes down the stairs on his ... on his behind, must have taken him for ever. Got himself out in the yard. Found Jim, but there was nothing he could do for him and no way he could get help. Lucky he didn't die of cold, poor old man. Didn't have an obliging bone in him but he didn't deserve that. The girl found him—the one who did the milking. Him and the dog sitting in the muck, and then Jim's blood splattered al over the yard. But it did for him realy, the old man. The farm was sold. The money that was left after the creditors had their take went to pay a widow in town to look after him in her home. Me and Enid didn't see a penny of it,' he added defensively.
His face softened. 'Funny thing is, when the police first came, I thought, just for a minute, that Jim'd done it himself. Topped himself. He was that fed up. So, just for a minute there was a queer kind of relief that he hadn't. Mind you, I wasn't the one who had to find him. The old man wasn't beyond covering up a suicide: that generation, you know, and a bit on the religious side. He could of made up cars and strangers, but not the gun. Jim had a shotgun—crows and rabbits—but it was stil back in the house. Didn't have it with him so obviously wasn't expecting any trouble. Hadn't been fired for a while, the police said.'
Laurence's head was buzzing. 'Do the police think the assailant knew your uncle was there as wel?' he asked.
'God knows. Local man would of known, but anyone else—probably not. Bastard was taking a risk but then he was carrying a loaded gun. Not so much of a risk if you've got a strong stomach and more of us around now have seen some sights would've turned us before the war.
'A few days earlier a man came into the pub in the vilage. It's a mile or so's walk from our farm. It was early and nobody much was in there but he had a half of cider. Kept himself to himself but was pleasant enough. Might have been useful information if the landlord didn't help himself to his own spirits al day. Al he could remember was the man spoke like a gentleman and asked where the farm was. And he didn't even remember that for a week. The stranger took himself off. Where he went, if it was him, for the next day or so, who knows? If he had a car, he could of gone anywhere. But I'm certain Jim had no more idea than I do why anyone would want to kil him in the first place.
'You'l be thinking he might of got involved with something in France I don't know of Leonard Byers rushed on. The circumstances were obviously stil bothering him. 'The major got me to see a senior policeman friend of his. But he was realy just doing it as a favour for the major. Smal fry, me and Jim, but people wil do al sorts for the major.' He looked almost proud. 'A London policeman. Mulins. Turned out I'd sort of met this Mulins when we were both in France. He thought Jim had got mixed up with some bad lads there. But Jim didn't get into any funny business. We weren't close like we once were, but he would stil've told me if anything was realy wrong. He just said his time out there was mostly uncomfortable or frightening. He said it was his duty and, like al duty, boring but unavoidable.'
Laurence nodded. Byers' assessment was wel observed. He was also relieved that he was talking so freely, although most of the time he avoided eye contact.
'I would of known if he'd been caught up in anything so odd that someone would've come hunting for him over two years after the war ended. After al, he was hardly in hiding, was he? He wasn't scared. He was right back where he started. He didn't expect anything to happen, not ever again. That was his gripe. I don't suppose we'l ever know. Too careful, too planned, Mulins said, for a homicidal maniac. Everyone knows us down here. Whoever it was, he wouldn't have got that far without being clear precisely who he was about to shoot. And he did get right up to him. Looked him in the face. Perhaps Jim knows the answer but he's past teling.'
Awkwardly Laurence asked, 'Would you like to go for a beer or something? The major's quite happy for you to take time away...'
'Oh. Right. A walk?'
Byers looked to the window. 'It's raining,' he said flatly.
There was a long-drawn-out silence. The door of the smal iron stove rattled as wind came down the pipe. Laurence was absorbing the fact that Combe Bisset was one of the names written on the list John had carried at his death, but now was not the time to bring this up and he knew he was avoiding a more difficult topic.
'Look, I'm sorry to have to ask you this,' Laurence began in a rush, 'but were you ever part of a firing squad?'
Byers shoulders tensed. He looked down, turned his spectacles over in his hands. His lips tightened. For a minute Laurence thought he was going to refuse to speak.
'So that's why you're realy here. The major told you, is that it? And he wants me to tel you?' he said, stiffly. 'Why do you want to know? For the papers? It's al over now.'
'I asked him—your name had come up—and he said you'd help me,' Laurence said, not quite truthfuly. 'It's just the friend that he mentioned, the friend whose death I'm looking into, may have been connected with it.'
'You think he was involved in that dismal bloody mess?' Byers looked suspicious.
Laurence felt for his walet and took out the photograph. 'Is this you?' he said.
Byers took the picture. He stared at it impassively. 'Jesus,' he said. 'Mr Brabourne and his ruddy camera. Could never leave it alone. I'm surprised he didn't take one of the actual shooting as wel.'
'First Lieutenant Tresham Brabourne. They caled him "Fiery". He wasn't so much fiery, though, as some kind of fizzing grenade that you're not sure if it's a dud or it's about to turn you to mincemeat. I'd been under him early on in the war. We were bantams. Short-arses. Never thought I'd see him again. He was so green, so lacking any normal sense of self-preservation, the lads there said just folowing him was the most dangerous thing you were ever likely to be asked to do.' Byers' face relaxed momentarily. 'Nineteen, twenty perhaps? Not that I was any older. Apparently his mama had given him the camera as a goodbye present. Perhaps she thought it was going to be like a touring holiday. Going to visit family friends in this or that chateau, chomp on snails and frogs' legs for dinner? When he went on leave, he hopped off to Paris. Brought back some champagne one time. Wanted to be a writer or some such, though what he realy loved was his camera. No, I remember now, he was going to be a newspaperman when he got out of the war. Which was about as likely as the Kaiser being invited back for tea at Buckingham Palace. If ever there was a man with a short lifespan it was Mr Brabourne.
'He'd been told about the camera. You couldn't have people taking any old pictures. He thought he could sel them to the papers, I suppose. Make his reputation. But he was heading for trouble if he was caught again. He could probably even have been charged with spying, though I expect his family knew people in the War Office. His sort did. But this,' he tapped on the picture with his forefinger. 'It has to be Brabourne's work. He was there. We were there. He was the only one who could've taken this.' He paused. 'Was Mr Brabourne your friend?'
Laurence shook his head. 'No. Can you tel me what's going on in the picture?'
'Apart from the fact that we're about to see off some poor bastard, which you obviously guessed already. Look, I decided way back never to talk about it.
Never even to think about it, if I could. You just come in here...' He was struggling to contain his anger. 'I don't know who you are. I've only said this much because the major.' He put the picture on his desk, laying it face down as he pushed it sharply towards Laurence.
'I'm sorry,' said Laurence, trying to disguise the excitement he felt at the confirmation that the image was of the firing squad. 'I realy wouldn't be bringing it up if it wasn't important. It's just my friend has a sister and she doesn't understand why he died. He shot himself, you see. And he was part of al this and felt much as you did, I think.'
He waited to see whether Byers would give him an answer. He sensed it was no good pushing him further.
'Then, assuming he was an officer, your friend must be either the MO, the padre, the APM—the assistant provost marshal—or the captain,' Byers said, after several minutes. His tone was resigned. 'Empson, I think his name was.'
'Emmett,' said Laurence.
Byers nodded and picked up the photograph again.
'Emmett,' he said. 'Right.' He fel silent again. 'You know, this wasn't the first time I'd met your friend the captain. I came across him before this business. He was a lieutenant then. I was passing near Albert but didn't know anyone. He asked where I came from in Devon. He could place anyone by their voice. I told him Combe Bisset. He said his mother's maiden name was Bisset. Next day the trench colapsed on him. Looked nasty, but he was lucky. Lucky then, anyways.'
Laurence was about to ask him about the colapse but then the young man pointed to himself in the picture. A slightly plumper self, but even more tense than he looked now.
'Watkins,' he said, moving his finger to the man next to him. 'Welsh nutter.' His finger moved again: 'Vince somebody, a cabinet maker in real life, a Londoner, on light duties with his rupture. Not the sort of light duty he had in mind, I'd imagine. Next to him—a man whose nerves were al over the place. Wound us al up.' His finger moved on. 'This one—nickname was Dusty. I suppose that means he was caled Miler—Dustys usualy are, aren't they? Can't remember this one at al, he was on the end. One of Dusty's lot probably. Just a lad. Two were from the poor bugger's own company. They were sick about it. Said their officer was no worse than any other. Old man's the doc,' he pointed, 'and very unhappy. Your friend, Emmett there. And that evil bastard—sorry,' he looked up at Laurence, 'but he was—is—
Sergeant Tucker. He's the one that had it in for me.'
'In what way?'
'Wel, they were making up a squad. Nobody wants the job. General feeling was that it was a rotten business. By al accounts, the poor useless bastard they'd got it in for was round the bend. And because he was an officer. You'd think some of them might have gone for that on general principles, but most felt it would bring bad luck. Not Sergeant Tucker, though. He was in his element. It wasn't personal or anything; he was just a nasty bit of work. I'd met him before, too, funnily enough, same accident you just asked me about. One of Tucker's so-caled mates had been suffocated. Tucker was supposedly trying to help him until a medic came. The others were al trying to get the rest out, but I'd turned round and watched Tucker, and I can tel you he wasn't lifting a finger to help his friend. He was leaning over him but it looked more like he was putting his hand over his mouth rather than clearing it of earth. He saw me looking and moved to block my view. When I met him again, I hoped he'd forgotten me.'
Laurence made a non-committal grunt.
'But he never forgot anything.' Byers was obviously thinking. 'Frankly, he made a bit of a mess of it, your friend. As for me, half the regulars were il. The others were al belyaching. I was there waiting for the major to get back from Blighty. I shouldn't have been there at al. It's difficult when you don't belong, when it's not your outfit. At night I had to kip with the others and Tucker had it in for me from the start. The other lads were taking the rip but most of it was pretty good-humoured. One pretended to put on an apron and dust the place down. When I went out for a piss, they made out I was picking flowers for the major's bilet. But Tucker, he was al for me being a nancy-boy. Caled me the major's girl. Caled me Leonora and soon they were al at it.' His cheeks flared red. Then he said, almost aggressively, 'Look, you realy want to know al this stuff? It's not pretty, any of it. Not the bit with your friend in either. Not stuff his sister and mother would want to know.'
Laurence had no idea where it was going: but he was simultaneously apprehensive and eager to hear the rest of what Byers had to tel. 'Please,' he said, 'you've no idea how useful this is. I won't pass on al the details.'
He hoped Byers' evident loyalty to Calogreedy would keep him talking, rather than asking himself why Laurence needed the details if he was not intending to use them.
Byers took out a crumpled handkerchief. For a second Laurence thought he was going to cry and felt a flash of embarrassment, but the young man simply rubbed the lenses of his glasses. 'What started it was that, the first evening, I was there when Tucker was seling some German stuff. Most of it was the usual: belt buckles, badges. He had a ring and a watch with its glass smashed, a beautiful thing, an officer's probably, but it stil went, and a pen, and a couple of photographs of some Fräuleins, that he'd nicked from dead men's pockets, and some letters nobody could read in that funny writing of theirs. Oh and some fancy drawers and a hair ribbon he'd taken off a French lass. But some of it was plain disgusting and that's what everybody wanted to buy. He had some colar flashes stiff with blood and then he'd got something in a little jar of inky liquid. He handed it over to me, saying, "You'l like this, Byers, it's right up your street." I thought at first it was some sort of smal animal he'd pickled, but then from the grin on his face I knew it was something much worse. I shook it a little and then I saw what it was.' He stopped, looking uncomfortable. 'It was a part of a German. His thing. Organ. It was stinking. I almost dropped it there and then. Of course it could have been anybody's if we'd stopped to think. After al, there were enough dead bodies about, but he'd got them al faling over each other to have it. Even Watkins who was forever talking about sinners and helfire.
'Anyway, he's asking for bids, and some of them are offering money and some are trying to trade for tobacco or sweets or saucy pictures. The young lad—his eyes are on stalks. You can see Watkins wants the drawers but there's the Holy Book holding him back, and Dusty is offering for different combinations of stuff, but Tucker keeps adding or subtracting according to what he chooses. Finaly they agree, but I can see Tucker's added up the total wrong. So I correct him. I mean, that's what I'm good at. The look he gives me. Wel, of course he was trying to cheat them. Not for the money but as a game. But I didn't know him then, did I? I hadn't taken to him on account of his being too chummy with the young soldiers, but I didn't know what a sick bastard—sorry, again, sir, but it's the truth—he was. And then some of the men start to laugh and I know I've had it.
'Two days later the rumour that's been going round—that some young officer, who they've had locked up in the guardhouse, and who'd been done for being a coward, has been sentenced to death—turns out to be true. Tucker comes in late, happy as Larry, tels us he's looking for volunteers for a squad. Of course he doesn't mean "volunteer" and he doesn't get any. Wel, only Dusty, who's half-witted and would put his hand up to go over the top in a tutu armed with a stick of Brighton rock if an NCO asked him. The others don't like it. The one with nerves is shaking. Two of them know the officer. I don't, of course.
'He wants ten but he'l settle for seven and a burial party. There were a lot of men on sick, granted, but I knew it would only be a matter of time until he picked on me. And it was. He played about, pretending he wanted X or Y, who turned out to be puking up somewhere or on leave, and then he said, "Oh Byers, just the man.
You like doing officers favours. Wel, you can do this one a favour by shooting straight." Bastard,' Byers muttered, almost to himself.
'That night they bileted us in the farm, the one you can see in the photograph. Nobody slept much, bar Dusty who snored the whole night through. What with that and Watkins reading aloud from his bible, and the cold, and the prospect of what was to come, it was a horrible night. Too long and too short at the same time, if you know what I mean. For once Tucker was in with us. Just lay on his back, no trouble to anyone for once, not sleeping: you could see the glow of his cigarette in the half-dark. Captain Emmett came in about six. He looked pretty sick too.'
And this Brabourne, was he part of the squad, then?' asked Laurence.
'No. He didn't pitch up until we were about to do it. Just in time to take our photograph, I suppose.'
Laurence was puzzled. 'But what was he doing there?'
'I was told that he was part of the trial. The one who's put in to defend someone but never gets them off. But I mean, Mr Brabourne, they might as wel of shot the man right there.'
Laurence saw they'd arrived at the point which he should have clarified to start with.
'And the prisoner was?'
'Mr Hart. Another lieutenant.'
Laurence realised that he'd increasingly expected to recognise the name, whatever it turned out to be, but Hart meant nothing to him. 'Hart?' he repeated, blankly.
Byers looked unhappy. 'Whatever he'd done, and Vince said he'd left them al in a ditch, being shot at, and done a runner and been found stark bolock naked spouting balderdash, he was brave enough in the end. We were hanging around for a while beforehand; that's probably when Brabourne got his picture. It was a dark morning, a bit of snow, not light enough at first. Then Emmett gives us a little speech, though you can tel his heart's not in it: about how sometimes duty asks strange and difficult things of us just as necessary as fighting the Germans. Chin up. Soon be over. That kind of thing. Probably read it in his officer handbook.
'Tucker marches us off. It's stil sleeting and my boots have a hole in them. I remember thinking I shouldn't be noticing this now. The captain comes over, says,
"Al right, lads?" I hear myself saying, "My boots are leaking." It just come out. Captain Emmett gives me a hard look. There's a post, and some rope. Wel, you must know how it goes. Tucker puts me on the end next to him. So as he can have fun watching me, no doubt. Then he mixes the rifles.'
'Mixes the rifles?'
'You must know. Being an officer.' He looked incredulous. 'Shift your rifles about. Of course it means you're not firing with the weapon you're used to. Not that I'd fired more than twice anyway.'
'I'm sorry—I misunderstood.'
But truthfuly Laurence had never given it any thought; it had seemed at first like an uncharacteristicaly humane idea but of course it would be a shambles in its effect. And by the time a man was shooting a felow soldier, his sensibilities were probably past protecting. By the time he'd been six months in France, he would be pretty wel inured to most of war's surprises.
'Then Tucker loads them; supposedly one's a blank, that's what they tel you, but if it was, I knew I wasn't getting it; Tucker was way too chipper with me.
Dusty lights a ciggie behind a hand and Captain Emmett shouts at him to put it out. Then we're al silent. It's just breathing and sloshing as we stomp our feet up and down to keep warm. Watkins starts muttering, "I know that my redeemer liveth." Tucker says, "No he don't, Watkins. Not here." Then Tucker must have heard something because we al have to stand to attention. And then we see them, and I thought I was going to pass out, my heart was racing so fast in my chest. Tucker's looking like it's the best thing he's seen in ages.'
Byers faltered. His shoulders rose and fel a couple of times.
'The lieutenant's stumbling along with his hands tied behind his back. The padre—one of the young ones, gripping his book and not lifting his eyes from the page, though you'd have thought he'd have known the words by heart—walks a little in front of him, reading prayers. The two men who'd been guarding him are either side and the APM—I suppose to execute an officer they needed to do it right—folowing on.'
Byers was speaking at an increasing speed, his initial reticence having transformed almost into eagerness to get to the end.
'They're bringing him along at quite a lick and the ground's rough and he nearly fals when he sees the place, but the corporal steadies him. They have him tied to the post in a jiffy. He doesn't struggle though he says the ropes are too tight. The corporal has a scarf but Hart won't have a blindfold. He looks at us and he seems a bit puzzled. The lad beside me, he looks down. It's worse for him because he's served under him. Part of me's thinking, at least if his boots is leaking, they won't be troubling him long.'
The look he gave Laurence was almost an appeal for understanding.
'Nerves; it was just my nerves. The MO steps forward, pins a white card or something over his heart. He's shaking his head just a bit, as he backs away. Could of been the sleet melting off his hat. The padre goes on with his "I am the resurrection and the life" stuff and then steps to the side, looking at the ground al the while.
Funny, the things you notice. The APM reads out the sentence and leaves us to it, walking back the way he come. Never looks back. He'd got a car waiting, they said.'
Byers looked momentarily uncomfortable but after a brief hesitation he went on.
'Then Captain Emmett cals out, not loud enough realy, "Ready", and there's the first click and then Mr Hart shouts out, "Goodbye, lads. Shoot straight and for God's sake make it quick." And the captain, he seems startled. Instead of going on, he stops. Then starts again: "Ready, aim, fire." Which we do.
'But the thing is, we don't shoot straight. First off, we're not using our own weapons. Dusty had been tippling out of his flask al night; God knows where he got it but he'd had plenty. Watkins is so busy with his mutterings about Jesus that his aim's al over the place, and the lad next to me whose name I can't remember shoots even before the captain has given the order to fire, he's that jumpy, and he hits the bloke al right, but not in the heart. We can al hear him moaning. Vince fires when he's told to, I think, and so do I, but I'd never even had to shoot a real person, not close up. Hart slumps against the ropes. As for Tucker, he shoots, but after me and he gets him in the leg or the bely or somewhere, and he was a good shot. Famous for it. Wasn't nervous either. It's Tucker's shot that makes him fal forward and the weight of him puls the post with him at an angle and the ropes give way and he's on the ground and we can see he's bleeding. It doesn't take the MO to make it official.
He's alive. We al look at Captain Emmett. Not just us but the padre and the MO and Mr Brabourne. It's the captain's mess to sort out now.'
Laurence felt cold with disgust. The inhumanity of it al.
'Captain Emmett takes his pistol out of its holster. He steps up to Hart, who's moving slightly. He hesitates and it looks like Hart's trying to speak. God knows how. Captain Emmett should have just ended it there and then. But he stoops down and tries to hear what Hart says. Puts his hand on his arm. Then he stands up again, whiter even than he was before. His arm with the gun is just hanging at his side. He looks up towards the MO and Mr Brabourne and for a minute nobody moves. Mr Brabourne looks back. The MO moves forward but stops. Hart's sort of coughing. His leg's twitching.'
Byers swalowed hard.
'Then suddenly Tucker walks across to the captain. He pushes Hart half over with his boot, reaches out and takes the captain's pistol out of his hand. No resistance at al. He shoots Hart, straight in the face. Then he takes Captain Emmett's hand, puts the gun in it, salutes sharpish, and walks back to the rest of us.'
Byers fel silent and when he spoke again his voice was husky.
'It was al wrong, al of it. It's why I took it so bad with Jim, it brought it al back.'
He put his spectacles back on and looked defiantly at Laurence.
'Tucker marches us off back to the farmyard. But not before we could al hear someone throwing up, Mr Brabourne, I think it was, but then whatever you say about Mr Brabourne, he'd had guts to be there; he didn't have to be. Could have been the padre, mind you. He was green too. God knows what happened between the officers. We don't see the MO and the padre again; they went off someplace else, and Captain Emmett and Mr Brabourne get back a while later. No mention of any irregularities. Nothing. No comeback I ever heard of against Tucker. Nor against your friend, Captain Emmett. Our secret. But Tucker, when the officers come in, he's standing next to the captain and the captain won't even look at him, when Tucker cals out, "Byers, there's an officer here needs his boots cleaning," and I look down and Captain Emmett looks down and there's blood and brains and stuff al over his foot.'
The room was suddenly silent. Then, slowly, sound crept back in. Laurence was aware of a clock ticking and a squeak each time Byers moved in his chair. His own grated as he pushed it back. Incongruously he could hear a blackbird somewhere outside. Byers was looking down and absent-mindedly tapping his pencil on his desk. Slowly Laurence picked up the more remote noise of metalworking and someone shouting.
'Thank you for teling me,' he said. 'You're a brave man. It can't be easy to go back over it.'
'None of us were brave, ever,' said Byers. 'Bravery's when you've got a choice.' He blinked as if finding himself somewhere he didn't quite expect. 'I'm not a man for fancies but sometimes I think we were cursed after. Dusty was gassed, I heard. Not in an attack but by some stupid lamp in a dugout. Probably too drunk to notice. Vince's body was never even found after the last push at Ypres. I heard Watkins went raving mad after his twin brother was kiled, and he was locked up. The padre was done for when they took a big German dugout. Some wel-meaning lad tels him there's a little shrine in the corner stil with a cross. Padre rushes in, marveling. Booby-trapped. Blew him to kingdom come. And the APM, a hard man, they say, survived the war, went back to the police here in London—he was the copper the major knew. Just the other week he was shot by some vilain with a grudge. I saw it in the paper. Now you tel me Captain Emmett's done himself in. I'm not even surprised; it was a stinking business from start to finish.'
'Yet you're stil here.'
But even as he spoke, Laurence was considering the reach of coincidence. Most of the casualties Byers had spoken of were straightforward, but if the assistant provost marshal had been murdered the balance seemed to shift.
'Right,' said Byers. 'Wel then, that leaves me and Tucker and the MO. Who knows about the young one whose name I've forgotten and the one with the shakes. Tucker's alive and kicking, of course. Alive, at any rate.'
'Our secret,' Byers had said. But not many shared it now. He didn't tel the younger man that the MO had died.
'Enid's brother-in-law, Ted, who'd served with him, said Tucker came out and took himself back up to the Black Country. Hasn't managed to hold down a job, though, I hear. So perhaps the war did get him in the end? Ted's a Birmingham man and he saw him a year or so back, though not to speak to. Had a wife al along, did Tucker, and some kiddies. The devil looks after his own's al I can say.'
'And Mr Brabourne?'
'Never heard of him again. Doubt he made it through. Like I said, he was a schoolboy on a spree. Right out of his depth.'
Laurence wondered about Tresham Brabourne. In ideal circumstances, advocates at courts martial were chosen from those who'd had legal experience before the war but circumstances were seldom ideal. With a military manual, a so-caled Prisoner's Friend might try to construct a defence. It was surprising, though, that an officer hadn't been represented by someone who'd been a barrister in civilian life. However, if they'd been in a hurry, and his family either hadn't been notified or hadn't been wel connected, then someone like Brabourne might be the best the accused could hope for. Al the same, he had accompanied a man he'd defended, presumably to the best of his ability, to a horrible death. He didn't have to be there. That made him a bit more than the careless boy that Byers took him for.
Could Brabourne stil be alive? Rumour had it that if a man defended the accused too energeticaly, he found himself on al the worst sorties afterwards. Simply defending Hart might have shortened the odds on young Brabourne's survival.
When he looked at his watch, Laurence was embarrassed to see that over an hour had passed. He jumped to his feet, apologising.
'No matter,' said Byers, although he looked relieved. 'I'd said I'd never talk about it again but now I have. It doesn't change anything. The major knew, of course, and I'd spoken of it to Jim, but I've never even told Enid. I don't want her to know the man I was then. I'm only talking of it now because the major brought you in. Al my anger's gone Tucker's way but the war just gave Tucker his head. Yet who else is there? The system? The generals on both sides? The Kaiser? The hothead who chucked a bomb at that duke in Serbia? Truth is, I don't even know who to blame. It's the same with Jim's death. A great unknown enemy out there that I can't even hate properly.'
Laurence had a sense that there was something Byers had withheld from his account. 'And there's nothing else you want to tel me?' he asked.
Byers was rotating a pencil in his fingers; it twirled like a propeler. Suddenly he lost control of it and it spun across the room. Momentarily Laurence folowed its trajectory with his eyes. It hit the wal. When he looked back, Byers seemed not to have noticed; his fingers were stil moving.
'Isn't that enough?' he said.
Laurence put his hand out and after a moment's hesitation Byers shook it. The rain had stopped and men were struggling to get a large safe on to a palet as Laurence walked across the yard. There was no sign of Major Calogreedy.
He strode out through the open gates and turned left. The Thames was brown, with foam from one of the industrial works forming a pale scum along the pilings.
It was chily down by the river. Laurence could smel the dankness of the water and the smoke of a thousand afternoon coal fires.
As he walked back along the Thames, he found himself hoping that Leonard Byers' marriage was a comfort to him. On the point of leaving he'd asked him whether he would ask Mrs Byers' brother-in-law where Tucker could be found. Byers doubted he knew—but he gave him the name of the pub he'd been told Tucker drank in: The Woodman.
'I've never been there, never been north of London, but he said that's where to go if I was ever up in our Birmingham works and wanted to look Tucker up.
That was his idea of a joke.'
He was impatient to see what Charles could unearth so rather than wait until their usual rendezvous, Laurence scrawled a note to him with the few details he had about Hart and Brabourne in the hope Charles might find out something by Thursday, when they were due to meet. He didn't even know Hart's first name. He kept the thrust of the story to himself; he was interested to see its effect on Charles when he retold it in person.
Seeing Calogreedy and Byers caught up in their working lives, Laurence had felt guilty. Recently he'd hardly picked up his own work. That was the trouble with his research: too solitary, too quickly set aside. His publishers were easy on him and, in a sense, the smal income Louise's money had provided was a trap. It was time he did something more demanding. Not in business like Calogreedy and Weatheral, and certainly not a return to coffee trading. What did begin to attract him was going back to a classroom, not the tutoring he'd done after leaving Oxford, but something more structured. He wondered whether he could get a beak's job at a good school.
On Thursday night Charles's club was almost empty. They both chose lamb chops with Cumberland sauce. The lamb was beautifuly tender and sweet but Laurence scarcely noticed as he struggled to recal every detail of what Byers had told him. When he had finished, his friend whistled through his teeth.
'We had a private who faced the death penalty for sleeping at his post but the colonel was never going to let it be carried out. It was enough the lads thought it could be. Kept the rest awake. But bad for morale, these things. Shooting an officer. Rotten luck that old Emmett drew the short straw. They usualy made a subaltern do the dirty work. As always. Byers give you anything else?'
'That was it,' Laurence said. 'Resentful but frank.'
Charles said, 'I heard there was a point when the powers that be wanted to quash the rumours that there was one rule for officers and another for the men.
From what you say, this Hart seems to have been the best they could do for an example. Don't imagine it would have happened if his people had known the right people.' He stopped and gave it some thought, then said, 'Damn odd about the batman's cousin, don't you think?'
'There's something odd al round. I keep thinking there's something I'm missing,' said Laurence. 'John seems to have been making amends for things that happened in the war. Leaving money to Bolitho after his terrible injury, unburdening himself to Dr Chilvers. Various people seem to have noticed an improvement in his mental state towards the end of his life. It seems unlikely Mrs Lovel's son was part of either the trench colapse or the execution of Lieutenant Hart, although he might have been involved in the court martial, I suppose. But he was apparently close to his mother, and never told her about it. So what is John's connection with Lovel—or even Mrs Lovel herself? It's quite possible there was something else there that he was trying to put right. John served for over three years. God knows what else happened. And what about the unknown Frenchman?'
Eventualy Charles spoke again. 'Wel, there's another possible line of enquiry re Hart. Young Tresham Brabourne's alive, you'l be surprised to hear. Or he was when he came out of the army in December 1918.'
Laurence found his spirits lifting. He'd instinctively taken to the unknown Brabourne and was glad he was stil around. His survival disproved Byers' gloomy predictions. If they could find him, Brabourne's account of John's state could be invaluable. He might even know of a connection with a Lovel.
'But no idea where he is, I'm afraid. There's his mother's name as next of kin.' He puled out a bit of paper from an inner pocket. 'Fulvia—they go in for funny names, these Brabournes. Mind you, she's not Brabourne, either. She's Green. Mrs Fulvia Elizabeth Green. Must have remarried. But the only address is Beverley, Yorkshire. Brabourne joined up in 1915. Profession, pupil in chambers. Al of which is a fat lot of good to us. Leave it with me and I'l see what other sleuthing I can do.
Or we can go north to find him?'
'So he was training at the Bar? That's why he defended Hart.'
'Possibly. Poor disgraced Hart. My cousin in the War Office clammed up about Hart, or any execution. Papers not public and they're currently sensitive to parliamentary concerns. Whatever that means. But the records are in chaos anyway. He just gave me the enlistment details. His name was Edmund. A Londoner when he joined up, if this Hart is our boy. Which he probably is, though it's quite a common name, but the date's right. Born in Winson...'
'What kind of place is that?' Laurence asked.
'A smal place,' Charles replied. 'In Gloucestershire, I think. A coincidence? No profession given, which is not so surprising as he was only eighteen. Parents, Mr and Mrs P. Hart. Very informative,' he said dryly. 'At least there's a street this time, but no name or number and you can hardly go from door to door saying, excuse me, was your son shot as a coward? Families try to cover these things up. In fact, they often don't find out until they begin to smel a rat when the pension doesn't come through. Stil, more officers were sentenced to death than you'd think. Just not shot on the whole. Recommendations to pardon or commute hurtling across the Channel like whizz-bangs. Hart was unlucky.'
'What a bugger.'
'Yes. I expect he thought so,' said Charles. 'Beastly business. God knows what it did to Emmett. Mind you, what was he thinking? Once Hart was wounded he should have just finished him off. It makes it al much worse for the men who misfired. Everyone has the jitters in these sorts of situations but he was the officer. And as for Tucker, he should have been sorted out way back, it seems to me. Insolence, abuse of power, bulying, contravention of King's Regs. Weak leadership there, letting a rogue NCO cal the tune.'
'And now I'm going to have to go and confront the man himself,' said Laurence.
'Wel, something set John and Tucker against each other and that something apparently culminated in the fiasco at the execution. They obviously loathed each other. And Byers hinted that Tucker's ministrations to his own friend after the trench accident were murderous rather than medical. Though his actions were vague and Byers hated the man, so it may be wishful thinking.'
'So you think you can track down Tucker, wherever he might have got to?' Charles spoke slowly. And might I add that Tucker is hardly in the same league as Tresham Brabourne when it comes to distinctive names? Then you're going to tel him that the man he persecuted, by the sound of it, was your chum, whom he drove to his death, and then he's obligingly going to tel you exactly what it was al about, man to man, and you can bear the news to the fair Mary Emmett and set her mind at rest and ensure her everlasting gratitude. Is that how you see it?'
'Wel, no, obviously not. But I don't have to show Tucker how partisan I am. I can think of some legitimate reason for seeing him. If he's falen on hard times he might even talk in exchange for money. And actualy I do know how to find him. He's in Birmingham.'
'Ah, that rural hamlet. Should be easy, then. And I expect he has war heroes, brimming with derring-do, traveling up from London to ask his opinion on this and that every day of the week?'
'I know exactly where he is. At least I know how to find him. In a public house.'
Charles gave him a long look. 'Of course. Simple. Apart from anything else, Tucker could be dangerous. He doesn't sound like a man to cross. My cousin says the final wartime death tol is going to be a loss of about one in four or five officers and rather less than that for other ranks, one in eight, say. Mind you, that doesn't include poor buggers with half-lives like John and Bolitho. Maybe a third of us were casualties of some sort. Some outfits were hit badly, obviously some got off lightly, but what we're talking about here is a complete reversal of that ratio: almost everybody connected with Tucker is dead. Some died wel after the hostilities.'
'Wel, the soldiers died in action. Byers' cousin can hardly be counted and policemen do, occasionaly, die on duty. John made his own decision. Probably.'
Charles looked thoughtful. 'What do we know about the death of the police officer, late APM, then? Mulins, was it? When was it for a start? Have the police got anybody for it?'
'I don't know. No idea,' said Laurence. 'I vaguely remember seeing a headline. I suppose I can find out but it must have been weeks, maybe even months ago.'
'My point exactly. If it's a question of kiling their own, the police won't rest until he's caught and hanged. Not a casual crook, I'd say, if he's managed to elude them. Anyway, when did you last hear of the death of any senior policeman?'
Laurence shook his head.
'I'm not being overly dramatic,' said Charles, 'but think about it. Even Byers' cousin's death could have been someone wanting to get back at Leonard Byers, someone with a nasty line in vindictiveness, and from everything you've told me about Tucker, he seems to fit the bil.'
'Charles...' Laurence began.
'You think it's improbable? I think it's improbable but it stil makes me cautious about you tootling off to track Tucker down. Think, man, what was realy shocking about Tucker's behaviour over Hart's death? He shot him in the face. Unnecessary. Maximum damage. Maximum impact for onlookers plus public contempt for John.'
'I know what you're getting at,' Laurence interrupted, 'that whoever it was deliberately shot Byers' cousin in the face. Whom do we know who has a taste for that kind of thing? Who might want to send a message to Leonard Byers? Tucker. That's why I'm going. Al roads lead to Tucker.'
'But I don't think yours should. He strikes me as one of those men who hated al officers on principle.'
'John wasn't shot in the face,' Laurence said. 'He didn't even shoot himself in the head like most suicides.'
'No,' said Charles, 'but you've already started to wonder whether it realy was suicide. Could you stil put your hand on your heart and tel Miss Emmett her brother kiled himself?'
Laurence's optimism was flagging, yet it had al seemed to be coming together less than a week ago. Not perfect, but approaching coherence.
'It simply makes it more important that I try to see Tucker,' he said. 'Why would anyone disguise John's death to look like suicide? If there is a single kiler he certainly didn't bother to do so with Byers and Mulins.' He felt foolish even articulating it. 'And I keep asking myself, why would anyone be doing this?'
'Any chance you've stil got your gun?' Charles asked, and then, seeing the look on Laurence's face, went on, 'No, of course you haven't.'
'I'm not getting on a train at St Pancras armed to the teeth anyway, if that's what you've got in mind. I'm not a gangster. This isn't America,' Laurence retorted.
After a moment's hesitation he added, 'But I'l tel you what. I won't go rushing up there just yet. Before I do, I'l check the archives for the story of that policeman's death. No danger there and it's easily done.'
And I'l try to track down Brabourne,' said Charles. 'Then if, and only if, we feel it's necessary to head north, we'l both go. No, don't protest,' he interrupted as Laurence started to speak. 'Safety in numbers. Tucker's a maniac. Don't want to find myself buying back your tenderest parts pickled in a bottle, do I?'
'You think Tucker's more likely to talk to two strangers than one?' said Laurence. 'I don't.'
'No. But I think he's less likely to attack two than one. His sort go for the safe bet. Anyway, I'd like to look the man in the eye.'
They finished their dinner, Laurence turning down the offer of brandy and cigars. Charles walked with him to get his coat. Impulsively, Laurence shook his hand, holding it with both his own.
'Thank you,' he said. 'You've been more of a help than you know.'
Charles looked simultaneously pleased and embarrassed.
'I was getting bored, you know. Before. At least with the war you knew where you were.'
When he arrived home his rooms felt cold and unwelcoming even when he'd lit the fire. He made some thick, bitter cocoa and warmed his hands on the cup. There were things he thought he'd never know for sure but the biggest remaining question mark, apart from Tucker's role in al this, was why Gwen Lovel had been left money by a stranger and why they couldn't find Harry Lovel's records.
But then another thought struck him. They'd al made the assumption that Lovel was an officer. He had done it from the start himself. Mrs Lovel had never said so but he'd taken it for granted because, although in visibly reduced circumstances, she was a lady and also because of her assumption that John, a captain, might plausibly have been her son's friend. Friendships were rare across the ranks. But whether or not you went into the ranks wasn't always a matter of class. Sometimes it was one of preference.
He'd read of a famous headmaster's son who'd set out to be a conscientious objector, but when half the young men in his vilage had died he had finaly joined up, refusing the commission his education entitled him to. Eventualy he had won the Victoria Cross. There were plenty of others. One school friend, he'd heard, had gone into the Royal Flying Corps as a mechanic, simply because he was fascinated by the engines.
It was much rarer the other way. A costermonger or a miner didn't get a commission, however good a soldier or however bravely he fought. Although an exceptionaly able bank clerk or a seed merchant might work his way up to major if casualties were sufficiently high, he doubted they'd find an unstinting welcome in the mess. Even in the face of imminent death and conditions of massive discomfort, the nuances were always there. Snobbery, prejudice, bulying: al of it transported straight from the playing fields and drawing rooms of English society. He had been guilty of it himself, assuming the son of the wel-spoken Mrs Lovel would automaticaly have held a commission.
If young Lovel was the link between John Emmett and the bequest to Mrs Lovel, and Lovel was a private soldier, not an officer, the puzzle became more complex stil, simply in terms of numbers. It was just possible that the man his mother had described as sensitive and music-loving might have refused a commission despite his background. He cast back to the events that people had described to him over the last few weeks and thought how often he'd heard the phrase 'some corporal' or been told of 'a young soldier' or 'a private—I don't think I ever knew his name'. He felt momentarily dispirited but then recaled that Lovel, though an interesting loose end, didn't seem to be at the centre of his enquiry. Why was he making everything so complicated?
As he got ready for bed, he thought about seeing Mary again. Tomorrow, no, he tipped his watch to the light, today, she'd be here, in London. Yet since her unexplained encounter with Charles in Tunbridge Wels and that fleeting exchange with a stranger at the Wigmore Hal, he was wary. He could hardly ask her to explain herself.
Several hours later, when she appeared waving vigorously from the far end of the platform, so that the pompons on the ends of her scarf danced on her coat, the minutiae of his concerns about her fled away. She tucked her arm in his as if they were the oldest friends in the world. Her other arm clutched a bag to her body.
'Gosh, it's cold,' she said. 'Do you think it's going to snow early this year? It'l make the winter seem awfuly long.'
She had put on a little weight, he thought, and it suited her. Today the cold had also flushed her cheeks and her eyes sparkled.
'How've you been?' he asked once they were settled on the bus, knowing that he realy wanted to ask what she had been doing.
'Oh, al right. You know. Up and down but I think, on the whole, more up than down. It's not so easy for my mother.'
'But she's stil got you,' said Laurence.
'Maybe you always count the cost of what you've lost more than what you stil have,' she said. Anyway, she was always trying to get rid of me—marry me off.
Ghastly men. Whiskery bachelor academics, mournful widowers.' She looked mortified. 'Oh Laurence, how frightful of me. I'm dreadfuly sorry.' She put her warm, gloveless hand over his. 'I didn't mean you or anyone like you. It was just a joke. I talk too much, always have, especialy when I'm trying to impress someone. Say things I shouldn't even think.'
He was more amused than anything else, though glad she might want to impress him.
As he helped her down from the bus he said, 'Perhaps she's eager for grandchildren. Another generation to live for.' He added swiftly, 'There, that sounds awfuly clumsy too. I don't mean to suggest your only purpose is to produce babies as her consolation.'
'You're probably right, though,' said Mary. 'Idealy they'd be boys and the oldest one could be caled John. The youngest too, possibly. That should do it. A girl caled Johanna in the middle. But I need to find the right man first.' He knew she was teasing him as she squeezed his arm a little more tightly.
'Let's get out of the cold and have tea,' he said, already turning up a street in the direction of the British Museum. They were walking too fast to talk easily.
It was the same smal place that he had used to meet Eleanor. The waitress who took their order seemed completely indifferent to them. Her cap was pinned far back on her crimped yelow hair and with her lips coloured into a surprised-looking bow, she looked like a large, rather peevish dol. In any case she was too busy watching the door, waiting for somebody she evidently expected. But nobody else ever arrived; the room was theirs. Laurence curved his cold fingers round his cup.
Before he could start to tel Mary of what he stil thought of as his detective work, she took out a brown envelope from her bag.
'Look,' she said, 'these were things I found in the bedside cupboard in John's room. They were just odds and ends that came back with his things from Holmwood, so we shoved them in there and forgot about them. Nothing very exciting. A couple of laundry lists, notes of some birds he'd seen in the garden. You see,'
she said, puling out a lined sheet, 'he did have some interest in what was going on.'
Laurence took the bit of paper. The writing was uncontroled but the content was clear: H'wood
Mistle thrush, M. and F.
Blue tit (nesting in garage wal?)
Beside it John had sketched a blue tit, a coal tit and a great tit, and labeled them.
Woodpecker (heard, but never seen).
Hedge sparrow —lots.
Wren (in honeysuckle outside music-room window)
Red kite. A pair. Just once, walking out. Mewling over the river valey. Wonderful. N. was a little frightened at first.
Larks. 'Al the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.' Went as far as river watching them through Dr C's glasses. As agreed did not throw myself in!
Another, much neater hand, had added:
Greater puff-chested yellow fiddler. Fine plumage; watchful demeanour. Mates prolificaly with weaker females.
Harsh and irritating repetitive cry. Minemineminemine. Moneemoneemonee. Rarely leaves his natural habitat, where he is king of his tattered little flock, for the open countryside where the woodland animals might tear him apart.
They looked at each other.
'It's nice, isn't it?' said Mary, hopefuly.
Laurence, lost in the last sentence, was startled for a second but realised she meant the birdwatching. It was true, he could feel John's old enthusiasm. The quote was Edward Thomas, he thought. This was the first he'd seen of a John he recognised in anything he'd heard about him since the war. It went a smal way to dispeling the image of him as just an angry and unstable officer. Nor had he been alone, from the sound of it. Could his timid companion, frightened by birds of prey, have been the fragile Mrs George Chilvers, he wondered?
'But who do you think wrote this?' he asked, pointing to the foot of the page.
'Wel, I assumed it was about the younger Chilvers. Not an actual bird, obviously. I suppose it could be anybody. Briefly I thought it might be John writing about himself; it has his sort of wit, and even caling himself a coward ... but nothing else fits. He was never puffed up and couldn't give an earthly for money. He worried about my father when Daddy kept putting too much on the horses—Daddy was a bit of an optimist where racing was concerned and our mother used to rage at him—
but I don't think he was happy when he discovered that my maternal grandparents' wealth had always been entailed to him.'
Laurence mentaly ticked off one question: which was how John had had any money to leave Bolitho and Mrs Lovel, and how the Emmetts came by their current house. Had John got everything simply because he was the male heir, he wondered?
'And the bottom bit's not John's writing,' she said. 'He had to use his left hand because his right was paralysed. And al those tails like umbrela handles on the Ys, not him. If not Mrs Chilvers, another inmate, perhaps?'
Even as she spoke, Laurence felt certain the unknown companion must have been Eleanor but he didn't want to raise this with Mary yet.
'A disaffected member of staff?' she suggested. 'And it could be about anybody. But my money's on Chilvers. Did you see the man's driving gloves?'
'What were they?' John asked, trying to sound light-hearted and disguise his discomfort at withholding information. 'Mink, studded with emeralds, or spiked metal gauntlets to incapacitate any motorist who impedes his way?'
'Wel, nearer the mink. Bright-yelow kid, fine and soft. Must have cost a fortune. I know because when we met, he had just got out of that car of his and rather creepily he shook hands—wel, he squeezed hands—without taking them off. It was like warm loose skin against my own flesh. Disgusting. Had his poor wife with him.
Like a mannequin. Al the latest fashions—French probably. Perfect hair. Perfect marcasite earrings. Enviable hat. Wel, I was envious. Fox stole. Just the thing for a madhouse in some rural back of beyond.'
She stopped and seemed to consider what she'd said.
'Poor woman. She didn't say a word and he didn't introduce us. A life sentence, however many hats.'
'Rumour has it, she was the one with hats in the first place. It's he who wasn't in gloves until she came along.'
Mary summoned a half-hearted expression of scorn, but she was focused on puling a pamphlet out of the manila envelope. It was poor-quality paper that had obviously been roled up at some time. She tried to smooth it out on the table, weighing down one end with the sugar bowl. The front cover had an ink drawing of a cluster of stars and across it, in what might almost have been potato print, the word Constellations. Inside the front cover was a short typed paragraph, signed only: Charon. He read it.
'Read, stranger, passing by. Here disobedient to their laws, we cry. 1916.'
The epigraph echoed something he knew from school. Ancient Greek, he thought, but the words were not quite right. He read on. The folowing pages were al typed poems. After a few pages he came to the one he'd seen scrawled in one of John's notebooks back in Cambridge. He turned it to show Mary. She nodded. 'That one again,' she said. '"Sisyphus".'
He read it for a second time. Its briliance struck him, just as it had in the stuffy attic at the end of the summer. Once he had been an enthusiastic reader of poetry but since the war he had read very little. He found the best modern poets so disturbing that he was invariably left melancholic; the worst were excruciating lists of rhyming clichés. This poem, however, was beyond categorisation; there was a strangely mystical feel about it. He remembered reading Gerard Manley Hopkins at Oxford. This Sisyphus had the same mad beauty in his writing. Reality had al but disappeared and what was left was like the unease of a dream.
'I can't understand it,' said Mary. 'In fact the more I try, the less I succeed—but when I relax, I seem to absorb it. Or something...' She trailed off embarrassed and then said as if to defuse her emotional response, 'But it's bit affected, this pseudonym stuff. I mean, they're not boys in the classical sixth. Why can't they just use their initials if they're feeling coy? Anyway, if they'd put their names to them, they might be famous by now'
'They wouldn't risk it,' said Laurence. 'It had to be private unless it was frightfuly gung-ho, our glorious dead, noble sacrifice sort of stuff. The one John had published earlier was just on the right side of the divide. But most were never intended for publication. Although this is obviously a bit more than the work of a few friends.'
He remembered what Eleanor Bolitho had told him about John publishing poetry, his own and others', and was certain this was the project she'd spoken of.
Again, he felt forced to keep information back until he'd tried to speak to Eleanor but he felt fraudulent presenting knowledge as a conclusion.
'Someone's typed it, for a start; it's in semi-circulation, I think, and wel before the war ended, judging by the date on the introduction.' He turned back a page.
'I mean, look at this one, it's not satire, it's simply contempt: "The pink brigadier lifts his snout from the swil." I don't think it would have advanced anybody's career.'
Opposite the farmyard ditty was a neat traditional poem. Unlike much of the poetry, this was oddly cheerful and complete. So many of the poems were raw and rough-edged. Yet here was a tidy pastoral sonnet. The work of an optimist or a blind man. Blue speedwel, bluer sky, skylarks, hawthorn after rain. Distant guns like summer thunder. Laurence rather liked it. The pen name was 'Hermes'.
'Hermes,' said Mary, 'the messenger.'
'The winged messenger,' said Laurence. 'And Sisyphus had a vast rock to rol uphil for ever, and Charon rowed the dead, of course.' He looked again at the page. 'Would you mind if I borrowed this?' he asked. 'I can see it's fragile but I'l be realy careful.'
He gave her no reason. There was none beyond a wish to read it, at his leisure and unobserved.
'Have it al—everything—if it helps.'
He refiled Mary's cup with lukewarm tea. The waitress was outside, peering up the street. He could no longer put off recounting his interview with Byers. What he told Mary was pretty faithful to what he'd heard, though omitting the severed penis and the brains that had splattered on John's boot.
Nonetheless, when he had finished, her head was bowed. She was absolutely silent and then two tears dropped from the end of her nose on to the wilow pattern of her plate. She rubbed her nose with her hand, rustling around in her bag and her pockets, apologising and sniffing, until Laurence found his own handkerchief, clean, even ironed. She dabbed rather ineffectualy, then held it across her eyes, almost hiding behind it. Then she sat for a minute with the handkerchief screwed up in her hand and her hand bunched against her forehead. Eventualy she took a deep, slightly uneven breath.
'I'm sure we could have helped if he'd spoken to us.' Her eyes filed with tears again.
'I think,' said Laurence very cautiously, 'that many men—just couldn't talk about things. It was as if once they put words to it, it would overwhelm them completely. And they didn't want to place that burden on people they loved. Couldn't.'
Mary sniffed but he thought it was an encouraging sniff.
'Even now, if I meet another man my sort of age, we know we probably share the same sort of memories; we don't discuss it but it's there between us. But with families there's a sort of innocence. It can be exasperating'—he thought back to Louise's patriotic certainties—'but sometimes it's easier to be with people who haven't been,' he searched for a word, 'corrupted,' he said finaly. He knew that he had moved from the general to the particular, revealing himself more than he'd intended.
'But the price is that you'l always be alone,' Mary said heatedly. 'And a whole generation of women are excluded. Redundant. Irrelevant.'
Laurence nodded. He thought of Eleanor Bolitho and wondered how different it must be to be with a woman who had shared some of the horror.
'It's not fair. You don't give us a chance.' Mary's voice rose slightly.
'The man I was teling you about—Byers. He's not been married long. Yet he's never ever told his wife al this.'
'And perhaps Mrs Byers has lots of things she'd like to tel him. Of fear and loneliness and never knowing who was coming back or in what shape. Sitting.
Waiting. Perhaps you should ask us whether we'd like to know? We're women, not children.'
'He means wel ... he's trying to protect her.'
Mary snorted, or something like it. 'So from now on we conduct our relationships in a dense fog with areas marked do not enter. Briliant, Laurence.'
He didn't know how to respond. He didn't want to tel her she had no idea. That he, at least, couldn't put the past into words, not that he wouldn't. His heart was beating erraticaly.
'So do you have secrets tucked away? Do all you men have secrets?' she asked almost angrily.
He wanted to say, 'Do you?' but instead he said, 'Yes, of course I do.' Then he found himself blurring his truth. 'Everybody has secret bits of their life, I suppose.' He tried to stop it sounding too much like an accusation.
She nodded almost imperceptibly, suddenly calmer. 'Was it al realy, realy awful? Out there?'
'No. Some of it was boring. Some of it was funny. Living in a cottage with two other subalterns and a French family: the mother giving birth noisily upstairs while we ate sausages and lentils. Some of it was plain ludicrous. There were two men in my platoon, and every time we seemed settled for more than a week, they'd start growing vegetables. And rhubarb. A year or so later we passed through the vilage again and the rhubarb was thriving—the only thing that was, amid the ruins. Nearly al of it was uncomfortable. Some people enjoyed bits of it, especialy at first. My friend Charles; he was a natural. He was good at it. His men respected him. He liked his men. I liked mine. Most of them. But we both had an easy war compared with some.'
He had a sudden image of a soldier beaming at him. It was Polock, the fat man, khaki uniform straining. There never was such a man for belching. He could do it to 'God Save the King'. The men counted on his last lucky belch each time they went over the top.
She sat quietly for a while, gazing at the closed pamphlet. Eventualy she said, 'I'm glad in a way we have that list of bird-watching. That's a long time after the worst of it. So at least I know that he didn't always feel as wretched and raging as he was when he came back. This,' she picked up the list, 'is a John I recognise. Look, he can even joke about not throwing himself in the river. He's simply glad to be alive. I think he is, at last, I realy do.'
'Yes.' Strangely, his own reaction to glimpsing this hour of pleasure was sadness.
'But come the winter, it al goes wrong.'
He couldn't decide whether to tel her of his faint disquiet about John's death. What he and Charles might have found plausible after a good dinner was too far-fetched to be presented as real speculation, although it didn't realy seem to make much difference. Mary had stil lost her only brother. Unless you were a policeman, the need to reveal and avenge murder was reduced almost to a philosophical enquiry after the losses of the last years.
While Laurence was muling over Tucker's intentions and paying the bil, Mary's mood seemed to shift. She took his arm as they walked into the street.
'Have you ever gone to the films? I suppose you have, living in London?'
Laurence shook his head. 'Not recently,' he said. The only films he'd seen were flickering newsreels at HQ. 'Would you like to, next time, perhaps?'
'I'd love that,' said Mary. 'I saw Lilian Gish a while back, in The Greatest Thing in Life, and she was beautiful and funny. Or we could go to a play?
Heartbreak House might be more your thing. More serious.'
Laurence relaxed into Mary's easy assumption that she knew what he'd like. He clamped his arm down a little so that her hand was caught between his upper arm and his ribs. He looked sideways at her, half hidden under the rim of her dark-red hat. She returned his gaze, apparently amused.
When they arrived at the station, there was an unexpectedly large crowd by the platform. Laurence pushed himself to the front to speak to the stationmaster.
'No train,' he said when he'd fought his way back to her. 'There's been a landslip. Nothing until tomorrow. Do you want me to arrange for you to be put up at a hotel? Or can you go to your cousin?'
'My cousin's about to produce her fourth baby,' said Mary. 'I realy don't think I could pitch up unannounced.'
To Laurence's relief she didn't look particularly bothered.
'Isn't your mother going to be worried?'
'No. She and Aunt Virginia are in Buxton. They're taking the waters in the hope it might help my mother's rheumatism.'
They had turned away from the platform. After a long silence, Mary said hurriedly, 'Look, would it be possible, say if it wouldn't, if I came back with you?' She looked slightly embarrassed.
'Yes. Of course. I just thought you wouldn't realy want to. It's not terribly comfortable.' He was worrying that it might not be terribly clean, either.
'No, that's fine. More than fine. Anyway I'd love to see where you live. There's a limit to the appeal of teashops.'
He was about to tel her that she would have to sleep in his bed, and that he was quite happy to sleep in an armchair, but didn't want her to think his mind had raced ahead to the sleeping arrangements.
They stopped and bought roasted chestnuts on a street corner; the man who huddled over the glowing coals was wearing his campaign medals on his coat.
Cradling the smal, warm bags in their hands, they caught a bus that took them right up to Bloomsbury. Mary insisted she didn't want anything else to eat.
The house was in darkness but, as they climbed the first flight of stairs, the door to his neighbour's flat opened. Laurence stopped dead, placing his hand on Mary's forearm.
'Good evening,' said his neighbour, his unkempt bulk filing the doorway. He looked Mary up and down.
'Ah ... this is a friend of mine: Miss Emmett.'
'Yes. I see.'
'Was there anything?' Laurence began.
'No. I was just going out.' His neighbour stayed watching them as they climbed up to the next floor.
'Sorry,' Laurence said as soon as they were in his flat and he had lit the fire. 'Perfectly harmless. But something a bit odd about him.'
Mary looked amused. 'It's al right. He was just awkward in the way men are who live by themselves for years.'
She slapped her hand across her mouth.
'There I go again, piling on one insult after another. I hope you know I don't mean you.'
'One of your droopy widowers who, having the misfortune to be living a single life, has falen into unsavoury habits?'
'You know I don't think that and I certainly don't mean you.' She lightly batted her fists on his chest.
He looked at her. Her eyes were only a little lower in level than his, grey-green and clear. Her smile faded a little and her lips parted almost imperceptibly. He held her gently by the upper arms, locking her gaze for what seemed like a minute but was probably no time at al, and then let her go. She looked away, apparently confused.
Laurence went through to his bedroom, leaving Mary to warm herself by the fire.
'May I play the piano?' she asked.
'You can try,' he caled through, 'but it's probably unplayable. It hasn't been tuned since ... for ages.'
He knelt down by his bedroom wardrobe to see whether he had any spare linen at the bottom. He heard her open the piano lid and pul the stool closer. Then the stool lid opened and there was silence. He rocked back on his heels to peer through the doorway. She was standing, leafing through some sheet music, staring at it intently with her head bobbing. Then he realised she was hearing the music in her mind. She looked up, saw him gazing at her and laughed.
'Sorry, just trying to work out what I won't disgrace myself with.' She paused and indicated the front sheet. '"Louise Scudamore". Scudamore? Was that your wife? Was she good? At the piano?'
'She practised a lot,' said Laurence, remembering her playing rather heavily, leaning forward with a look of fraught concentration on her face and her nose screwed up. 'Her biggest trouble was that she needed spectacles.'
He remembered how hard Louise had tried. Her mother had thought her exceptional.
'Actualy,' he went on, with a sudden burst of honesty, 'she was probably a bit hopeless, but she enjoyed it and she loved the piano. That's why I've kept it, even though I can't play a note.'
'You should learn to play. It would relax you.'
'I don't know any teachers,' he countered. 'Anyway, I'm far too relaxed half the time. I need to be less relaxed.'
She looked at him knowingly. 'I don't think so, Laurie. I don't think you're ever truly relaxed. In fact, I seem to recal thinking you were a very coiled-up, contained man when I first met you.'
He was about to protest but she had already returned to the music.
'Right, Liszt. That's a good start,' she said, sitting down. 'I used to be quite good at this. Or perhaps not?' she said, as she began to play, faltering a little on the first notes.
He finaly found a pair of sheets. They were old and had been neatly turned, sides to middle, but they were clean and without holes. While she was engrossed in the music he held them to his face to check they didn't smel damp. When he shook them out, they were plainly for a double bed. Swags of embroidered flowers and bows decorated the upper edges. He found one recently laundered pilowcase and for the lower pilow kept the case already on it, smoothing it with his hand.
She went on playing. Her touch was assured but the tone was pretty awful. When he'd finished making the bed— her bed, he realised with pleasure—adding an extra blanket under the eiderdown because she might not be used to a bedroom as cold as his could be, he stood in the doorway and watched her. She thudded on a dead key, and not for the first time.
'It's stuck,' she said. 'You realy ought to get this tuned, Laurie. It's a good piano, a wiling one. It deserves to be tuned.'
'Pianos have personalities?'
'Of course they do. There are good pianos and bad pianos, wiling ones and disobliging ones, modest ones and blustering ones. And this one shouldn't be abandoned.'
She leaned over and touched a slightly warped panel on the front where a shel in faded mother-of-pearl inlay was contained in a cartouche.
'Nor should her finery be neglected. When we stil lived in the country, I had a lovely piano: a smal Bluthner. Wel, it was my mother's, realy. My paternal grandfather had given it to her as a wedding present. My mother could play beautifuly, much better than I can. When I was very little we used to laugh when she played duets with my grandfather.'
'You haven't got it now?'
'No. No room and anyway it was too valuable. We had to sel it.'
'I didn't realise...' Laurence began.
'Actualy father was dreadful with money,' she said. 'Hopeless. The house in Suffolk was in trust for John. My grandfather—my other one, my mother's father—
must have seen the way things were going long before he died. My father was realy kind—wel, you know he was,' her eyes shone, 'but he believed everybody. Every chancer with a half-baked scheme to make money. Every tip on a horse that might reverse our fortunes. And he never learned. He always wanted to see the good in people. Like John, in a way.'
'I'm sorry. Your parents were awfuly good to me.'
'They were good people. But my mother was always a bit disappointed. She would have liked more of London life, I think, and she got worn down by staving off one crisis after another. Although my father was a steadfast family man, he never seemed to notice the odd writ, or the grass three feet tal, or living on mutton and onion tart for a week, or the smel of boiling soap ends.'
She changed the music and played some Brahms he recognised. He opened a kitchen drawer, found some candles and inserted them in the piano candleholders; as he pushed them into place, he could feel the accretion of old wax on his fingers. Wax that had dripped there when Louise was stil thudding through her Chopin. He put some more coal on the fire and lit the oil lamp that had been his mother's.
Mary played for a little longer; the soft light on her skin made her look as young as he remembered her from before the war. But after a while she stopped suddenly, and swung her legs back over the stool.
'No, the piano needs more love to do Brahms justice. I'l tel you what, you get her tuned and I'l give you a concert.'
'I don't have any wine, to reward your efforts, I'm afraid,' he said. 'But I've got gin. And biscuits,' he added as an afterthought. 'Sweet-meal. Mostly broken. Or would you like cocoa?'
'What a feast,' she said.
In the end he found some bottled plums and a loaf of bread, as wel as the biscuit fragments. The combination had shades of a school midnight feast. While he put them on a tray, she was looking at his bookcase.
'A man's shelves reveal al his secrets,' she said as she puled out a book.
After a second of anxiety, he felt pleasure at this strange intimacy. 'Mostly my father's secrets, in this case.'
'Fair enough for the Dickens and the Wordsworth, and I don't think you'd have chosen Meredith, but The Return of the Native is a bit racy for somebody's father, I'd have thought. And—goodness, Laurence— Sons and Lovers.' She looked back at him questioningly. 'Whatever next?' She squatted down to look at the lower shelf. 'Now we get to it.'
Again he felt a flicker of unease.
' Three Men in a Boat next to their natural companion-on-shelf, Foxe's Martyrs. The many faces of Laurence Bartram.'
'Foxe is for my book research.'
'But you don't like your book.'
'No, I do.'
'No, you don't. You never talk about it. We've passed scores of churches and you've never said a thing about any of them.'
He didn't like to say that he had assumed she wouldn't be interested. When he didn't answer, she got to her feet. 'I didn't mean to pry.'
'No. It's fine.' He forced a smile. 'I do like churches a lot but the book's an excuse not to have to do anything else. I haven't looked at it for weeks.'
'Am I an excuse?'
'No, of course not.'
'But helping me is?'
'You mean, is it a diversion? Wel, yes, but not in the way you think.'
Fatigue and gin had relaxed them by the time she finaly braved the iciness of his bathroom, took a glass of water and kissed him on the cheek. He waited until she'd closed the door of the bedroom before stripping down to his shirt, drawers and socks.
He could hear her moving about for a while and the creak as she got into bed. He snuffed out the candles and then stubbed his toe on the armchair he'd arranged. He puled his dressing-gown colar up around his face, covered himself with a blanket and tried to settle for the next half an hour. Eventualy he dragged the seat cushions on to the floor, lay down on them and roled himself up in the old blanket. He had not slept on a floor for three years. He hadn't expected to do so again but he was quietly content and lay for a while, looking towards the grey shape of the window and listening intently to any noise from next door. Was she awake? What was she thinking? He fancied he could hear her breathe though he knew it was impossible.
The deep contentment he felt in Mary's company lasted him al the next day, even when she'd gone. He thought how pretty she looked in the morning, dressed but with her hair loose and legs bare. She had insisted on assembling a rudimentary breakfast. Eventualy he'd surrendered and watched her as she handled his china and put a kettle on the stove as if she had visited many times before. He ached for her, not just to possess her, although certainly that, but also to protect her and to know her with an absolute familiarity.
But she ate swiftly, returned to the bedroom and sat, tidying her hair in front of the looking-glass. He turned away. She emerged with her hat on and her bag in her hand. To his surprise, she now wanted to go to Charing Cross. She had decided not to go back to Cambridge yet, she said. She referred vaguely to cousins near Wadhurst. Instead of asking her about them quite naturaly, he'd resisted, convinced it would sound like an interrogation.
When he eventualy walked out of the station and turned up the Strand, it was a fine day with the sky bright above the piebald trunks of the plane trees. He was determined not to let his mind dwel on her unexplained times in Sussex.
He had decided to start looking for Inspector Mulins in the archives of the Daily Chronicle. The Chronicle had the sort of ordinary coverage he needed, but also he had once penciled the words of one of its war correspondents into his day book. The man had written: 'As an outside observer, I do not see why the war in this area should not go on for a hundred years, without any decisive result. What is happening now is precisely what happened last year.' Laurence had found it comforting rather than depressing. It meant he wasn't going mad.
He had occasionaly peered at the Chronicle's offices tucked away in a tiny square to one side of Fleet Street. The building had a dark and elaborate brick façade with an impressive portico. He was taken immediately down to an airless basement room crammed with files. The woman running the library of back copies looked blank when he asked whether she remembered the incident.
'I don't read any of them,' she said, as if he'd accused her of idling. 'I just keep them tidy.'
His first problem was in remembering when exactly he'd seen the original article. It was recent, he thought, not long after he met Mary. He took out a month of copies and placed them on a long table, going through them a week at a time. He was pretty sure this would be front-page news. A violent attack on such a senior officer was almost unknown in England, though he vaguely remembered that the head of Scotland Yard had survived being shot by a madman not long before the war.
He found the first mention of Mulins' murder fairly quickly on an inside cover of a September newspaper, but it was obviously a folow-up story, considering whether Bolsheviks might have been behind the attack, so he kept going backwards. Finaly he found the headline he sought. It was unequivocal: SCOTLAND YARD
SLAYING. The accompanying photograph was a portrait shot of the officer in uniform. The date was Friday, 26 August 1921.
He ran through the columns beneath. Chief Inspector Mulins had left Scotland Yard as he usualy did at five-thirty in the afternoon. He was walking down the steps accompanied by a constable who, although some way behind him, was to be the nearest witness. As Mulins reached the last step, a man came up and spoke to him. The constable thought he had addressed him by name and that, although the inspector had nodded, he did not appear to recognise the gunman. The assailant then puled out his weapon from inside his coat and fired. Mulins fel to the ground almost immediately and the gunman fired one further shot, mutilating him. Mulins expired within seconds. With the element of surprise in his favour and because those nearest were attempting to provide aid to the dying officer, the gunman was able to escape apprehension. He was described as clean-shaven, of average build, possibly in middle age. He wore a hat, which concealed some of his features, and a British Warm, with the colar up. The piece ended: 'Chief Inspector Gerald Mulins joined the Metropolitan Police in 1900 and served with distinction within the Corps of Military Police from 1916 to 1919. He leaves a widow, a son who is a police cadet, and four daughters.'
Laurence was struck straight away by the similarity, albeit as much in its vagueness as anything more significant, in the descriptions of the murderer of Jim Byers and the assailant described here.
He went back to the desk at the entrance and rapped lightly. The curator appeared out of the doorway behind it.
'Do you know how I can find out who wrote this?' He laid down the paper and pointed.
She shook her head, much as he expected. But then she said, 'Please wait,' and went back through the door. He could hear her footsteps as she climbed the stone stairs. After ten minutes he began to wonder whether she'd gone for a tea break, but she appeared as suddenly as she'd gone and beckoned him to folow her.
The porter in the little cubbyhole by the front entrance looked up. He was holding the telephone receiver in his hand and after a couple of seconds said, 'Mr Peterkin? Gentleman here to see you, sir.'
Peterkin was waiting as Laurence extricated himself from the smal cage of a lift on the first-floor landing. He was shabbily dressed, with a harassed expression.
'Yes?' he said. 'May I help you?' He sounded mildly resentful at any expectation that he should.
'I'm sorry. I just wondered if I could speak to someone about an article in your paper.'
'No. A while back. It's about the murder—of a police officer—last summer. I realy have only a few questions.'
'You mean the Mulins case?' The man looked slightly more interested.
'It's not me you want to see.'
The man turned and Laurence folowed. They passed through a long, scruffy room, amid a low buzz of chatter from men and one woman working at typewriting machines behind half-height partitions. Screwed-up bals of paper littered the floor. A telephone rang as he passed. At the far end was a tiny office. Peterkin stood aside at the open doorway. The room smeled strongly of tobacco.
'Mr Tresham Brabourne,' he said wearily, and a younger man looked up as if strangers were bundled into his office every day. By the time he stood up from his desk and shook Laurence's hand, Peterkin was gone.
Even as he absorbed the extraordinary coincidence unfolding in front of him, Laurence remembered Byers commenting on Brabourne's youth. He stil looked very young, though he had to be wel into his twenties. He was dressed in baggy tweed trousers and a thick corduroy jacket, a Fair Isle jumper and a striped scarf.
Brabourne shut the door and gestured to a bentwood chair while he sat astride a similar one, facing Laurence over its curved back. He was silent for a couple of minutes, patting various pockets and finaly puling out a rather crushed packet of cigarettes before selecting one and putting it in his mouth.
Laurence read a poster on the wal:
'Wyndham Lewis,' Brabourne muttered, puling strands of tobacco from his tongue as he folowed Laurence's glance. He offered the cigarettes to Laurence, then lit his own. As he struck and discarded a succession of faulty matches, he gestured to Laurence to speak.
Laurence, stil astonished that fate should have delivered Brabourne to him, tried to explain his presence methodicaly but, as he jumped from Mary to Holmwood to the execution in France, he realised how muddled he sounded.
Brabourne listened patiently and intently. 'So,' he said, finaly. 'You came here wanting to find out about the death of a London policeman in the summer, but now you're here, you've discovered you'd rather talk about my part in a firing squad in France in 1917? You know, when they were rebuilding these offices, the first year of the war, they found an old stone lion—probably Roman—hidden beneath our site. You never know what you're going to find if you start digging.'
'It is al a bit odd,' Laurence acknowledged. 'I'm realy only trying to find out what happened to a friend with whom I should never have lost touch.'
Brabourne raised his eyebrows.
'The thing is, his sister realy needs to understand why he shot himself.'
Laurence was aware it al sounded a bit lame. Why a man being treated for mental distress might kil himself was not a very profound mystery.
'But then one thing has led to another; his story was tied up with other stories and everything became more complicated. Or perhaps I've simply complicated it.
The policeman was one thread, a man shot for cowardice became another and finding you is just a stroke of unnerving luck.'
'And they're al connected.'
'They're al connected. John Emmett and Private Byers were part of the firing squad. Mulins was the APM there. Emmet was hit hard by it al ... So we end up at this place Holmwood,' he went on. 'It's what journalists do: remember things. Tie them together. However, I was hardly likely to forget those names. I never knew the names of the other soldiers involved but Byers had been in my platoon way back in 1915. And of course you probably already know that I met John Emmett, but not, perhaps, that I liked him. You may know that I defended Edmund Hart? In theory, at least.' He stopped abruptly. The ash fel from his cigarette onto the floor.
Laurence ran his hand through his hair. 'The execution. I've had one other account—from Byers, in fact, and he had tried very hard not to talk about it since.'
'Byers,' said Brabourne, nodding. 'Wel, it was a bad business, in that al capital punishment is bad. The offence and the trial were both mishandled, frankly. And the execution was a complete travesty of justice and dignity. But to set the record straight, it was desertion he was charged with, not cowardice. For cowardice, you have to be within hailing distance of the enemy. Hart never got as far as the enemy. And there was the whole question of shel-shock.' He shook his head slightly. 'Hart had been treated for it the year before. In England. But there were those who said he'd faked it and that went against him. He certainly wasn't deranged enough when I met him to gather the medical evidence. Some doctors were sympathetic; some weren't and would simply hammer home the nail already in the coffin. That and the fact that he'd spent every moment since his arrival trying to leave the regiment and get into the navy. Not popular. Not a man you'd want to join your club.'
'And you? What did you think?'
'He was sane enough. A rather awkward, immature man. Not a leader. Hart repeatedly said he was nervous. But he managed to make everyone else nervous too. The colonel had been hesitant about sending him forward on the day in question but he had no other officer available. In my opinion, Hart was a liability in action.
Not his fault. I didn't care if he was barking mad, neurasthenic or even a fake; he just wasn't officer material, as they used to say, or at least only, and redundantly, right at the end. But there was no question in my mind that he was, at the very least, confused and disoriented the night he disappeared. At the end of his tether; it's just his tether wasn't as long as some people's.'
He stubbed out his cigarette and threw it in the empty grate.
'We were at Beaucourt, late October. Three brigades, a ludicrously complicated plan of attack on enemy positions north of the river: a lot of pencil marks and stopwatches. The battalion moved forward. The men were overloaded with kit: it was a miserable evening; damp, foggy, no good for sleep.' He was lighting another cigarette as he spoke.
'We went forward as the third wave, with the German guns blasting away, and the wire in the fog like the tentacles of some hungry subterranean monster.' He added, almost with wonder, 'It was extraordinary: when the bulets struck the wire they sent diamond sparks into the mist: it was as if this monster we were approaching was electrified.'
Laurence didn't interrupt. He could see why Brabourne had done wel as a journalist.
'It was chaos up there. Hart wasn't in my company—but after a bit I hardly saw anybody anyway. My colonel was kiled; I saw two other dead officers recognisable only by their badges.' Brabourne drew in deeply on his cigarette, exhaled after a few seconds' contemplation and re-inhaled the smoke up his nose.
'At first there'd been something comic about my war. I joined in Monmouth. My father's family came from the South Welsh borders. Found myself with a bantam regiment. Byers too although he was transferred soon after. Al these midget Welshmen: five feet three inches or so. Until then I'd thought of myself as rather average build. Perhaps I was down under some mysterious military acronym: SFO, Short for Officer.'
Laurence guessed the man in front of him was about five feet eight inches.
'Suddenly I was a giant. We could go down an open trench and the men would be undercover, walking upright, and I'd have to bend down for safety. I needed to stoop to hear my sergeant if there was a bombardment. Then, in the first serious action, I put my pipe in my pocket and while we're heads down, crossing no-man's land, my jacket starts to smoulder. Gave me the nickname Fiery, of course. Even when I was moved, the name stuck. Trench humour. It must have run in the family: my brother Diggory started his war in Egypt, shifting mummies to Europe to turn them into paper—using the dead to make paper to replace the shortages caused by kiling people. Though in my family, war was safer than peace. We're both alive. Our father died in 1906 in the Salisbury train crash; his father, a planter, bit of a black sheep, disappeared without trace in the eruption of Krakatoa.'
Brabourne looked quite cheerful as he contemplated his legacy of disaster.
Laurence smiled. He had liked Byers' description of Brabourne and he liked him even more in the flesh.
'I had this sense of being at this realy momentous period in history and, what's more, right at its heart. I thought everyone at home would want to share it. I thought, in my innocence, that it was an opportunity.' He gestured with his cigarette. 'Spectacularly naive. But like everyone, I also thought it would soon be over and I was in a hel of a rush to get stuck in. I wanted to picture modern warfare with modern photography. Then, of course, it al became longer and tougher than any of us had dreamed, and I think taking photographs became a way for me to deal with things that were beyond anything I'd imagined. Or, at least, that's with the wisdom of reflection.' He grinned. 'I'm good on that. I'd had two warnings about taking photographs of sensitive subjects and I stil couldn't resist it.'
'Yes. I heard. About the camera,' said Laurence. He puled out of his inner pocket the photograph that Byers had identified as the firing squad. He slid it over the table and said nothing.
'God.' Brabourne picked it up. 'The very day. Hart. It's my picture. A bad one. It could be before or after. Not sure why I took it at al, realy. The light wasn't good enough.' He looked chary.
'Byers,' Laurence pointed, 'said it was before.'
'Right,' said Brabourne, nodding. 'I think I was mostly concerned with getting my picture before I was lynched. Though it seems to be coming into its own, ghastly as the scene is.'
'You obviously knew Lieutenant Hart,' said Laurence, 'but did you know John Emmett? Before, I mean?'
'Wel, yes and no. I'd never met him until then. But I had been in contact with him over something else.'
'Do you mind if I ask what? If it's not private?'
'It was another slightly frowned-upon activity. We both wrote poetry. Lots of us did—not just those chaps who've made their name now. Battalions of minor poets. I mean, you were hardly going to start producing a novel in those conditions. Emmett thought he'd pul some of the stuff together, circulate it. Same sort of diversion as mine with photography, I suppose. A bit like poor old Owen publishing The Hydra at Craiglockhart. Anyway, it got around. I can't remember when I heard of it—quite early on probably, because I think there were four anthologies and I got into number two. Emmett's mag was caled Distant Constellations to start with, and then in later copies it just became Constellations. But we always caled it DC. A slim first issue. The second was better produced because, I think, Emmett was on sick leave, then there were two more towards the end of the war. He was good. His details circulated by word of mouth and we could use noms de plume if we chose. The subterfuge wasn't because he was afraid, but because he didn't want to be stopped, especialy as some of the poetry got more critical of what was going on.
And maybe he was using army ink and paper. Probably made from the grave-wrappings of Nefertiti.'
Laurence pushed the photograph to one side and puled out the smal magazine Mary had given him.
'Good Lord. So you had one al the time.'
'Mary Emmett, John's sister, gave it to me. Is this one of the last issues?'
'Yes.' Brabourne looked again at the cover and blew his ash off it. 'It's the last one. He fel apart after that.'
He picked it up, turned the pages and showed a poem to Laurence; it was just two columns, headed 'Verdure' and 'Ordure'. Underneath were rhyming lists of loves and hates, wittily, if self-consciously grouped and cleverly rhymed.
'It's very—wel, Wyndham Lewis again,' said Brabourne. 'Avant-garde. Blast. Al that stuff. Better when it was original.' He turned over another page and grimaced. 'I can't say that revisiting my own youthful creation is always a great experience. Some of these poems stand up to the test of time. This one of mine was straining to do so even when I wrote it.'
Laurence folowed his eyes. 'You were Hermes?' he said.
'Oh yes. I saw myself as the messenger, bringing news from the front to ... wel, I'm not sure who to. My mother, perhaps? Hermes without a destination. More of a lost homing pigeon.' He turned back a few pages, pointed. 'That's John Emmett's work.'
He was Charon,' said Laurence.
'Charon the ferryman,' said Brabourne. 'How pleased my Classics master would be to know I remembered something. Rowing the dead to Hades.'
'Why did you have to defend Hart anyway?'
Brabourne shrugged as he lit his cigarette. 'Wel, somebody had to. He was in my regiment. My father died when I was young but he'd been a barrister. KC in criminal law. Mostly to please my mother I was supposed to be going the same route. I was a pupil in chambers: Paper Court, strings puled, shoehorns applied.
Outcome, disappointment al round. I hated it and suddenly the war came and there was a way out. So I'd had some experience of advocacy, though not much. Fat lot of good it did Hart. Frankly they were only giving lip service to the conventions anyway.'
'Was the court martial fair?' asked Laurence. He wasn't sure whether any of this was relevant to John but having heard Byers' disturbing version of Hart's execution, he wanted to get a sense of the whole episode.
'Fair? What a question. It was a ful-field, general court martial, of course, as he was an officer. Would he have been convicted in a peacetime court? No.
Would he have been shot if he were a private? Probably. Did guiltier men than he escape prosecution? Undoubtedly. Were there grounds for leniency? Certainly; the board made a unanimous recommendation for mercy. And I gather some, at least, were appaled to find the sentence had been confirmed. Were they out to make an example of somebody? Unquestionably.
'But was the sentence unjust in the circumstances?' He appeared to think it over. 'No, not realy. But hard? Very. The evidence was hardly substantial. It was the handling of the whole affair that was cruel. They took six weeks to decide to act against him in the first place and that hiatus had persuaded him that there wouldn't be any court martial. In the event, he had less than two days to prepare a defence, though proper procedures were just about folowed. A court martial isn't realy an inquiry. It's not like a court case at the Old Bailey. There's no real cross-examining, just statements with an assumption the truth is being told—except by the defendant.'
He stopped and examined his cigarette, which was burning fast, and then drew on it almost experimentaly. 'About a hundred years old,' he said, 'my brother got them in Turkey.' He paused for a moment. 'You know how it al came about?'
Laurence shook his head. 'I don't know anything about what he did.'
Ah.' Brabourne said nothing for a while. The cigarette looked close to catching fire completely.
'Do you have the time for this now?' Laurence asked.
'I'l tel you what,' Brabourne said. 'I do need to meet someone actualy. Old friend now at the Bar. Come with me. Have a quick drink at the Cock. He's invariably late.'
He stood up without waiting for a reply, took what looked like an old naval duffel coat from a hook on the back of the door and let Laurence folow him down several flights of stone stairs.
They came out of the square and turned right into Fleet Street. Brabourne kept talking al the while.
'In a nutshel, Hart vanished when he should have been fighting. He started off in the rear. The CO instructed another junior officer to tel Hart to take some reserves forward to the green line. He didn't order Hart directly; every aspect of Hart's orders that day was equivocal. He should have got off the charge simply on that count. Anyway, they came under heavy fire and the group dispersed, some taking cover, some wandering about. Hart wasn't the only man to get lost. He told an NCO
that he was going back to HQ for more orders. The trouble was that on his way back he met another junior officer who told him to go forward again with a dozen stragglers. There was bad blood going back months between Hart and this man. In court Hart argued— we argued—that technicaly Hart had seniority and the other officer had no right to give him orders, but it didn't look good. Hart not only refused to go forward again, but just turned round and walked away from battle by himself, in the opposite direction from his battalion and in ful view of a handful of men.'
Brabourne was moving briskly, dodging pedestrians, and when he puled ahead sometimes his words were lost. Eventualy he stopped to cup his hands round a match. As he did so, three different sets of bels began to ring the hour. Laurence looked up with sudden pleasure at the congestion, even of churches, in the heart of the city. Although Brabourne appeared not to have noticed, he said, 'There was a time St Bride's and York Minster were the only churches to have a twelve-bel peal.'
Brabourne went on, 'Something else seems to have happened on that walk back: when Hart was found, he'd discarded part of his uniform despite the bitter cold. He said a shel had landed near him, opening a smal mass grave, and that rotten fragments of bodies hit him. Who knows the truth? I didn't. There were graves everywhere, theirs and ours, rotting bodies everywhere, come to that. It might have happened that way. His story was semi-coherent. It was generaly believed that he was trying to disguise the fact that he was an officer while keeping his head down until the worst of the attack was over.
'The trigger for Hart's absenting himself was undoubtedly the squabble over who had the right to give who orders. Puerile. This other chap—who was supposed to be in charge of ammo, not giving tactical orders—rushed back to report him. Pathetic and lethal. It was tit for tat realy. Hart had reported him a while back for smuggling a woman into their shared quarters, said he couldn't sleep.'
Laurence recognised so much of what he was hearing: antagonisms, feuds, intolerance born of sheer fatigue, but rarely with such a fatal outcome. In his own regiment, Polock—said to be the fattest, least fit soldier ever to be sent into action, and who was rumoured to have needed to have his uniform made specialy—had been mocked relentlessly as he blundered and wheezed through his duties, always trying to deflect jokes made at his expense by being the funny man. To his shame Laurence had tried not to notice.
'But if Hart had gone straight back,' Brabourne continued, suddenly crossing the street at an angle between two motor buses, 'it would probably have passed over.' A car narrowly missed Laurence and the driver hooted his horn at him.
'When he drifted in the next day, his failure to account for his absence led the acting CO to put him under arrest. What happened to Hart between the moment he walked off and his eventual return to the battalion is anybody's guess. I don't think he planned to get out of a tough situation. I think he genuinely lost his mind. Just for a while. But that wasn't the majority view; they thought he was simply in a funk.'
Laurence nodded. In military offences that he'd witnessed, a lot depended on interpretation. However, the cases he'd dealt with did not involve officers, nor did they carry the death penalty.
They were outside a narrow building with a lead-paned bow window.
'Ye Olde Cock Tavern, no less,' said Brabourne, pushing open the heavy door. 'Dickens' favourite.'
The place wasn't busy and they took a table near the fire, facing each other on blackened oak settles. Brabourne insisted on buying the beer.
'There were two things that prejudiced the case,' Brabourne continued, tapping the end of a match on the table to emphasise his points. 'Firstly, Hart had never wanted to be there. He wanted to be in the navy. And he kept on and on asking for transfers, which, as I said before, didn't gain him any friends and of course the navy never took the casualties the army did. So rather than a genuine wish, I think, to be at sea, this looked like further evidence of cowardice. Secondly, the regiment was struggling. Very low morale. There were rumours that a handful of men had gone over to the Germans in the next sector. Junior officers were terrifyingly inexperienced as wel as bickering among themselves.'
Laurence remembered how Byers had leveled the accusation of inexperience at Brabourne himself.
'But the real disaster for Hart was that one NCO, who spoke as a witness and had seen him arguing with the other subaltern, said he didn't even look as if he was in a funk; he simply looked as if he'd rather be off out of it. There was something a bit dodgy about that NCO and the other junior officer: they used exactly the same words and phrasing in their statements. In a civilian court we'd be on to that like a shot—obvious colusion—but such refinements didn't impinge on military proceedings.
'And of course his vanishing trick had left his men exposed and at risk. If his behaviour was genuine, then he was deranged. If he was faking it, then his acts were several miles beyond unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. They thought he was faking it.
'Ultimately he wasn't quite a gentleman. It wasn't a particularly smart outfit, for God's sake, but he didn't have the background of the other officers and they let him know it. In fact, to start with, his unpopularity was what coloured my decision to defend him. I didn't think anyone else would even try. Not that I did him any good.'
Laurence watched the man's face. It was bleak. His cigarette burned away between his unmoving fingers. Laurence felt uneasy, as he had when talking to Leonard Byers, knowing that he was returning people to events they would prefer to put behind them.
'I thought Hart would get off, or at least get a lesser sentence, and Hart certainly thought so. I mean, in the entire war only two other officers ever went before a firing squad and one of those was for murder. Officers were found guilty of serious offences from time to time but the sentences were always commuted. Nearly always.'
Charles had said the same, Laurence recaled.
'But as the witnesses spoke, I realised he hadn't a hope. It wasn't the facts, meagre as they were. They just didn't like him. He didn't fit in. His commanding officer said he didn't trust him and everyone else took his lead. As for Hart, he wouldn't, or couldn't, even speak in his own defence. They sentenced him to death almost as a matter of course. Stil, they made a fairly vigorous recommendation for mercy, on the grounds of his age and lack of experience. For al the good it did.'
He took another drink and wiped his mouth.
'God knows where my chum is.' He looked around as if his friend might be hiding in an alcove. Laurence drank slowly. He wanted Brabourne to complete his story and was glad the friend was late.
'Then, after he'd been found guilty but we were stil waiting for the sentence to be confirmed, I was alowed to see him again. There was nothing to say, of course. Not easy to have a conversation with someone you've failed to protect from a death sentence.'
Brabourne took a deep breath.
'He said his nerves were bad and he wished he could have some books, especialy poetry. I seized on poetry as something we had in common; we could hardly talk about the weather or the war. I expect you can see what came next: he turns out to have been one of John Emmett's group of poets. It was only then that I found out that he had written for Constellations. I'd read several of his poems. He may have been a pretty inadequate soldier but he was an extraordinary poet.'
Laurence felt his breathing slow, as he began to see things coming together, but he wanted Brabourne to tel it al in his own time. Hart must be Sisyphus. Only one poet in the magazine could be caled extraordinary.
'So there we sit, a chily evening in this room in a French farmhouse, which they've commandeered as a prison. Big old fireplace, black and cave-like: somehow it made the room feel colder, having it there unlit. They'd stuffed barbed wire up the chimney, presumably to deter anyone from attempting to climb out, and when gusts of wind were funneled down, the wire made this whining sound. It made my hair stand on end. The room smeled of cold soot. A smal casement window with wooden slats nailed over it and two guards outside the door, though God knows where he was supposed to run off to. Anyway, he stil believed the sentence would be commuted. We both did. I think everybody expected it. I'm freezing, he's wrapped a blanket round his uniform in this damn awful situation, and we're discussing Masefield and Brooke and whether Bridges was a good Poet Laureate.'
He paused, tapped his cigarette packet.
'Bloody business. I'd had nothing more than a summary of evidence half an hour before I had to defend him and they told him the sentence had been confirmed only hours before they shot him. When they told him they had the formal confirmation of his sentence, they added, as if it would make a difference, that he was to be alowed to keep his badges and his rank. I mean, what kind of mind thinks up that nicety?'
After a while Laurence prompted him: 'And you saw him again?'
'The padre and the colonel arrived. I left. Hart was a waxwork. Next time I see him, he's tied to a post.'
'Which poet was he?' Laurence asked, certain that Brabourne would confirm what he already knew. 'Hart? His pseudonym?' He nodded at the magazine. Grey and dog-eared, its typing irregular, it looked like something a schoolboy might produce.
'Hart? He was Sisyphus. Perhaps he saw himself always struggling to no avail. We were al a bit dramatic and self-important at the beginning—we were very young. But by God he could write.'
And the felow subaltern who reported Hart—the one you said was his enemy?'
'Liley, Ralph Liley.'
Laurence felt a surge of disappointment. It was not the name he had expected.
Brabourne picked up the pamphlet of poems Laurence had put down on the table, turned over two pages and handed it back, open. 'Hart,' he said. It was the extraordinary poem Laurence had first seen in Cambridge. 'Streets ahead of the rest of us, wasn't he? He wrote in every edition bar the first.' Then he shrugged. 'But who's to know what dead men might or might not have become? Saints and prodigies in a very few cases, perhaps. Most would have shown an utter failure to fulfil early promise, that's my guess. Without a few howitzers, maybe even that creative response might have failed to ignite. Good thing in my case.'
'At least you tried,' said Laurence. 'My service was an intelectual desert. The only writing I did was letters to next of kin.' He grimaced. 'Art came down to nothing more than doodles of the colonel's extraordinary moustache. During my whole time in service I think I finished only two books: King Solomon's Mines and The Good Soldier. My wife had sent me her idea of suitable reading matter for a fighting man.' He paused. 'I don't think she'd read them herself, not the second, obviously.
But the title sounded encouraging. I had a book on church architecture, but apart from that it was the London Illustrated News, always minus the best articles, which previous readers had taken a fancy to and cut out. No poetry magazines. I was no John Emmett.'
Brabourne laughed. Then he said, more seriously, 'I managed to get Hart his books; it was the least I could do.'
Laurence hardly took in what Brabourne was saying as the implications of the situation at the time of Hart's execution had suddenly hit home.
'So John knew who Hart was before that morning?' he said.
'No, not realy. In fact, it should have been another officer who commanded the detail but he fel il. The CO let him off and decided Emmett, who had just joined us, but was senior, could take it. A good thing too. The way they carry on, you'd think soldiers would jump at shooting an officer but of course the talk's al blather. I'm sure Emmett had previously never met him face to face.' Brabourne appeared to be thinking. 'No, I'm certain of it. Hence the shock...'
'When he realised who he was. He knew the name, of course, but it's not that rare and he'd got his orders very late in the day.' Brabourne stopped, deep in thought. 'He was tired and it was al very tense. He might not have taken it on board. It was "unsatisfactory", that's the military term, but pretty bloody dreadful is more accurate. Hart found al the courage he'd hoped for when it came to it. The rest of us were novices except for the APM—Mulins—who couldn't be bothered to stay and see the sentence carried out. A couple of the men were in Hart's own company. I realy thought the padre might faint. He'd been there only a month. I suppose I wasn't much better. The MO was grim-faced. He had to pin the traditional bit of flannel on Hart's chest—al that medical training to identify a route for a bulet to the heart.' Brabourne's lips twisted. 'The squad was subdued but hopeless, and apart from anything else they couldn't shoot straight. The sergeant was a nasty bit of work.'
'So did John know who Hart was afterwards?'
'He put two and two together. I'm not sure at what point. Do you know what happened? That day, I mean?' he asked cautiously.
'He wasn't kiled outright.'
'I'l say he wasn't,' said Brabourne. 'But Emmett should have put him out of his misery instantly and the sergeant should have marched the detail off swiftish the minute they'd fired. Instead of which, everybody stood and watched. And Emmett ... he would have done better by an injured dog. He dithered. No, that's not entirely fair: Hart was obviously trying to speak. Emmett was a decent chap. Probably his instinct was to let a dying man have his say.'
'Did John tel you this?'
'Wel, afterwards he asked me whether I knew that the dead man had been a poet and I said yes. He seemed very cast down but then he was shaken to the core by what had happened. Literaly shaking. I had to give him brandy. Emmett said Hart seemed to be saying that he loved his mother, and that his father would have been ashamed, or something along those lines. Not remarkable last words.'
Brabourne pointed to his tankard. Laurence shook his head. 'No, I realy must go. But what about Tucker?'
Brabourne looked surprised at the use of the name. 'Tucker. Of course, he was the sergeant. You know him?' he said.
'No. But I know more than I like about him.'
'Wel, he was cool as a cucumber. In control. Nasty, as I said. Walked up, took the gun off Emmett. Blasted young Edmund between the eyes. Hel of a mess.
Deliberately, I don't doubt. One of the lads was retching. Extreme insubordination, I suppose. But somebody had to finish it. I'm not sure Emmett was going to fire at al.' The journalist was pale.
'That afternoon it was business as usual and having buried Hart we went off on a practice attack. Emmett spoke to me again a day or so later. I was on the point of going off for home leave. He asked if I knew anything else about Hart. I said I didn't know anything about his home life. Like Emmett, I knew much more about his poetry, but then I'd had years to read his poetry and only two days to familiarise myself with the case, much less the man. And I can't say Hart was very talkative.
Not even in an attempt to save his own life. He no longer cared, I think.'
'I'm sorry to take you back to this.'
Brabourne shrugged. 'It's not something I was ever likely to forget. I gave evidence to an inquiry two years ago. Though I was mostly being questioned about being a Prisoner's Friend. It's said if you defended, you sentenced yourself along with the accused man.'
'So I heard. Was it true?'
Brabourne opened and shut his matchbox a couple of times. 'I'm stil here. Though I think my CO was quite glad to have seen the back of me for a while.
Whereas a month or so later his golden boy, the prosecuting officer, went out on a routine patrol and never came back. By the time I got back from leave the CO was happy to have any officer with experience.'
He glanced behind Laurence at a man coming in from the street. Although he was just a dark shape in the doorway, Brabourne waved. Laurence took this as his cue.
'I'l be off he said. 'Thank you for everything. It's been tremendously helpful. Perhaps we'l meet again.'
He felt sleepy from too much beer and longed to be outside. He nodded at Brabourne's friend who was buying himself a drink, stil wearing his court wig and gown.
'Come back if there's anything else at al,' Brabourne said, standing up and shaking Laurence's hand.
As he was walking away Laurence turned.
'There is one other thing. Did you know that Byers' cousin had been murdered? Same surname, same home vilage?'
He knew instantly that this was news to Brabourne. The journalist became suddenly alert. At the door Laurence looked back and saw Brabourne stil watching him. He stepped out into light that seemed astonishingly bright.
The next day he woke up with a headache and couldn't face his planned morning in the library. Eventualy he decided to catch a bus to Marble Arch; he would go to his barber's and get some fresh air by walking in Hyde Park.
A couple of hours later he sat on a bench, relishing the crisp morning, watching the ducks on the ornamental lake and some elegant women on horses, trotting along the bridleways. Having now heard two versions of the events around the death of Hart, he thought he had a ful picture.
He wondered how many executions by firing squad had taken place in the field. This made him think back to routine orders and how often he'd just passed over the notification of an execution. Hundreds, certainly, must have been shot. He hoped five hundred was too many. Say it was two or even three hundred soldiers.
Only three officers in total, Brabourne had said. It seemed very few, yet he'd never heard of any until he had looked into John's troubled war.
Each execution would involve six officers or more for the court martial, officers for the prosecution and the defence, two or three senior officers to ratify the sentence, the assistant provost marshal, and six to ten soldiers on the firing detachment. An officer commanding the execution, medics, padres, guards, the burial party.
Twenty or so men involved in despatching a single soldier of their own side. Even alowing for some duplication, four to five thousand or so men must have been involved between 1914 and 1918.
The only unusual element in Hart's case was that the condemned man held a commission. Did that make it harder for everyone involved, he wondered? He thought it probably did. Even so, the numbers of men caught up in trying and executing Hart made the notion that there was some sort of curse ludicrous. There was no reasonable way to check, but they couldn't al be dead. Nonetheless he wondered what had happened to the other subaltern who had reported Hart for walking away.
Ralph Liley. He, almost more than anyone else, would seem to be responsible for Hart's predicament. If Lieutenant Liley was stil alive, that would virtualy confirm that the nexus of deaths, including John's, did not have Hart at its centre.
He was getting cold so he walked fairly briskly along the Bayswater Road. The Hyde Park Hotel loomed up behind the mottled plane trees and on impulse he turned in past the doorman. He asked to use the telephone and the concierge made the connection for him. Of course it was a ridiculous time to try to catch Charles at his club but he left a message with the porter, simply saying that he had a lot to tel him and that he planned to go to Birmingham the folowing morning. He felt slightly melodramatic as he ended, saying that he expected to return on the same day.
On the spur of the moment he decided to jump on a bus to Victoria. From there he crossed the river. Although Brabourne's account had hardly mentioned Byers, Laurence had been bothered by something in the way Byers told his own story. Now he had an excuse to speak to him again, even if a pretty feeble one.
It took him forty minutes to reach the lock works. The watchman came out.
'You looking for the major?'
'No, Mr Byers.'
'Not here, sir. Won't be until later.'
'How much later?' Not that he could hover in the yard to ambush him.
Very briefly he considered leaving a note, asking Byers to contact him, but he was sure that he wouldn't do so. He might be able to prevail upon Calogreedy to speak to Byers again, but the reason for his visit was pretty tenuous. It had been a ridiculously impulsive detour and he knew it was largely because he had too much time on his hands.
He set off for home. The street outside the works was empty. He was approaching the bridge when, as he turned to cross the road, he almost colided with a man on a bicycle coming round the corner. He stumbled back over the kerb. The man half stopped and half fel off. As he picked up his cap from the road and straightened himself up, the cyclist apologised.
'Sorry, sir. Not usualy anyone about. I should of looked. You al right?'
It was Byers. Slowly his expression changed. 'Mr Bartram.'
Laurence's reason for being there suddenly seemed even flimsier.
'I had some news.' He felt a fool as he said it. 'You might like to know the man you told me about—Tresham Brabourne, who defended Lieutenant Hart—he's alive and wel.'
It sounded ridiculously thin. Why should Byers care? Byers stared at him, gripping the handlebars tightly.
'So not everyone's under a fatal curse,' Laurence said, trying to sound light-hearted.
Only a slight tension of his jaw showed that Byers had heard but he didn't move on. He looked more uneasy than relieved at this information. One foot remained on the pedal, the other pressed down on the road surface as if he was about to push off and cycle away.
'Did he say anything?' Byers asked eventualy, stil wary.
'Wel, more or less what you said. A bad business.'
Laurence thought back. 'Nothing in particular. I mean, apart from you, because you'd been with him before, he didn't even know the name of anyone in the firing squad.'
Byers looked as if he was engaged in one of his famous computations of figures. When he finaly spoke, his voice was flat. 'Just before, when they were tying him up, Tucker leans towards me and hands me his pocket knife. He nods towards Hart and for a minute I think he's teling me to cut his throat but he just says, "Cut off his pips, son." I didn't get it at first and Tucker gives me a push. I look to the officer, that's your friend, the captain. But he doesn't seem to see what's going on. I stumble out towards the man. Half afraid someone's going to give the order to fire while I'm out there. Then I'm standing in front of him—the officer we're going to shoot
—and I'm not looking at him and I think I says something like, "I'm sorry," very quiet so that Tucker can't hear, and I reach forward and sawed the pip off one shoulder and then he turns so I can get the other one. And I'm looking for the other badges when Emmett suddenly wakes up and shouts, "Byers, what the hel do you think you're doing, get back in position," so I do. I scarper back, clutching these pathetic bits of stuff in my hand. And when I get back, Tucker's there with his hand out and I just put them in his palm. I felt bad about it after because I thought it was a proper order, but later I heard that they didn't take the rank off a condemned man.'
He caught Laurence's eyes briefly.
'It was just another little game of Tucker's. Probably he sold them for a mint.' His shoulders slumped. 'I'm sorry. I am. I didn't know any better.'
Laurence wanted to reach out and touch Byers' nearest arm, stiff on the handlebar. But even before he could tel him that he had nothing to be sorry for, Byers was moving off, pedaling away without looking back.
Laurence got home feeling cold and dispirited. He had a glass of brandy to warm himself, then managed to settle to his own work. He wrote until evening before assembling his notes. As he tidied up, he gathered up his recent letters. He glanced down to Eleanor's, lying on top. Her handwriting was as determined as her character. Suddenly, he tipped out the odds and ends that Mary had given him. On top was the note about the birdwatching. His eyes went to the bottom and then to the letter. He was almost certain that the comments about somebody dislikeable in the guise of a bird were in Eleanor Bolitho's handwriting, as he had guessed. Eleanor had obviously been seeing John long after the war and had a close friendship with him. But she had chosen to lie about it to Laurence. Could the N be Nicholas Bolitho?
Did Wiliam know that they'd both gone to Holmwood? He picked up the scrap and put it and Brabourne's photograph in his walet.
When he'd left Brabourne the day before, he was reeling with al the new information but as he slotted each element into place he realised there were crucial questions he might have asked. Now he also wondered: why hadn't Brabourne mentioned Byers' actions?
Fresham Brabourne seemed keen to see Laurence again, although he made it clear that his time was limited. He suggested Laurence find his way up to the office he'd visited last time. Although the door was ajar, Laurence knocked. The floor was covered in open newspapers and Brabourne was kneeling in the middle.
'I'm checking your Byers bombshel, about his cousin,' he said. 'Turns out Mulins was looking into it. Curiouser and curiouser. There has to be a connection. A story.' He looked excited.
'There were two things I wanted to check myself,' Laurence said. 'Why on earth did John Emmett ask for a copy of your photograph?' He took it out of his pocket.
'He didn't. Nobody saw me use the camera. More than my life was worth.'
'But you gave it to him?'
'No. God, no. Hardly. Last thing I'd want him to know about.'
'Wel, somebody gave it to him,' said Laurence. 'Are you sure this is yours?' He handed it to him. 'Could anyone else have been taking pictures that day?'
'Very unlikely,' said Brabourne, examining the picture. 'No, this is mine. Was mine. Look—my monogram on the back. I stil have that stamp. P is my first name, Peregrine. Not very surprisingly, I opted to use one of my other names—Tresham. It was that or my third name, Everard, which wasn't a great improvement on Peregrine.' He looked down at the photograph in his hand. 'But God knows where the negative is.'
'When did you last see the picture? Do you have any sense of when it was lost?'
'No. I mean, no, it wasn't lost. It was hardly something I gazed at every day but it was with my things until I met Colonel Lambert Ward. I set up an interview with him a couple of years ago. Do you remember the Darling Committee? Suggesting reforms for courts martial?'
'Lambert Ward?' Laurence echoed.
'The MP. The parliamentary questions man. I was doing this big piece on him; I can probably find it. Certainly got the goat up plenty of our regulars. Letters came pouring in.' He looked happy. 'Especialy from those who'd never fought, of course. Very keen on the ultimate sanction, our older readers. But the rest was pure coincidence. We were talking about the bee he's got in his bonnet about burying executed men alongside their more valiant comrades in arms. He's very old school in his ways but strangely vehement about keeping our dead together.'
He stopped, got up again, walked to a cabinet and puled out a drawer. He seemed to find what he wanted almost immediately, ran his eyes over it and handed it to Laurence.
'Quotes. They were for my piece, he said. I could hardly improve on their words. From Hansard or public speeches.'
Laurence looked down at the transcript. Two speeches had been marked in pencil.
'The first is Philip Morrel. The former MP. Liberal. I'd like to do a piece on him too. And this is the colonel,' said Brabourne. '"These men, many of them volunteered in the early days of the war to serve their country. They tried and they failed ... I think that it is wel that it should be known and the people of this country should understand ... that from the point of view of Tommy up in the trenches, war is not a question of honours and decorations, but war is just hel."'
Laurence nodded. He sat back. Just hel. He was glad someone had spoken this truth in parliament.
'He told me that there was utter silence in the Commons after he'd spoken, and nobody would meet his eyes,' Brabourne added. 'But what I found interesting when I met him was his conviction that intolerable fear pushed some men into extraordinary acts of courage, and others into cowardice quite out of keeping with their characters. I think he was saying both extremes were a sort of madness. I liked him.
'I mentioned that I'd been personaly involved in a court martial and a firing squad. He seemed quite interested—wel, he would, of course. Much more so when he found the condemned man was an officer. He was the first person I'd spoken to about it since the war. Even my brother doesn't know. I didn't tel Lambert Ward about the photograph at first. Partly because it's not of the execution itself, thank God, but mostly it didn't seem fair to the other men involved, who didn't have any choice about being there.' He held the tiny stub of his cigarette between finger and thumb, inhaling before discarding it. 'And I felt that it looked a bit like a souvenir. That wasn't how it was, but I wasn't proud of it.'
Laurence asked, 'Are Lambert Ward and Morrel working together?'
'Loosely, yes. The colonel, Morrel, General Somers, and the man who's the member for North-West Lanarkshire, whose name I can't remember. Pringle? No, Thirtle; al good men of absolute probity, no axes being ground, I think. Somers and Lambert Ward were military heroes themselves in their time, which probably helped. The war and the public making subsequent attacks on them al were playing hel with Lambert Ward's health. But then there's Horatio Bottomley.'
Laurence watched, puzzled, as Brabourne slid his matchbox open and tipped his matches out on to the desk.
The name rang a bel with Laurence. 'Another MP?'
Brabourne gave him a wry look. 'Yes. "The Soldier's Friend". Among other things. Including being owner-editor of John Bull. It puts me in a difficult position.
The Bull is a bit of a rag and Bottomley would stop at nothing to support his causes. And there's no end to the causes that support Bottomley. Our editor loathes him.
He's had some murky dealings and he's rabid about Germany. I just thought the next thing would be that those men in my picture who had a right to remain anonymous would be plastered al over Bottomley's front page, and I'd also be in deep trouble here for not letting The Chronicle have the story. But I trusted the colonel. In the end when I sent him my meagre notes on Hart's defence, I also sent the photograph, which was with the file. He wrote back and said he'd like to talk to me properly about the execution. After al, on the previous occasion he was there for me to interview him, not vice versa.'
Brabourne was arranging matchsticks into an elaborate snowflake pattern. He nudged the final one into position and looked up.
'We agreed that we would meet again. In the event, he was unwel; an ulcer apparently. Morrel was down in the country so it was Somers who contacted me and suggested we meet at a hotel, the Connaught. Lambert Ward had passed on the photograph. But I trusted him just as much as the colonel, who had given me his word that it would be seen only by him. Somers gave me an equaly solemn assurance. Not that the picture was very informative in itself but I was confident that there was no possibility of it emerging in any public way. I didn't trust Bottomley an inch but I trusted Lambert Ward; he understands modern soldiering. Somers is utterly honourable, although from a different generation and a different war. And he'd lost two sons in ours so he had some idea of its realities. I knew one of his boys. At Welington. You know how schools yoke you for life, wily-nily? Why you're here for Emmett, realy.'
Was that true, Laurence wondered?
'I told him who was involved, the names of the officers, at least. Again, Somers said he would never make them public. I couldn't remember those of the soldiers, apart from young Byers, if I ever knew them. To tel you the truth, I didn't particularly want to remember any of it. I didn't want the photograph. It's history now.'
Laurence watched with regret as Brabourne's elbow came down in the middle of his fragile matchstick creation. The sticks scattered.
'Somers listened, took a few notes.' Brabourne brushed a matchstick off his coat. 'Told me the Germans executed only a handful of men. Fifty or so. Makes you think, doesn't it?'
Laurence was astonished. Were British soldiers so much less disciplined than Germans? Everybody said they were the best army in the world.
He was about to speak when Brabourne said, 'I did in the end tel him about Emmett—that whole ghastly botch-up.' Brabourne looked straight at Laurence when he didn't respond. 'You think I shouldn't have said anything?'
Laurence shook his head vigorously. 'You were the one who was there.'
'I thought about it after meeting Lambert Ward and decided it was the details that make a cause. Told him it was idiotic to mix up the rifles. Which was worse?
Having to shoot him, or finding they'd mostly missed? Somers looked grim, although he said he'd seen men flogged and hanged in the war in Africa and he himself had even confirmed their sentences. But that was in the last century.'
He tapped out a further cigarette from the pack but held it without lighting it.
'He asked me a bit about Hart's background. He already had his name from the records but said he was interested because so few officers were executed on any side. He had details of one other case, a Lieutenant Poole. There wasn't much I could tel him except about the indecent haste of it al. And I tried to explain how the other officers took against Hart, and the tension between Tucker and Emmett, but it al sounded a bit thin if you hadn't seen it. I was biased in Emmett's favour probably. Perhaps one of the other committee members had the photograph afterwards? Not Bottomley, I hope.' He grimaced. 'But I'l check I didn't have any more of them. It was al a muddle back in the war!'
'May I think about it for a while?' Laurence said. 'I'm going to try to trace Tucker—he seems to be the lynchpin for so much of this. He lives in Birmingham.'
Brabourne looked at him. 'You should be careful.'
'Because your friend John Emmett told me a couple of things about Tucker that were al too plausible, having seen him in action myself. I don't think Emmett was trying to exonerate himself. He knew he'd messed things up—it was undoubtedly a terrible burden—but he was trying to explain Tucker. Ostensibly he hoped that because of my paltry experience at the Bar I might be able to advise him. Realy, he just needed to get it off his chest, I think. He was a man obsessed. Also—and it sounded a bit melodramatic—he wanted to pass on the information in case anything should happen to him. Not at the hands of Jerry but of Tucker.'
'Anything I should know?'
'Tucker and Captain Emmett met long before. Perhaps you knew that? Emmett joined the West Kents. Tucker was a sergeant. Tucker had a chum whose name I can't remember, a corporal. The two had joined up at the same time. Tucker was brighter than the average soldier and did wel. But Emmett said he was a bad influence over his weak pal.'
'Perkins?' Laurence said, remembering the name Wiliam Bolitho had given.
'Possibly.' Brabourne shrugged. 'They were vaguely implicated in lots of minor trouble-making but none of it was pinned down. But then, in spring the folowing year, not long before things got realy sticky, apparently they were running out of wire. As they were everywhere. Two details went to get wire from farms in the area.
Tucker headed up one lot, John said. They found precious little; the French were already hiding stuff by then. Three days later a girl on one of the farms is raped and murdered. She's very young: fourteen or fifteen. Emmett said it was just possible the death itself had been an accident—caused by an attempt to subdue her. But it was now the third rape that had occurred near their positions.
'The French police discovered an army-issue canteen outside the barn when her body was found. Tucker claimed he'd never been near that farm, but the mother gave a description of a belt buckle and insignia she'd seen when the soldiers had come before. Her husband and son were serving with the French so she could identify the uniforms.'
Brabourne stopped and appeared to be thinking back.
'I think Tucker eventualy conceded he might have been there—he took the line that one smal farm was much the same as any other and al the French were devious, English-hating peasants. But of course he said he hadn't gone back. Emmett has a bad feeling about it al. Cals the friend in and it's obvious the soldier—
Perkins, if that's his name—is uneasy. Keeps contradicting himself and both men are the only alibis for one another for part of the day in question.'
'I'm surprised that was enough to exonerate them; it sounds more a cause for suspicion, I'd have thought.'
'Indeed. To you, me and, especialy, John Emmett. But not to a harassed CO, it appears. Emmett said he just knew, increasingly, that Tucker was involved and probably this Perkins too. And Tucker knew he knew and it amused him. The French gendarmes thought two men had raped her. Technicaly, one rape and one act of sodomy.' He looked up. 'Emmett must have spoken good French?'
He waited for Laurence to reply.
'Yes, he spoke nearly perfect French.'
'Emmett was the liaison officer. Perhaps he was more convinced by the police than his tired CO, who was trying to prepare his men for the next attack. And Emmett saw the body in situ; her own neckerchief stuffed in a mouth choked with vomit, though death occurred when her throat was crushed, possibly by a forearm during the act...'
Brabourne tailed off, stubbing out his cigarette in his overflowing tin ashtray.
'I'm sorry, this is probably more than you want to know about something that happened a long time ago,' he said. 'But when I met him, it had worn Emmett's nerves down. I think that the circumstances show that Emmett's failure in commanding the execution detail wasn't weakness and Tucker's promptness to step in wasn't courage. And Hart was going to be shot one way or the other.'
'It's helpful,' Laurence said. 'The whole picture, the way it fits together. John's state of mind. It's what I've been trying to get a grasp of.
'The fact that he told me al these details is some indication that things weren't good. Though we did share a bilet for a while and some wine—increasing quantities of wine, in his case. Emmett told me there were items missing off the girl's body: a comb, some ribbons and so on. It also seemed as if someone had cut off some of her ... pubic hair.'
When Laurence looked surprised, Brabourne added matter-of-factly, 'I had actualy come across this in my time at the Bar. These men ... they do sometimes colect items from their victims.'
'But wasn't that incredibly risky?' asked Laurence. 'It was murder, after al, and the men al lived on top of each other, and were often on the move and had few personal possessions. Anyway, the colonel would have had a right to search Tucker's things at the time.'
'He might have done but it was hardly likely. Tucker was a sergeant; he wasn't some spotty private. And I do wonder if for Tucker it was the risk that made it attractive.
'So the gendarmes leave Emmett with a list of pathetic missing personal items. He took al the information to the colonel, but there was no other evidence. They were preparing for the big push and the colonel said Tucker was a good enough NCO not to be antagonised by excitable French women with vague accusations.
"Against the general good" was the line, Emmett said.
'The colonel let it go. He refused to release the men for possible identification by the girl's mother, because that would merely confirm what Tucker had already given them: that he'd been at the farm in the preceding week. Emmett tried to take it further up the chain of command but the CO was getting increasingly fed up with the whole business and what he was beginning to consider as questioning his orders. Not long after, the Somme goes up and one dead French girl pales into insignificance beside fifty thousand British casualties on day one.'
Brabourne stopped again. He chewed on a matchstick.
'I have to say, it al sounded pretty circumstantial. I don't think there was ever a case, but Emmett was certain Tucker was the man, together with his faithful sidekick. And things changed between him and Tucker from then on, he said. Perkins stayed out of Emmett's way as far as possible but Tucker was always in the way, always hovering this side of insolence, but chalenging him in subtle ways, always making things difficult. You know how it was? A good NCO and your problems were halved. With a bad one, life became hard: messages didn't get passed on, maps were out of date or dropped in the mud. Telegraph lines were damaged. Men were unavailable when Emmett needed them. Always smal things, but they disrupted the running of the company and made Emmett's life thorny.
'Then, a month or so later, there was an outbreak of pilfering. Tobacco, sweets, smal change—but causing trouble. There was bad feeling and some suggestion that a young soldier was being picked on as a possible culprit. Emmett and another subaltern decided to do a spot check of accommodation. Tucker was excluded from al this by virtue of rank; indeed, he was part of the checking. No sign of the stolen goods, but in his chum's knapsack there was a comb—a woman's hair comb.
Ordinary, cheap thing, gilt, but Emmett said there was something distinctive about it.'
Brabourne closed his eyes for a second.
'I know. It was a unicorn. The pattern. Just like the one missing from the dead girl. Emmett thought it even had her initials on it. It was on the list the gendarmes had given him. He said Perkins was obviously shocked to the core. Swore blind he'd never seen it before. Tucker suggested to him that he might have bought it for a lady friend back home and the man eventualy agreed. But Emmett said it was wel worn. He knew the colonel thought he'd simply got a down on Tucker and it wasn't enough.'
'What about the corporal?'
'Tucker was naturaly devious—Emmett thought he'd planted the comb to keep his friend in line—but he sensed Perkins was frightened and out of his depth.
Over the next couple of weeks, Emmett kept Perkins in sight. By now the man looked haunted, and he and Tucker were no longer the mates they'd always been. In fact, Emmett thought he was trying to avoid Tucker. Then, right out of the blue, Perkins asked to speak to Emmett privately. Tucker was out of camp. The corporal wasn't specific but he hinted that it was to do with the murder. Perhaps he was going to confess; perhaps he thought he could turn King's evidence.'
'Didn't he say?'
'No. Emmett, who is off up to HQ, says he'l see him the folowing afternoon. But Tucker gets back earlier than expected—perhaps he didn't trust his old friend.
The folowing morning, they're repairing trenches when, oh so conveniently for Tucker, you might think, there's a colapse and his chum dies unpleasantly but without a word. Emmett is sent off to the regimental first-aid post and then hospital, and the CO is kiled within weeks.'
'I hadn't realised,' Laurence began. 'I knew about the individuals involved in the trench fal. A man caled Bolitho told me. An officer. He was there.' He recaled Byers' sense that Tucker had let his friend die. 'But Tucker rescued John. Why would he do that if John had wanted to tie him to a murder?'
'God knows. Game playing? Power? Perhaps he was being watched too closely to finish him off when the fal didn't kil him. Emmett, of course, thought that the whole episode was about Tucker trying to murder him. And he was near as certain that Tucker had engineered Perkins' death. It wouldn't have been hard. Those old trenches were pretty unstable. But, of course, his accusations were in danger of sounding like paranoia. He kept the comb, the only evidence of the rape, in his pocket al the time. He said one day he would show it to the girl's mother for identification. But it would only have tied Perkins to the murder and he was dead. He showed it to me. I have to say, you needed to know what you were looking for to see any initials.'
'But John didn't mention a Bolitho?'
Brabourne shook his head.
'Being trapped was John's nightmare.'
'That fits,' said Brabourne. 'The good criminal mind is adept in sensing the weakness of others. Perhaps that was al Tucker intended—to torment rather than kil, and, by getting in there for the rescue, to have al the pleasure of watching Emmett suffer.'
'I think I know how the story went on from there,' said Laurence, as Brabourne put his feet on the desk. 'John was injured. Sent to hospital. His battalion took heavy casualties. John went home until he was declared fit for active service again and then, finaly, in 1917, his path and Tucker's crossed again.'
Brabourne shook his head and tapped his ash just short of the ashtray. 'With the subtle addition that Tucker had officialy saved your friend's life.'
They both lapsed into silence. Laurence looked over Brabourne's shoulder to the window, trying to gauge the time by the light outside.
'Did you know that in John's account of the accident—if it was an accident—in the trenches, it was a Captain Bolitho who saved his life?' Laurence asked.
Brabourne shook his head. 'I can't swear to it but he didn't actualy talk much about the incident at al, except to explain how Perkins ceased being a danger to Tucker. You have to understand that for Emmett it was al about the French girl's murder.'
'He left him some money. Quite a lot,' said Laurence after a short pause.
'Tucker?' Brabourne looked astonished.
Laurence alowed this to sink in for a moment.
And Byers,' Laurence said, more cautiously, 'seemed uneasy about the lead-up to the execution.'
It wasn't the whole truth but he wanted to let Brabourne tel him about Byers himself.
But Brabourne just looked blank. 'Byers?' he said. He seemed puzzled. But after a few seconds' thought, he seemed to realise what Laurence meant. 'Cutting off the badges? Poor man.'
Laurence wasn't sure whether he meant Byers or Hart.
'I imagine he thought he was supposed to for some reason,' Brabourne said. 'He wasn't a chancer of any sort. Emmett should have stopped him, of course.'
After a moment's further thought, Laurence asked, 'The article you did on the murder: the policeman? Did you think then that it could be connected to Hart or Tucker or John?'
'It honestly never entered my head. I didn't even put two and two together when the story first came in. I mean, I knew he'd served in France. I suppose it's odd that there are no leads and that it was so efficiently and cooly done. But if you want the truth, to start with I thought Mulins would have been on the take and had crossed some criminal bigwig. If there's anything that didn't fit, I suppose it's that, in military life, Major Mulins had a reputation of acting right by the book. A very tough man. I would have thought corruption would have been anathema to him.'
'Your piece said he was "mutilated"?'
'Newspaper dramatics. The second shot got him in the face. Very nasty. As much for onlookers as for Mulins, who could hardly have cared by then.
Personaly, I'd rather there wasn't a connection,' he went on thoughtfuly, 'as the numbers of those present at the time of Hart's death seem to be diminishing rapidly.'
'Byers is wel.' Having said that, Laurence was stil nagged by the fact that Leonard Byers' cousin had been murdered.
'But his cousin was shot in the face. Like Mulins.' Brabourne indicated the papers on the floor.
Laurence nodded. He could see that Brabourne's newspaperman instincts sensed a connection. 'Perhaps you'l find the link,' he said. 'In the meantime, I'l let you know how I get on with Tucker.'
'Yes. Do. And be careful. I don't want to be running a piece on another mysterious but violent demise.'
Brabourne felt in his waistcoat pocket. More cigarettes, Laurence assumed, but instead he brought out a fine fob watch and opened the case.
'I'm going to have to...'
Laurence jumped up. 'I'm realy sorry, I keep returning and seem to have tried to extract from you an entire history of the war. One thing seemed to lead to another.'
'That's the joy of my job,' said Brabourne. 'Connections. So many things do seem to link together so often.' He tapped the watch and turned it so that Laurence could see it. It was old and handsome.
'It was my grandfather's. He fought at Balaclava. Mind you, although I'm very attached to it it's not much good for actualy teling the time.'
He smiled broadly, giving off the boyish energy that Byers had commented upon. He tapped it again, then started rummaging through one of the piles on his desk. Several leaflets and loose sheets slipped to the floor but he seemed unbothered.
He handed Laurence a magazine. It had stark red and black print on the front and a title, Post-Guard: The New Review.
'Myself, I've given up writing poetry in favour of photography. If I get a lucky break I'd like to move into film. Movement: speed, machines, that's the future. But for now...' He gestured around him extravagantly. 'This might pay for my dreams. Realy I'm better on murders, but I do bring out this periodical in my free time. It's subscription only and we haven't got it going regularly but one or two of the wordsmiths in the copy of Constellations that you've got are in my mag too. Writing very different stuff now, of course. None of that morbid sentimentality: summer, lilac, ancient warriors. None of that, thank God. Do you remember Frances Cornford on Brooke? "A young Apolo, golden-haired,/ Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,/ Magnificently unprepared/ For the long littleness of life." I mean, Brooke was hardly unprepared. He was at King's, Cambridge, for heaven's sake. And no innocent, one hears. And he worshipped the heroic littleness of life, clutching his Homer closer than his gas mask. I've nothing against the dead and nothing against Cornford: "the long littleness of life"—lovely line. Wish I'd written it. She was in love with him, of course, wasn't everybody? Perfect poetry. Means nothing and so everything. That's why people like it. Not everyone could cope with Sassoon.'
Laurence, who had known Sassoon at school and hadn't liked him much, didn't want to say so.
'There's stil a taste for that sort of thing, of course. Nostalgic de la guerre. But not in this.' Brabourne tapped his magazine. 'This is not for everybody.' He looked proud. 'Not sure we've got the title right—it was supposed to be a pun on avant-garde.' He made a face. 'Picking up where Kandinsky and Co. left off.'
Laurence hoped he looked inteligently non-committal.
'I put two of Hart's in pride of place and there's one of Emmett's too. Of course we're not making a profit yet, but he deserved to be published. We're getting reviews.' Brabourne looked worried. 'I hope his sister won't mind. If a miracle occurs and the public suddenly develops a passion for proper poetry, then we'd pay his heirs, of course.'
They shook hands. Laurence walked down the stone stairs and out on to Fleet Street. Away from the heavy air of ink and machine oil and paper, London smeled light and cold. There was heavy traffic: trams and cars held up by a brewer's dray unloading near St Bride's. He looked up the street towards St Paul's and then up at the sky.
Sometimes he was not sure whether he was more disoriented by al that had altered or by how much had not. The view he had now—of the pale, graceful lines of St Bride's and then the uncompromising dome of the cathedral, rising grey above the City—was little changed since Wren built them. That, at least, was permanent.
And yet this was also the street from which the great business of the nation's newspapers had told the modern world how it was changing.
As he walked back towards Aldwych, he turned on impulse towards the Temple church, almost hidden in its peaceful square. Finding no one else inside, he sat for a while, watching the faint sunlight warm the stone effigies of the Knights Templar.
Having arrived at the station wel before the train to Birmingham was due to leave, Laurence paused outside to look at the war memorial. Had it been here the last time he passed? Similar monuments were suddenly appearing everywhere, but the bare earth around this one suggested it had been unveiled only in the last few weeks. New roses, just a few dormant winter stalks and thorns, had been planted around it. For a second he tried to imagine his own name being chiseled out by a busy mason. But what place would have claimed him as its son and remembered him in death?
He went inside to the ticket office. The steam hanging over the platforms was mirrored in miniature above the large tea urn at the station café, where he sat at a corner table, clutching a cup of tea while he waited for his train. Strong and sweet, it was bitter with tannin. He held it more to keep warm than to wake himself up. He'd brought The Times to read and Brabourne's Post-Guard. He was just rereading one of Hart's poems when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned round to find Charles standing there, with an identical copy of The Times under his arm, the brim of his hat puled down low, a dark paisley scarf round his neck and the rest of him swathed in a vast tweed coat that must have belonged to his grandfather.
'How the hel...?' Laurence began, but swiftly realised that he was neither particularly surprised nor unhappy to see Charles. Had he hoped for this when he'd left his message? His smile acknowledged the possibility.
'It's good to see you.'
'Wel, I wasn't having you setting out on a solitary encounter with Sergeant Tucker, old chap.'
'Oh God. You haven't brought a gun, have you?'
Theatricaly, Charles opened the front of his voluminous coat, reached into a deep poacher's pocket and brought out a short, thick truncheon with a leather loop. He placed the loop around his wrist and slapped the truncheon down against the palm of his hand a couple of times. Laurence frowned.
'It's a priest,' said Charles. 'For despatching fish. I've gone off fishing but found this in a cupboard; better than nothing, I thought. And less provocative than a gun. I do have one or two other useful things here.'
He reached into another pocket, brought out a hip flask, which he waved vaguely and then put away, and finaly dragged out a buff-coloured folded map.
'Birmingham,' he said, 'but I suppose you've got one already?'
Laurence smiled and shook his head.
'But you know where to find your man's drinking den?' Charles asked. 'It's a big place.'
'I know its name, according to his friend who told Leonard Byers. And I know it's a long shot,' he added, not that Charles had protested. 'It's not unreasonable to assume he'l be traceable from there.'
Charles raised an eyebrow. 'And you think his pals are going to tel you, just like that?'
Charles rummaged about in yet another pocket. This time he withdrew a thin, folded bundle of one-pound notes.
'Money?' Laurence looked puzzled.
'Quite right, old chap. Wel done. See your detective skils are coming o