Read an Excerpt
It was a golden afternoon in late June, a perfect day for cricket. The sun burned in a cloudless sky, and the breeze was barely sufficient to stir the slender, pale skirts of the women as they stood on the grass at Fenner’s Field, parasols in hand. The men, in white flannels, were relaxed and smiling.
St. John’s were batting and Gonville and Caius were fielding. The bowler pounded up to the crease and sent the ball down fast, but a bit short and wide. Elwyn Allard leaned forward, and with an elegant cover drive, dispatched the ball to the boundary for four runs.
Joseph Reavley joined in the applause. Elwyn was one of his students, rather more graceful with the bat than with the pen. He had little of the scholastic brilliance of his brother, Sebastian, but he had a manner that was easy to like, and a sense of honor that drove him like a spur.
St. John’s still had four more batsmen to play, young men from all over England who had come to Cambridge and, for one reason or another, remained at college through the long summer vacation.
Elwyn hit a modest two. The heat was stirred by a faint breath of wind from across the fenlands with their dykes and marshes, flat under the vast skies stretching eastward to the sea. It was old land, quiet, cut by secret waterways, Saxon churches marking each village. It had been the last stronghold of resistance against the Norman invasion eight and a half centuries ago.
On the field one of the boys just missed a catch. There was a gasp and then a letting out of breath. All this mattered. Such things could win or lose a match, and they would be playing against Oxford again soon. To be beaten would be catastrophic.
Across the town behind them, the clock on the north tower at Trinity struck three, each chime on the large A-flat bell, then followed the instant after on the smaller E-flat. Joseph thought how out of place it seemed, to think of time on an eternal afternoon like this. A few feet away, Harry Beecher caught his eye and smiled. Beecher had been a Trinity man in his own years as a student, and it was a long-standing joke that the Trinity clock struck once for itself and once for St. John’s.
A cheer went up as the ball hit the stumps and Elwyn was bowled out with a very respectable score of eighty-three. He walked off with a little wave of acknowledgment and was replaced at the crease by Lucian Foubister, who was a little too bony, but Joseph knew his awkwardness was deceiving. He was more tenacious than many gave him credit for, and he had flashes of extraordinary grace.
Play resumed with the sharp crack of a strike and the momentary cheers under the burning blue of the sky.
Aidan Thyer, master of St. John’s, stood motionless a few yards from Joseph, his hair flaxen in the sun, his thoughts apparently far away. His wife Connie, standing next to him, glanced across and gave a little shrug. Her dress was white broderie anglaise, falling loosely in a flare below the hip, and the fashionable slender skirt reached to the ground. She looked as elegant and feminine as a spray of daisies, even though it was the hottest summer in England for years.
At the far end of the pitch Foubister struck an awkward shot, elbows in all the wrong places, and sent the ball right to the boundary. There was a shout of approval, and everyone clapped.
Joseph was aware of a movement somewhere behind him and half turned, expecting a grounds official, perhaps to say it was time for lemonade and cucumber sandwiches. But it was his own brother, Matthew, who was walking toward him, his shoulders tight, no grace in his movement. He was wearing a light gray city suit, as if he had newly arrived from London.
Joseph started across the green, anxiety rising quickly. Why was his brother here in Cambridge, interrupting a match on a Sunday afternoon?
“Matthew! What is it?” he said as he reached him.
Matthew stopped. His face was so pale it seemed almost bloodless. He was twenty-eight, seven years the younger, broader-shouldered, and fair where Joseph was dark. He was steadying himself with difficulty, and he gulped before he found his voice. “It’s . . .” He cleared his throat. There was a kind of desperation in his eyes. “It’s Mother and Father,” he said hoarsely. “There’s been an accident.”
Joseph refused to grasp what he had said. “An accident?”
Matthew nodded, struggling to govern his ragged breathing. “In the car. They are both . . . dead.”
For a moment the words had no meaning for Joseph. Instantly his father’s face came to his mind, lean and gentle, blue eyes steady. It was impossible that he could be dead.
“The car went off the road,” Matthew was saying. “Just before the Hauxton Mill Bridge.” His voice sounded strange and far away.
Behind Joseph they were still playing cricket. He heard the sound of the ball and another burst of applause.
“Joseph . . .” Matthew’s hand was on his arm, the grip tight.
Joseph nodded and tried to speak, but his throat was dry.
“I’m sorry,” Matthew said quietly. “I wish I hadn’t had to tell you like this. I . . .”
“It’s all right, Matthew. I’m . . .” He changed his mind, still trying to grasp the reality. “The Hauxton Road? Where were they going?”
Matthew’s fingers tightened on his arm. They began to walk slowly, close together, over the sun-baked grass. There was a curious dizziness in the heat. The sweat trickled down Joseph’s skin, and inside he was cold.
Matthew stopped again.
“Father telephoned me late yesterday evening,” he replied huskily, as if the words were almost unbearable for him. “He said someone had given him a document outlining a conspiracy so hideous it would change the world we know—that it would ruin England and everything we stand for. Forever.” He sounded defiant now, the muscles of his neck and jaw clenched as if he barely had mastery of himself.
Joseph’s mind whirled. What should he do? The words hardly made sense. John Reavley had been a member of Parliament until 1912, two years ago. He had resigned for reasons he had not discussed, but he had never lost his interest in political affairs, nor his care for honesty in government. Perhaps he had simply been ready to spend more time reading, indulging his love of philosophy, poking around in antique and secondhand shops looking for a bargain. More often he was just talking with people, listening to stories, swapping eccentric jokes, and adding to his collection of limericks.
“A conspiracy to ruin England and everything we stand for?” Joseph repeated incredulously.
“No,” Matthew corrected him with precision. “A conspiracy that would ruin it. That was not the main purpose, simply a side effect.”
“What conspiracy? By whom?” Joseph demanded.
Matthew’s skin was so white it was almost gray. “I don’t know. He was bringing it to me . . . today.”
Joseph started to ask why, and then stopped. The answer was the one thing that made sense. Suddenly at least two facts cohered. John Reavley had wanted Joseph to study medicine, and when his firstborn son had left it for the church, he had then wanted Matthew to become a doctor. But Matthew had read modern history and languages here at Cambridge, and then he joined the Secret Intelligence Service. If there was such a plot, John would understandably have notified his younger son. Not his elder.
Joseph swallowed, the air catching in his throat. “I see.”
Matthew’s grip eased on him slightly. He had known the news longer and had more time to grasp its truth. He was searching Joseph’s face with anxiety, evidently trying to formulate something to say to help him through the pain.
Joseph made an immense effort. “I see,” he repeated. “We must go to them. Where . . . are they?”
“At the police station in Great Shelford,” Matthew answered. He made a slight movement with his head. “I’ve got my car.”
“Does Judith know?”
Matthew’s face tightened. “Yes. They didn’t know where to find you or me, so they called her.”
That was reasonable—obvious, really. Judith was their younger sister, still living at home. Hannah, between Joseph and Matthew, was married to a naval officer and lived in Portsmouth. It would be the house in Selborne St. Giles that the police would have called. He thought how Judith would be feeling, alone except for the servants, knowing neither her father nor mother would come home again, not tonight, not any night.
His thoughts were interrupted by someone at his elbow. He had not even heard footsteps on the grass. He half turned and saw Harry Beecher standing beside him, his wry, sensitive face puzzled.
“Is everything . . . ?” he began. Then, seeing Joseph’s eyes, he stopped. “Can I help?” he said simply.
Joseph shook his head a little. “No . . . no, there isn’t anything.” He made an effort to pull his thoughts together. “My parents have had an accident.” He took a deep breath. “They’ve been killed.” How odd and flat the words sounded. They still carried no reality with them.
Beecher was appalled. “Oh, God! I’m so sorry!”
“Please—” Joseph started.
“Of course,” Beecher interrupted. “I’ll tell people. Just go.” He touched Joseph lightly on the arm. “Let me know if I can do anything.”
“Yes, of course. Thank you.” Joseph shook his head and started to walk away as Matthew acknowledged Beecher, then turned to cross the wide expanse of grass. Joseph followed him without looking back at the players in their white flannels, bright in the sunlight. They had been the only reality a few moments ago; now there seemed an unbridgeable space between them.
Outside the cricket ground Matthew’s Sunbeam Talbot was parked in Gonville Place. In one fluid motion Joseph climbed over the side and into the passenger seat. The car was facing north, as if Matthew had been to St. John’s first and then come all the way through town to the cricket ground looking for Joseph. Now he turned southwest again, back along Gonville Place and finally onto the Trumpington Road.
There was nothing to say now; each was cocooned in his own pain, waiting for the moment when they would have to face the physical proof of death. The familiar winding road with its harvest fields shining gold in the heat, the hedgerows, and the motionless trees were like things painted on the other side of a wall that encased the mind. Joseph was aware of them only as a bright blur.
Matthew drove as if it demanded his entire concentration, clutching the steering wheel with hands he had to loosen deliberately now and then.
South of the village they turned left through St. Giles, skirted the side of the hill over the railway bridge into Great Shelford, and pulled up outside the police station. A somber sergeant met them, his face tired, his body hunched, as if he had had to steel himself for the task.
“Oi’m terrible sorry, sir.” He looked from one to the other of them, biting his lower lip. “Wouldn’t ask it if Oi din’t ’ave to.”
“I know,” Joseph said quickly. He did not want a conversation. Now that they were here, he needed to proceed as quickly as possible, while his self-control lasted.
Matthew made a small gesture forward, and the sergeant turned and led the way the short distance through the streets to the hospital mortuary. It was all very formal, a routine the sergeant must have been through scores of times: sudden death, shocked families moving as if in a dream, murmuring polite words, hardly aware of what they were saying, trying to understand what had happened and at the same time deny it.
They stepped out of the sunlight into the sudden darkness of the building. Joseph went ahead. The windows were open to try to keep the air cool and the closeness less oppressive. The corridors were narrow, echoing, and they smelled of stone and carbolic.
The sergeant opened the door to a side room and ushered Joseph and Matthew in. There were two bodies laid out on trolleys, covered decently in white sheets.
Joseph felt his heart lurch. In a moment it would be real, irreversible, a part of his own life ended. He clung to the second of disbelief, the last, precious instant of now, before it all changed.
The sergeant was looking at him, then at Matthew, waiting for them to be ready.
The sergeant pulled back the sheet from the face. It was John Reavley. The familiar aquiline nose looked bigger because his cheeks were sunken, and there was a hollowness about his eyes. The skin on his forehead was broken, but someone had cleaned away the blood. His main injuries must be to his chest—probably from the steering wheel. Joseph blocked out the thought, refusing to picture it in his mind. He wanted to remember his father’s face as it was, looking as if he were no more than asleep after an exhausting day. He might still waken and smile.
“Thank you,” he said aloud, surprised how steady he sounded.
The sergeant murmured something, but Joseph did not listen. Matthew answered. They went to the other body, and the sergeant lifted the sheet, but only partially, keeping it over one side, his own face crumpled with pity. It was Alys Reavley, her right cheek and brow perfect, skin very pale, but blemishless, eyebrows delicately winged. The other side was concealed.
Joseph heard Matthew draw in his breath sharply, and the room seemed to swing and slide off to one side, as if he were drunk. He grasped Matthew and felt Matthew’s hand tighten hard on his wrist.
The sergeant covered Alys Reavley’s face again, started to say something, then changed his mind.
Joseph and Matthew stumbled outside and along the corridor to a small, private room. A woman in a starched uniform brought them cups of tea. It was too strong and too sweet for Joseph, and at first he thought he would gag. Then, after a moment, the heat felt good, and he drank some more.
“Oi’m awful sorry,” the sergeant said again. “If it’s any comfort, it must’ve been very quick.” He looked wretched, his eyes hollow and pink-rimmed. Watching him, Joseph, in spite of himself, started to recall his days as a parish priest, before Eleanor died, when he had had to tell families of tragedy, and try to give them whatever comfort he could, struggling to express a faith that could meet the reality. Everybody was always very polite, strangers trying to reach each other across an abyss of pain.
“What happened?” he said aloud.
“We don’t know yet, sir,” the sergeant answered. He had said what his name was, but Joseph had forgotten. “The car came off the road just afore the Hauxton Mill Bridge,” he went on. “Seems it was going quite fast—”
“That’s a straight stretch!” Matthew cut across him.
“Yes, Oi know, sir,” the sergeant agreed. “From the marks on the road, it looks as if it happened all of a sudden, like a tire blowing out. Can be hard to keep a hold when that happens. It could even’ve bin both tires on the one side, if there were something on the road as caused it.” He chewed his lip dubiously. “That could take you right off, no matter how good a driver you were.”
“Is the car still there?” Matthew asked.
“No, sir.” He shook his head. “We’re bringing it in. You can see it if you want, o’ course, but if you’d rather not . . .”
“What about my father’s belongings?” Matthew said abruptly. “His case, whatever was in his pockets?”
Joseph glared at him in surprise. It was a distasteful request, as if possessions could matter now. Then he remembered the document Matthew had mentioned. He looked at the sergeant.
“Yes, sir, o’ course,” the sergeant agreed. “You can see them now, if you really want, before we . . . clean them.” That was almost a question. He was trying to save them hurt and he did not know how to do it without seeming intrusive.
“There’s a paper,” Matthew explained. “It’s important.”
“Oh! Yes, sir.” The sergeant’s face was bleak. “In that case, if you’ll come with me?” He glanced at Joseph.
Joseph nodded and followed them out of the room and along the hot, silent corridor, their footsteps self-consciously loud. He wanted to see what this damnable document could possibly be. His first vague thoughts were that it might have something to do with the recent mutiny of British army officers in the Curragh. There was always trouble in Ireland, but this looked uglier than usual—in fact, various politicians had warned it could lead to the worst crisis in over two hundred years. Joseph knew most of the facts, as the newspapers reported them, but at the moment his thoughts were too chaotic to make sense of anything.
The sergeant led them to another small room, where he unlocked one of the several cupboards and pulled out a drawer. He carefully extracted a battered leather attaché case with the initials j.r.r. stamped just below the lock, and then a woman’s smart, dark brown leather handbag heavily smeared with blood. No one had yet attempted to clean it.
Joseph felt sick. It did not matter now, but he knew the blood was his mother’s. She was dead and beyond pain, but it mattered to him. He was a minister of the Church; he should know to value the spirit above the body. The flesh was temporary, only a tabernacle for the soul, and yet it was absurdly precious. It was powerful, fragile, and intensely real. It was always an inextricable part of someone you loved.
Matthew was opening the attaché case and looking through the papers inside, his fingers moving delicately. There was something to do with insurance, a couple of letters, a bank statement.
Matthew frowned and tipped the case upside down. Another paper slithered out, but it was only a receipt for a pair of shoes—12/6d. He ran his hands down inside the main compartment, then the side pockets, but there was nothing more. He looked across at Joseph and, with fingers trembling, put down the case and reached for the handbag. He was very careful not to touch the blood. At first he just looked inside, as if a paper would be easy to see. Then when he found nothing, he began carefully moving around the contents.
Joseph could see two handkerchiefs, a comb . . . He thought of his mother’s soft hair with its gentle, natural curl, and the way it lay on her neck when she had it coiled up. He had to close his eyes to prevent the tears, and there was an ache in his throat so fierce he could not swallow.
When he mastered himself and looked down at the handbag again, Matthew was staring at it in confusion.
“Perhaps it was in his pocket?” Joseph suggested, his voice hoarse, jolting the silence.
Matthew looked across at him, then turned to the sergeant.
The sergeant hesitated.
Joseph looked around. It was bare except for the cupboards, more a storeroom than an office. A simple window faced a delivery yard, and then rooftops beyond.
Reluctantly the sergeant opened another drawer and took out a pile of clothes resting on an oilskin sheet. They were drenched with blood, dark and already stiffening. He did his best to conceal it, handing Matthew only the man’s jacket.
His face blanched even whiter, Matthew took it and, with fingers clumsy now, searched through one pocket after another. He found a handkerchief, a penknife, two pipe cleaners, an odd button, and some loose change. There was no paper at all. He looked up at Joseph, a frown between his brows.
“Maybe it’s in the car?” Joseph suggested.
“It must be.” Matthew stood still for a moment. As if he had spoken it, Joseph knew what he was thinking: Regrettably, he would have to examine the rest of the clothes—just in case. He was startled by how fiercely he did not want to intrude into the intimate, the familiar smell. Death was not real yet, the pain of it only just beginning, but he knew its path; it was like the loss of Eleanor all over again. But they must look. Otherwise they would have to come back and do it later if the document was not in the car.
But of course it was in the car. It had to be. In the glove compartment, or one of the pockets at the side. But how odd not to have put it in the briefcase along with the other papers. Isn’t that what anyone would do, automatically?
The sergeant was waiting. He too did not want to inflict that distress.
Matthew blinked several times. “May we have the others, please?” he requested.
The clothes were inspected, as both brothers tried to distance their minds from what their hands were doing. There were no papers except for one small receipt in their father’s trouser pocket, soaked with blood and illegible, but there was no way in which it could be called a document. It was barely two or three inches square.
They folded the clothes again and set them in a pile on top of the oilskin. It was an awkward moment. Joseph did not know what to do with them. The sight and touch of the garments knotted up his stomach with grief. He wished he had never had to see them at all. He certainly did not want to keep these clothes. Neither did he want to pass them over to strangers as if they did not matter.
“May we take them?” he asked haltingly.
Matthew jerked his hand up. Then the surprise died out of his face as if he understood.
“Yes, sir, o’ course,” the sergeant replied. “I’ll just wrap ’em up for you.”
“If we could see the car, please?” Matthew asked.
But it was still on the way back from Hauxton, and they had to wait another half hour. Two more cups of tea later they were taken to the garage where the familiar yellow Lanchester sat gashed and crumpled. The whole of the engine was twisted sideways and half jammed into the front of the passenger area. All four tires were ripped. No human being could have remained alive inside it.
Matthew stood still, struggling to keep his balance.
Joseph reached out to him, glad to break the physical aloneness.
Matthew righted himself and walked over toward the far side of the car, where the driver’s door was hanging open. He took his jacket off and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt.
Joseph went to the windowless frame of the passenger door, keeping his eyes averted from the blood on the seat, and banged the glove compartment to make it open.
There was nothing inside except a small tin of barley sugar and an extra pair of driving gloves. He looked across and saw Matthew’s face, wide-eyed and confused. There was no document in the side pocket. Joseph held the road atlas and riffled the pages, but nothing fell out.
They searched the rest of the car as well as they could, forcing themselves to ignore the blood, the torn leather, the twisted metal, and the shards of glass, but there was no document of any sort. Joseph stepped back at last, elbows and shoulders bruised where he had caught himself on the jutting pieces of what had been seats and the misshapen frames of the doors. He had skinned his knuckles and broken a fingernail trying to pry up a piece of metal.
He looked across at Matthew. “There’s nothing here,” he said.
“No . . .” Matthew frowned. His right sleeve was torn and his face dirty and smeared with blood.
A few years earlier Joseph might have asked his sibling if he was certain of his facts, but Matthew was beyond such brotherly condescension now. The seven years between them were closing fast.
“Where else could it be?” he said instead.
Matthew hesitated, breathing in and out slowly. “I don’t know,” he admitted. He looked beaten, his eyes hollow and his face shadowed with fatigue from battling the inner shock and grief, trying to keep it from overwhelming him. Perhaps this document was something to cling to, something over which he could have some control.
Joseph understood how it mattered to him. John Reavley had wanted one of his sons to enter the medical profession. He had believed passionately that it was the noblest of callings. Joseph had started medical studies to please his father, and then found himself drowned by his inability to affect all but the smallest part of the suffering he witnessed. He knew his limitations, and he saw what he thought was his strength and his true vocation. He answered the call of the Church, using his gift for languages to study the original Greek and Hebrew of the scriptures. Souls needed healing as well as bodies. John Reavley was content with that, and deferred his dream to his second son.
But Matthew had refused outright and turned his imagination, his intellect, and his eye for detail toward the Secret Intelligence Service. John Reavley had been bitterly disappointed. He despised espionage and all its works, and equally those who occupied themselves with it. That he had called Matthew in his professional capacity to help him with a document he had found was a far more powerful testimony of his judgment of it than anyone else would understand.
It would have been a chance for Matthew to give his father a gift from his chosen calling, and it had slipped away forever. That was part of the pain etched in his face.
Joseph lowered his eyes. Perhaps understanding was intrusive at this raw moment.
“Have you any idea what it is?” he asked, investing his voice with urgency, as if it could matter.
“He said it was a conspiracy,” Matthew replied, straightening his back to stand upright. He moved away from the door, coming around the back of the car to where Joseph was, keeping his voice very low. “And that it was the most dishonorable betrayal he had ever seen.”
“Betrayal of whom?”
“I don’t know. He said it was all in the paper.”
“Had he told anyone else?”
“No. He didn’t dare. He had no idea who was involved, but it went as high as the royal family.” Matthew looked surprised as he said it, as if hearing the words aloud startled him with their enormity. He stared at Joseph, searching for a response, an answer.
Joseph waited a moment too long.
“You don’t believe it!” Matthew’s voice was hoarse; he himself sounded unsure if it was an accusation or not. Looking at his brother’s eyes, Joseph could see that Matthew’s own certainty was wavering.
Joseph wanted to save something out of the confusion. “Did he say he was bringing the document or that he would merely tell you about it? Could he have left it at home? In the safe, perhaps?”
“I would have to see it,” Matthew argued, rolling his shirtsleeves down and fastening the cuffs again.
“To do what?” Joseph pursued. “Wouldn’t it be better for him to tell you what it was—and he was perfectly capable of memorizing it for you—and then decide what to do, but keep it in the meantime?”
It was a sensible suggestion. Matthew’s body eased, the stiffness draining out of it. “I suppose so. We’d better go home anyway. We ought to be with Judith. She’s alone. I don’t even know if she’s told Hannah. Someone will have to send her a telegram. She’ll come, of course. And we’ll need to know her train, to meet it.”
“Yes, of course,” Joseph conceded. “There’ll be a lot of preparations.” He did not want to think of them now; they were intimate, final things, an acknowledgment that death was real and that the past could never be brought back. It was the locking of a door.
They drove back from Great Shelford through the quiet lanes. The vil- lage of Selborne St. Giles looked just the same as it always had in the soft gold of the evening. They passed the stone mill, its walls flush with the river. The pond was flat as a polished sheet, reflecting the soft enamel blue of the sky. There was an arch of honeysuckle over the lych-gate to the churchyard, and the clock on the tower read just after half past six. In less than two hours they would hold Evensong.
There were half a dozen people in the main street, although the shops were long closed. They passed the doctor with his pony and trap, going at a brisk pace. He waved cheerfully. He could not have heard the news yet.
Joseph stiffened a little. That was one of the tasks that lay ahead, telling people. He was too late to wave back. The doctor would think him rude.
Matthew swung the car left, along the side road to the house. The drive gates were closed, and Joseph got out to open them, then close them again as Matthew pulled up to the front door. Someone had already drawn the curtains downstairs—probably Mrs. Appleton, the housekeeper. Judith would not have thought of it.
Matthew climbed out of the car just as Joseph reached him, and the front door opened. Judith stood on the step. She was fair-skinned like Matthew, but her hair fell in heavy waves and was a warmer brown. She was tall for a woman, and even though he was her brother, Joseph could see that she had a uniquely fierce and vulnerable kind of beauty. The strength inside her had yet to be refined, but it was there in her bones and her level, gray-blue eyes.
Now she was bleached of all color and her eyelids were puffy. She blinked several times to hold back the tears. She looked at Matthew and tried to smile, then took the few steps across the porch onto the gravel to Joseph, and he held her motionless for a moment, then felt her body shake as she let the sobs wrench through her.
He did not try to stop her or find any comforting words. There was no reason that made any sense, and no answer to the pain. He tightened his arms around her, clinging as much to her as she was to him. She was nothing like Alys, not really, yet the softness of her hair, the way it curled, slightly choked the tears in his throat.
Matthew went in ahead of them. His footsteps faded along the wooden floor of the hall, and then they heard his voice murmuring something and Mrs. Appleton replying.
Judith sniffed hard and pulled back a little. She felt in Joseph’s pocket for his handkerchief. She took it out and blew her nose, then wiped her eyes, screwing up the linen and clenching it in her hand. She turned away and went inside also, talking to him without looking back.
“I don’t know what to do with myself. Isn’t it stupid?” She gulped. “I keep walking around from room to room, and going out again, then coming back—as if that would make it any different! I suppose we’ll have to tell people?”
Joseph went up the steps behind her.
“I sent Hannah a telegram, but that’s all,” she went on. “I don’t even remember what I said.” Inside she swiveled around to face him, ignoring Henry, the cream-haired retriever who came out of the sitting room at the sound of Joseph’s voice. “How do you tell people something like this? I can’t believe it’s real!”
“Not yet,” he agreed, bending to touch the dog as it pushed against his hand. He stood in the familiar hallway with its oak staircase curving upward, the light from the landing window catching the watercolors on the wall. “It’ll come. Tomorrow morning it will begin.” He could remember with sickening clarity the first time he had woken up after Eleanor’s death. There was an instant when everything was as it had always been, the whole year of their marriage. Then the truth had washed over him like ice, and something inside him had never been warm again.
There was a fleeting pity in Judith’s face, and he knew she was remembering also. He made an effort to force it away. She was twenty-three, almost an afterthought in the family. He should be protecting her, not thinking of himself.
“Don’t worry about telling people,” he said gently. “I’ll do that.” He knew how hard it was, almost like making the death itself happen over again each time. “There’ll be other things to do. Just ordinary housekeeping, for a start. Practical things.”
“Oh, yes.” She jerked her attention into focus. “Mrs. Appleton will deal with the cooking and the laundry, but I’ll tell Lettie to make up Hannah’s room. She’ll be here tomorrow. And I suppose there’s food to order. I’ve never done that! Mother always did.”
Judith was quite unlike either her mother or Hannah, both of whom loved their kitchens and the smells of cooking, clean linen, beeswax polish, lemon soap. For them, to run a house was an art. To Judith it was a distraction from the real business of living, although to be honest, she was not yet certain for herself what that would prove to be. But Joseph knew it was not domesticity. To their mother’s exasperation, she had turned down at least two perfectly good offers of marriage.
But this was not the time for such thoughts.
“Ask Mrs. Appleton,” Joseph told her. He steadied his voice with an effort. “We’ll have to go through the diaries and cancel any appointments.”
“Mother was going to judge the flower show,” she said, smiling and biting her lip, tears flooding her eyes. “They’ll have to find somebody else. I can’t do it, even if they were to ask me.”
“And bills,” he added. “I’ll see the bank, and the solicitor.”
She stood stiffly in the middle of the floor, her shoulders rigid. She was wearing a pale blouse and a soft green narrow skirt. She had not yet thought to put on black. “I suppose somebody’ll have to sort . . . clothes and things. I—” She gulped. “I haven’t been into the bedroom yet. I can’t!”
He shook his head. “Too soon. It doesn’t matter, for ages.”
She relaxed a fraction, as if she had been afraid he was going to force her. “Tea?”
“Yes, please.” He was surprised how thirsty he was. His mouth was dry.
Matthew was in the kitchen with Mrs. Appleton, a square, mild-faced woman with a stubborn jaw. Now she was standing at the table with her back to the stove on which a kettle was beginning to whistle. She wore her usual plain blue dress, and her cotton apron was screwed up at the right-hand corner as if she had unthinkingly used it to wipe the tears from her eyes. She sniffed fiercely as she looked first at Judith and then at Joseph, for once not bothering to tell the dog not to come in. She drew in her breath to say something, then decided she could not trust herself to keep her composure. Clearing her throat loudly, she turned to Matthew.
“Oi’ll do that, Mr. Matthew. You’ll only scald yourself. You weren’t never use to man nor beast in the kitchen. Do nothing but take my jam tarts, as if there was no one else in the house to eat ’em. Here!” She snatched the kettle from him and with considerable clattering and banging made the tea.
Lettie, the general housemaid, came in silently, her face pale and tearstained. Judith asked her to make up Hannah’s room, and she departed to obey, glad to have something to do.
Reginald, the only indoor manservant, appeared and asked Joseph if they would want wine for dinner and if he should lay out black clothes for him and Matthew.
Joseph declined the wine but accepted the offer to lay out the mourning clothes, and Reginald left. Mrs. Appleton’s husband, Albert, was outside working off his grief alone, digging in his beloved garden.
In the kitchen they sat around the scrubbed table in silence, sipping the hot tea, each sunk in thought. The room was as familiar as life itself. All four children had been born in this house, learned to walk and talk here, left through the front gate to go to school. Matthew and Joseph had driven from here to go to university, Hannah to go to her wedding in the village church. Joseph could remember the endless fittings of her dress in the spare bedroom, she standing as still as she could while Alys went around her with pins in her hands and in her mouth, a tuck here, a lift there, determined the gown should be perfect. And it had been.
Now Alys would never be back. Joseph could remember her perfume, always lily-of-the-valley. The bedroom would still smell of it.
Hannah would be devastated. She was so close to her mother, so like her in a score of ways, she would feel robbed of the model for her life. There would be nobody to share with her the small successes and failures in the home, the children’s growth, the new things learned. No one else would reassure her anxieties, teach her the simple remedies for a fever or sore throat, or show the easy way to mend, to adapt, to make do. It was a companionship that was gone forever.
For Judith it would be different, an open wound of things not done, not said, and now unable ever to be put right.
Matthew set his cup down and looked across the table at Joseph.
“I think we should go and sort some of the papers and bills.” He stood up, scraping his chair on the floor.
Judith seemed not to notice the tremor in his voice or the fact that he was trying to exclude her.
Joseph knew what he meant: It was time to look for the document. If it existed, then it should be here in the house, although why John would have set out to show it to Matthew and then not taken it with him was hard to understand.
“Yes, of course,” Joseph agreed, rising as well. They had better give Judith something to do. She had no need to know anything about this yet, and perhaps not at all. He turned to her. “Would you go through the household accounts with Mrs. Appleton and see if there is anything that needs doing? Perhaps some orders should be canceled, or at least reduced. And there may be invitations to be declined.”
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
“You’ll be staying?” Mrs. Appleton said with another sniff. “What’ll you be wanting for dinner, Mr. Joseph?”
“Nothing special,” he answered. “Whatever you have.”
“Oi’ve got cold salmon and summer pudding,” she said a little truculently, as if she were defending Alys’s choice. If it was good enough for the master and mistress, it was certainly good enough for the young master, whatever had happened in the world. “And there’s some good Ely cheese,” she added.
“That would be excellent, thank you.” He then followed Matthew, who was already at the door.
They went along the passage and across the hall to John Reavley’s study, overlooking the garden. The sun was still well above the horizon and bathing the tops of the orchard trees in gold. The leaves shimmered in the rising wind, and a swirl of starlings rose into the sky, black against the amber and flame, turning in wide spiral arms against the sunset.
Joseph looked around the familiar room, almost like an earlier pattern of his own in Cambridge. There was a simple oak desk, shelves of books covering most of two walls. The books dated back to John’s university days. Some were in German. Many were leather-bound, a few well-thumbed cloth or even paper. There was a recently acquired folio of drawings on the table by the window.
A Bonnington seascape hung over the fireplace, its color neither blue nor green, but a luminous gray that holds both at its heart. Looking at it, one could draw a cleaner breath and almost feel the sting of the salt in the wind. John Reavley had loved everything in this room. Each object marked some happiness or beauty he had known, but the Bonnington was special.
Joseph turned away from it. “I’ll start over here,” he said, taking the first book off the shelf nearest the window.
Matthew began with the desk.
They searched for half an hour before dinner, and all evening afterward. Judith went to bed, and midnight found the two brothers still sifting through papers, looking in books a second or third time, even moving furniture. Finally they admitted defeat and forced themselves into the master bedroom to look with stiff fingers through drawers of clothes, in shelves where toiletries and personal jewelry were kept, in pockets of the clothes hanging in wardrobes. There was no document.
At half past one, head throbbing, eyes stinging as if hot and gritty, Joseph came to the end of places to investigate. He straightened up, moving his shoulders carefully to ease the ache. “It’s not here,” he said wearily.
Matthew did not answer for several moments. He kept his eyes on the drawer he had been going through for the third time. “Father was very clear,” he repeated stubbornly. “He said the effect of it, the daring, was so vast it was beyond most men’s imagination. And terrible.” He looked up at last, his eyes red-rimmed, angry, as if Joseph were attacking his judgment. “He couldn’t trust anyone else because of who was involved.”
Joseph’s imagination was too tired and too full of pain to be inventive, even to save Matthew’s feelings. “Then where is it?” he demanded. “Would he trust it to the bank? Or the solicitor?”
Denial was in Matthew’s face, but he clung to the possibility for a few seconds, because he could think of nothing else.
“We’ll have to speak to them tomorrow anyway.” Joseph sat down on the chair by the desk. Matthew was sitting beside the drawers on the carpet.
“He wouldn’t give it to Pettigrew.” Matthew pushed his hair back off his forehead. “They’re just family solicitors—wills and property.”
“Then quite a safe place to hide something valuable and dangerous,” Joseph reasoned.
Matthew glared at him. “Are you trying to defend Father? Prove that he wasn’t imagining it out of something that was really perfectly harmless?”
Joseph was stung by the accusation. It was exactly what he was doing—defending, denying—and he was confused and dizzy with loss. “Do I need to?” he demanded.
“Stop being so damn reasonable!” Matthew’s voice cracked, the emotion raw. “Of course you need to! It wasn’t in the car! It isn’t in the house.” He jerked his hand sharply toward the door and the landing beyond. “Doesn’t it sound wild enough to you, unlikely enough? A piece of paper that proves a conspiracy to ruin all we love and believe in—and that goes right up to the royal family—but when we look for it, it vanishes into the air!”
Joseph said nothing. The tag end of an idea pulled at his mind, but he was too exhausted to grasp it.
“What is it?” Matthew said roughly. “What are you thinking?”
“Could it be obvious?” Joseph frowned. “I mean, something we are seeing but not recognizing?”
Matthew looked round the room. “Like what? For God’s sake, Joe! A conspiracy of this magnitude! The document is not going to be hung up on the wall along with the pictures!” He put the papers in the drawer, climbed to his feet, and carried it back to the desk. He replaced it in its slots and pushed it closed. “And before you bother, I’ve taken the backs off all the drawers and looked.”
“Well, there are two possibilities.” Joseph was driven to the last conclusion. “Either there is such a document or there isn’t.”
“You have a genius for the obvious!” Matthew said bitterly. “I had worked that out for myself.”
“And you concluded that there is? On what basis?”
“No!” Matthew snapped. “I just spent the evening ransacking the house because I have nothing better to do!”
“You don’t have anything better to do,” Joseph answered him. “We had to go through the papers anyway to find what needs attending to.” He gestured toward the separated pile. “And the sooner we do it, the less bloody awful it is. We can think of a conspiracy while we look, which is easier than thinking that we are performing a sort of last rite for both our parents.”
“All right!” Matthew cut in. “I’m sorry.” Again he pushed the thick fair hair off his face. “But honestly, he sounded so certain of it! His voice was charged with emotion, not a bit dry and humorous as it usually is.” His mouth pulled a little crooked, and when he spoke again his voice cracked. “I know what it must have cost him to call me on something like that. He hated all the secret services. He wouldn’t have said anything if he hadn’t been certain.”
“Then he put it somewhere we haven’t thought of yet,” Joseph concluded. He stood up also. “Go to bed now. It’s nearly two, and there’s a lot we have to do later.”
“There was a telegram from Hannah. She’s coming on the two-fifteen. Will you go and meet her?” Matthew was rubbing his forehead sore. “She’s going to find this pretty hard.”
“Yes, I know. I’ll meet her. Albert will drive me. Can I take your car?”
“Of course.” Matthew shook his head. “I wonder why he didn’t drive Father yesterday.”
“Or why Mother went,” Joseph added. “It’s all odd. I’ll ask Albert on the way to the station.”
The next day was filled with small, unhappy duties. The formal arrangements had to be made for the funeral. Joseph went to see Hallam Kerr, the vicar, and sat in the tidy, rather stiff vicarage parlor watching him trying to think of something to say that would be of spiritual comfort and finding nothing. Instead they spoke of the practicalities: the day, the hour, who should say what, the hymns. It was a timeless ritual that had been conducted in the old church for every death in the village. The very familiarity of it was comfortable, a reassurance that even if one individual journey was ended, life itself was the same and always would be. There was a kind of certainty in it that gave its own peace.
Just before lunch Mr. Pettigrew came from the solicitors’ office, small and pale and very neat. He offered his condolences and assured them that everything legal was in order—and that he had been given no papers to keep recently. In fact, not anything this year. A couple of bonds in August of 1913 were the last things. He did not yet mention the will, but they knew it would have to be dealt with in time.
The bank manager, the doctor, and other neighbors called in or left flowers and cards. Nobody knew what to say, but it was done in kindness. Judith offered them tea, and sometimes it was accepted and awkward conversations followed.
In the early afternoon Albert Appleton drove Joseph to the railway station at Cambridge to meet Hannah’s train from London. Joseph sat beside him in the front of Matthew’s Sunbeam Talbot as they followed the lanes between the late wild roses and the ripening fields of corn already dappled here and there with the scarlet of poppies.
Albert kept his eyes studiously on the road. He looked tired, his skin papery under its dark sunburn, and he had missed a little gray stubble on his cheek when he had shaved this morning. He was not a man to give words to grief, but he had come to St. Giles at eighteen and served John Reavley all his adult life. For him this was the ending of an age.
“Do you know why Father drove himself yesterday?” Joseph asked as they passed into the shade under an avenue of elms.
“No, Mr. Joseph,” Albert replied. It would be a long time before he called Joseph “Mr. Reavley,” if he ever did. “Except there’s a branch on the old plum tree in the orchard hanging low, an’ tossled in the grass. He wanted me to see if Oi could save it. Oi propped it up, but that don’t always work. Get a bit o’ wind an’ it goes anyway, but it tears it off rough. Leaves a gash in the trunk, an’ kill the whole thing. Get a bit parky an’ the frost’ll have it anyway.”
“I see. Can you save it?”
“Best to take it off.”
“Do you know why Mother went with him?”
“Jus’ liked to go with him, mebbe.” He stared fixedly ahead.
Joseph did not speak again until they reached the station. Albert had always been someone with whom it was possible to sit in amicable silence, ever since Joseph had been a boy nursing his dreams in the garden or the orchard.
Albert parked the car outside the station and Joseph went in and onto the platform to wait. There were half a dozen other people there, but he studiously avoided meeting anyone’s eye in case he encountered someone he knew. The last thing he wanted was conversation.
The train was on time, belching steam and grinding to a halt at the platform. The doors clanged open. People shouted greetings and fumbled with baggage. He saw Hannah almost immediately. The few other women were in bright summer colors or delicate pastels. Hannah was in a slim traveling suit of unrelieved black. The tapered hem at her ankles was smudged with dust, and her neat hat was decorated with black feathers. Her face was pale, and with her wide brown eyes and soft features she looked so like Alys that for a moment Joseph felt his emotions lurch out of control and grief engulf him unbearably. He stood motionless as people pushed past him, unable to think or even focus his vision.
Then she was in front of him, portmanteau clutched in her hand and tears spilling down her cheeks. She dropped the bag on the platform and waited for him.
He put his arms around her and held her as close to him as he could. He felt her shivering. He had already tried to work out what to say to her, but now it all slipped away, sounding hollow and predictable. He was a minister, the one of all of them who was supposed to have the faith that answered death and overcame the hollow pain that consumed everything from the inside. But he knew what bereavement was, sharply and recently, and no words had touched more than the surface for him.
Please God, he must find something to say to Hannah! What use was he if, of all people, he could not?
He let go of her at last and picked up her bag, carrying it out to where Albert was waiting with the car.
She stopped, staring at the unfamiliar vehicle, as if she had expected the yellow Lanchester. Then, with a gasp that caught in her throat, she realized why it was not there.
Joseph took her by the elbow and helped her into the backseat, straightening the slender black skirt around her ankles before closing the door and going around to the other side to get in next to her.
Albert got back in and started the engine.
Hannah said nothing. It was up to Joseph to speak before the silence became too difficult. He had already decided not to mention the document. It was an unneeded concern for her.
“Judith will be glad to see you,” he started.
She looked at him with slight surprise, and he knew immediately that her thoughts had been inward, absorbed in her own loss. As if she read his perception, she smiled slightly, an admission of guilt.
He put out his hand, palm upward, and she slid hers across and gripped his fingers. For several minutes she was silent, blinking back the tears.
“If you can see sense in it,” she said at last, “please don’t tell me now. I don’t think I could bear it. I don’t want to know a God who could do this. Above all I don’t want to be told I should love Him. I don’t!”
Several answers rose to his lips, all of them rational and scriptural, and none of them answering her need.
“It’s all right to hurt,” he said instead. “I don’t think God expects any of us to take it calmly.”
“Yes, He does!” She choked on the words. “ ‘Thy will be done’!” She shook her head fiercely. “Well, I can’t say that. It’s stupid and senseless and horrible. There’s nothing good in it.” She was fighting to make anger conquer the fearful, consuming grief. “Was anyone else killed?” she demanded. “The other car? There must have been another car. Father wouldn’t simply have driven off the road, whatever anyone says.”
“Nobody else was hurt, and there’s no evidence of another car.”
“What do you mean, evidence?” she said furiously, the color flooding her face. “Don’t be so pedantic! So obscenely reasonable! If nobody saw it, there wouldn’t be!”
He did not argue. She needed to rage at someone, and he let her go on until they were through the gates and had drawn up at the front door. She took several long, shuddering breaths, then blew her nose and said she was ready to go inside. She seemed on the edge of saying something more, something gentler, looking steadily at him through brimming eyes. Then she changed her mind and stepped out of the door as Albert held it for her and gave her his hand to steady her.
They ate supper quietly together. Now and again one of them spoke of small, practical things that had to be done, but nobody cared about them. Grief was like a fifth entity in the room, dominating the rest.
Afterward Joseph went to his father’s study again and made certain that all the letters had been written to friends to inform them of John and Alys’s death and tell them the time of the funeral. He noticed that Matthew had written the one letter he had considered most important, to Shanley Corcoran, his father’s closest friend. They had been at university together—Gonville and Caius. Corcoran would be one of the hardest to greet at the church because his pain would be so deep and the memories were so long, woven into so many of the best days right from the beginning.
And yet there were ways in which the sharing would also help. Perhaps afterward they would be able to talk about John in particular. It would keep some part of him alive. Corcoran would never become bored with it or let the memory sink into some pleasant region of the past where the sharpness did not matter anymore.
About half past nine the village constable came by. He was a young man of about Matthew’s age, but he looked tired and harassed.
“Oi’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head and pursing his lips. “We’ll all miss ’em terrible. I never knew better people.”
“Thank you,” Joseph said sincerely. It was good to hear, even though it twisted the pain. To have said nothing would be like denying they mattered.
“Sunday was a bad day all round,” the constable went on, standing uncomfortably in the hall. “Did you hear what happened in Sarajevo?”
“No, what?” Joseph did not care in the slightest, but he did not wish to be rude.
“Some madman shot the archduke of Austria—and the duchess, too.” The constable shook his head. “Both dead! Don’t suppose you’ve had time to look at the papers.”
“No.” Joseph was only half aware of what he was saying. He had not given the newspapers a thought. The rest of the world had seemed removed, not part of their lives. “I’m sorry.”
The constable shrugged. “Long way from here, sir. Probably won’t mean nothin’ for us.”
“No. Thank you for coming, Barker.”
The constable’s eyes flickered down. “I’m real sorry, Mr. Reavley. It won’t be the same without ’em.”
From the Hardcover edition.