Chapter Four. And what’s this one got to recommend it? Well, it clears the way for Chapter Five.

There are a couple of less uninteresting bits here… trains, those are good. a dash of new scenery. a healthy dollop of angst. and a couple of cameos that point up yet again what a dear John is, him and his trusting ways.

The big sell is the first appearance of the white rabbit. And what do white rabbits mean, but…

Yes, the rabbit hole is in sight although John hasn’t spotted it yet. So here we are on the White Rabbit’s welcome mat. I hope at least the scenery is pleasant.

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-«oOo»-
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Chapter Four: Echoes

“It is not every man who can be exquisitely miserable, any more than exquisitely happy.”

– James Boswell

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The morning of my departure was harrowing. After laying awake most of the night I started up to find sunlight streaming across my bedclothes. I had the instant sinking sensation of knowing that I had overslept myself by enough to thoroughly erase my planned margin.

Thanking heaven I’d had the foresight or luck to send the bulk of my luggage ahead to Victoria, I had only minutes to thrust a few remaining articles into my battered leather kit bag. Thus engaged in scurrying about my sitting room grabbing up odds and ends, my reaching hand fell on the rust-colored book I’d acquired at the cost of my nerves and temper the night before. I had dropped it unceremoniously on my desk on coming in and promptly forgotten it.

The front bell rang and I hurriedly continued my motion, stuffing the book into my bag even as I started assembling an excuse to delay the cabman who was certainly at my door. I felt a rush of relief when Bess hurried in to tell me it was not the cab, but a package. I glanced at the flat butcher-paper wrapped parcel Bess proffered and deciding I had no time to open what was certainly something easily handled later, I thanked her and dropped that, too, in my bag.

At last I paused and took a last look around my sitting room. The realization that I would be away from it for so long and on my own brought me up short. My mind began to drift back over the many events that room had seen, both minor and momentous, and I was in danger of slipping into a reverie when Bess popped through the door again.

“Oh, sir,” she said, “A boy’s just run over to say there’s been a fracas at the cabstand and the cab you reserved won’t be here on time. He’s offered to run to the corner and fetch one–”

“That’s fine, Bess,” I said, coming to myself and shrugging into my coat. “Give him a few coins and thank him for me.”

The boy earned his pennies for the cab was there in seconds. I blurted my destination to the hulking driver perched on the seat above and gave Bess a quick kiss on the cheek at which she suddenly and to my astonishment burst into tears. I patted her on the shoulder as tenderly as I could manage then vaulted into the carriage clutching my bowler and my bag. The driver whipped up his horse on the instant and we clattered away from the curb.

We made good time to Victoria despite the notorious morning traffic in that quarter and I gave the mufflered driver a handsome tip before jumping down to the street. Once in the station I had to negotiate the ticket office, ensure my cases were stowed in the luggage caravan and assure the porter who had arrived at my elbow that I did not need help with my kit bag.

I encountered another small delay as I stopped to assist an elderly French woman up the stairs to her carriage. As I strode toward the train, the lady, bent with age and muffled in yards of antique black sateen and a heavy black veil – the mark of widow’s weeds of my mother’s generation – was attempting to negotiate the narrow stairs with a carpetbag that must have contained half her worldly possessions.

Having the mastery of French typical of a boy brought up in the British public school system, which is to say very little, it took some time to help the lady find her compartment. While I paced down the car checking compartment numbers against her crumpled ticket, she kept up a steady stream of polite though unintelligible conversation in her high, thin voice. Apart from a few simple words like “gentil” and “aimable” I was at a loss to follow the burden of her conversation.

It was with great relief that I at last located her private compartment (which proved to be in the adjacent car, in fact) and left her to the small book of verse she was seemingly eager to resume. She had retrieved it from her bag on the instant I deposited it on the banquette beside her and I believe she tried to show me a passage that would better express her thoughts, but it too was in French so I smiled graciously and with many a “merci” and “de rien” I took my leave.

At last I found my own compartment, thrust my bag in on the floor, threw myself into the seat behind it and heaved a huge sigh. It was the first breath I could recall taking since waking that morning.

On the instant there was a hiss of steam, the iron wheels started to turn and the platform began to slide past my window. I glanced out and was startled to see a man jogging beside the carriage. He was apparently making a last ditch effort to catch the departing train and as the whistle sounded he put on a burst of speed, causing his hat to fly off behind him.

As he glanced after it he turned toward the window and his eyes met mine. I was taken aback to see two hard, ice blue eyes over a bristling gray mustache. Then the end of the platform hove into view and the man fell back from my sight.

I was still staring at the window when I heard a light tap on the sliding door to the passage. I looked around to find a young steward peering in the open door.

“Paper, sir?” he said, casting his eye over my startled face with a marked curiosity.

“Ah, yes, thank you,” I said distractedly as he peeled a copy of the Times off the sheaf under his arm and held it out to me. He nodded and moved off along the passage as I glanced down at the banner across the top of the front page.

Grisly Shooting Death of Hon. Ronald Adair in Park Lane. Police Baffled. I scanned the article without really taking in the words, folded the paper and, laying it on the banquette beside me for later attention, I bent and opened my kit bag with a thought to rearranging its no doubt disheveled contents.

The first thing that caught my eye was the paper-wrapped parcel that had arrived at my door not an hour before. I lifted it out and weighed the object in my hand. It was undoubtedly a book of some sort. I turned it over, but could find no marking on the brown butcher-paper.

I tugged off the piece of twine bound loosely around it and unfolded the wrapping. Resting in my hand was a slim, hand-bound volume covered in a shining black moiré fabric. I dropped the wrapper onto my bag then turned my hand so that the book fell open in my palm. It was blank from cover to cover aside from a tiny inscription on the flyleaf. Printed in a precise hand were a series of numbers:

11332
01461
10122
16133
04092
06361
17413

My first thought was that the journal had come from Stamford. He had rightly assumed I hadn’t obtained one on my own. But surely he would have included a note of some kind, I reasoned. And what could the strange set of numbers mean?

For a long moment I sat staring vacantly at the book in my hand as the array of strangenesses that had occurred to me in the last day circled in my mind. It was in that moment I determined to follow Stamford’s advice yet again. I dug through my bag then I sat back with a pen in one hand and my new journal in the other and I began to write.

o00o

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The next morning I stood on the platform at Montpelier, the train’s last stop before Marseilles, and turned my face to the sun. Its light spread over the little seaside town bathing the rows of ancient white washed houses in an orange glow. Terracotta rooftops rambled down the hills toward the sea in undulating rows like marching caterpillars.

I blinked and stretched. Behind me, above the gentle chuffing of the resting train, the voices of my fellow passengers, some thick with sleep, some laughing gaily, were as pleasantly incomprehensible as birdsong. There were many languages now. By turns an English phrase or a French, German or Mohammedan word would surface above the rest. If this was Babel, I thought sleepily, it was not at all a bad place.

A pair of local freight handlers, chatting in the easy way of long companions, strolled up the winding lane to our raised platform. Each hooked a sun-browned hand over the edge and with the ease of long practice, vaulted up onto the scuffed boards. I watched them make their rambling way back toward the luggage van in their motley uniforms of slim blue trousers and cabled sweaters, one heather, one dusky blue, both darned at the elbows.

I had walked into a morning ritual that had gone on long before and would continue long after I departed and I was content to stand at the side and watch the players in their parts.

My decision to take the more circuitous route from Calais, traveling down through the west of France, skirting Spain and finally rolling along the Mediterranean coast, had been justified in full, I felt, by the pleasures of the journey.

As the train rolled south through Limoges and Bordeaux, trim fields, white-gold in their new spring growth, began to spread and ramble until they became pastures without borders that blended into ancient forests that edged meadows swathed in waves of pale blue wildflowers.

At each stop along the way I encountered rich new sights and scents. I tasted crumbling white cheese, redolent of old forest wood, on bread with crust the color of buttermilk and I stood under titian blue skies that soared to the horizon where the shining peaks of the Pyrenees blinked like crystal.

In Toulouse I’d disembarked to change trains and had whiled away the time while baggage was transferred and new passengers sorted by wandering through the neat row of shops that edged the station.

I bought a small lace bag of candied violets, the local treasure since kings had contested for the land. The shop girl, in her neat white apron, that so charmingly contrasted the oak brown hair that tumbled down her shoulders, smiled at me and my stumbling French and her black eyes shone. Somewhere in that town of white houses and pink roofs there was a boy that lived to see those eyes shine for him.

After Narbonne we rolled into the falling night and the western sky glowed sapphire long after the sun had set. I had forgotten how many stars there were. They painted the sky in sparkling brushstrokes. I drifted to sleep rocked by the steady beat of the wheels over endless tracks. It was the first time in what seemed like years that I had slept through the night and not dreamed of bare cliff sides and the roar of icy water.

Now as I stood on the platform a cool morning breeze off the sea brushed my face and I felt a sudden ache in my chest. When booking my travel I had insisted on this longer route. It hadn’t been a reasoned decision, rather an imperative of the journey. I couldn’t take the eastern route. Not yet. I couldn’t start my journey by crossing country I had last crossed sitting alone on a night train from Switzerland.

I blinked into the sun trying to wash the memory away in light, but it hung there behind my eyes. Opening the last note from Holmes across my knee, carefully smoothing the creases left by my clenched fist. Noticing the places the ink had run, probably from the spray of the falls. Once I had stood so close to the edge of the cliff I could see the churning water rushing almost under my feet. Standing there, gazing down, I had wondered what it felt like to fall.

I imagined dropping through the heavy mist. Would you have time for a final gasp of air heavy with spray? It would be useless for an instant later the breath would burst from your lungs as you crashed into the heaving water. You would choke as you struggled upward desperate for a last taste of half-frozen air, but the pitiless white water would drag at you, pulling you down toward the grinding rocks below. If you were already mercifully numbed from the cold you might feel it only as a distant ache as you were dashed against them. Would a spreading sense of peace enfold you as you gazed up at fractured sunlight? What would it be like to fall through the water until everything faded into white silence?

“M’sieur?” said a voice at my shoulder.

I blinked and looked round to find a slender young man watching me curiously from under a mop of straw-colored hair. “M’sieur?” he repeated. “Ça va?”

I gave a short, rasping laugh. “Ah, soleil – er, bright,” I said, and scrubbed at my eyes with the heel of my hand. “Dormir,“ I tried. “Moi est dormir?”

The youth smiled and patted me on the shoulder with the indulgence one would show a slightly daft uncle. “Oui,” he said. “I understand. Your French is very good.” He inclined his head toward the low-roofed inn just off the platform. “M’sieur would care for un café?”

“Merci,” I said ducking my head, “Merci, bon.”

He grinned and patted my shoulder again. “Je vous en prie,” he said, moving off toward the emptying train. “Au revoir. See you soon.”

I reached into my pocket for my handkerchief and my fingers brushed the bag of candied violets resting there. I lifted out the tiny sack and held it in my palm.

Purple blossoms daubed with sparkling sugar tumbled about in creamy lace as fine as a spider’s web. My breath escaped in something like a sigh as I admired the simple, beautiful, timeless thing, turning it over in my hand. This was why I was traveling, I reminded myself, to make new memories, not lose myself in old ones. I put the violets carefully back in my pocket then hefted my kit bag and started for the end of the platform.

o00o

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Walking down hill a few minutes later I reflected that it might have been more sensible to simply stop at the pleasant track-side inn pointed out by the boy at the train.

I was not dressed to best advantage for an excursion in the town. My brown tweed traveling suit had held up well on the train and looked not much the worse for wear, but as the Mediterranean sun climbed higher I would have gladly traded it for the light linen suit packed in my luggage.

I might have saved myself the walk, I knew, if I had been more inclined to make the acquaintance of my fellow travelers. Repeated stops and changes of train had served to shuffle the mix of faces so that only a few stood out as familiar and those I knew only by sight.

I had recognized a well built, university aged fellow with a tawny complexion and a white rose in his buttonhole, no doubt just out of school and looking forward to a summer on the Continent. Two women of middle-years, the archetypal British ladies abroad, were also familiar. They sat shoulder to shoulder, bent over a guidebook, their faces shaded under wide-brimmed but practical hats.

Nearby stood a heavy-set gentleman with trim side-whiskers and a shining watch chain stretched low over the strained cloth of his waistcoat. I’d seen him in the passageway the evening before. He was chatting with a young priest who had the berries and cream complexion of an Austrian farm boy.

They were only faces to me. The last few passengers I had traded conversation with along the way had disembarked at Toulouse. I had looked for my elderly French acquaintance when we stopped at Dover, but she must have found other assistance for her compartment was empty when I arrived. Nor did I see the bewhiskered man again although I looked for him several times on the chance that he had managed to swing onto the train at the last instant.

Feeling disinclined to make general conversation, I had wondered whether I might find a quieter café around the corner with the same smell of fresh coffee and warm bread drifting through the open door. My stomach gave a decisive rumble at the thought so I selected a street and set off down the hill.

I had only to wander one street more before I found just the place. From the fluttering lace curtains above and the open door below I guessed it was one of the small family-run pensions my travel broker had described in glowing detail before I was able to convince him that Africa truly was my destination.

I stooped slightly as I stepped through the low-slung door and on removing my hat I found myself in a bright sunlit room with bare beams traversing the white ceiling. I hesitated on finding the room empty save for several washed wooden tables scattered across the floor.

A matronly woman stepped in from the next room wiping her hands on her daisy yellow apron.

“Bonjour,” I said in my stilted accent. “Comment ça va. S’il vous plait, madame. Un café son sucre et lait, et un baguette?”

“Ah, oui, ça va,” she said briskly, nodding at the nearest table. “S’il vous plait, m’sieur.”

She disappeared back through the door and I settled myself at the nearest table, listening to the sound of water splashing and the clatter of dishes.

Realizing that I had been presented with an ideal opportunity to add impressions of Montpelier to my growing travel journal (already I had filled a surprising number of pages having written in it steadily both on the train and at each stop along the way) I lay my hat on the chair beside mine and bent to open my bag.

A shadow fell across the floor and I looked up to see a man’s shape, looking hulking and oversized as it stood silhouetted in the low doorway. The illusion was belied a moment later when the man stepped into the room without ducking his head. As he moved into the sunlight I saw he was a perfect specimen of what the typical Englishman would consider a typical Frenchman.

He was short of stature but solidly built with a shape as regular as a clothes peg. As he removed his narrow-brimmed bowler I saw sandy brown hair, brilliantined to a gloss and parted precisely down the middle. His trim mustache was so neat it might have been cut with the aid of a ruler.

His searching gaze fell on me as he stepped into the room and his face transformed into a mask of pleasure. His round hazel eyes lit up and his elegantly bowed lips curled in a smile. He crossed to my table in two quick steps and had grasped my hand before I had half-risen from my seat.

“Ah, c’est merveilleux, vraiment!” he exclaimed in a voice surprisingly deep for a man of his stature. As I strained to understand his rapid address I was able to pick out a few familiar words from the torrent. I made out, “Mais c’est vrai!” and “très chanceux” then “bon” repeated several times in rapid succession. The man seemed to register my profound confusion at last for the rush of words paused.

He leaned forward, still clasping my hand in his, peered at me gravely and said, “Parlez-vous français?”

“Ah, no,” I managed, smiling in my relief. “I’m very sorry. Je suis très déso- pardonnez-moi,” I managed.

“Mais non, non mille fois, the pardon is to you,” he said, releasing my hand at last as he pressed his own to his heart. “A million times I beg you to forgive my callousness. I am so overcome with joy at this meeting. Please, I will introduce myself.”

Bending from the waist, he gave a small bow. “My name is Francois le Villard, Inspecteur Principaux of the Police Judiciaire, and I am at your service Docteur John Watson.”

I blinked in surprise. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m sure I should know you, your name is familiar, but–“

“Ah!” said the little man, clapping a hand to his brow, “My manners, bon Dieu, please accept my humble pardon. I am beside myself with the pleasure of meeting you at last. I sit, eh? We converse. Bon,” he said, dragging the chair back from the table with an audible scrape.

“Ah, yes,” I stuttered, preserving just enough presence of mind to retrieve my hat before the Inspector thumped down into the seat. He placed his neat bowler on the table, heaved a sigh and beaming, said, “Now, I begin again. Docteur, you and I we have the friend in common. If I may be so bold as to say, though I am but a student to the master. I speak of course, of the greatest detective, Monsieur Sherlock Holmes.”

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-«oOo»-
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~ Coming Soon ~
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Chapter Five: Mute Evidence
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