Part Three: Honored Guests
For Arthur, the hour before luncheon had been a restless one. Even though his encounter with the wild rider on Mountsel Park’s west terrace could not be said to have entirely unnerved him, the powerful odour of the horse, the heat of its breath on his face and the rider’s words haunted him: ‘The Woman is ours’ had locked in his mind. Who so wanted to hunt Francine DeLisle down? Was it even she to whom they referred? It had to be, yet how quickly had they trailed her to his door? A morning? Less?
In his library the master of Mountsel Park resorted to a volume that anonymously recounted the suffering of common soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars: ‘The Journal of a Soldier of the seventy-first Glasgow Regiment’, seeking to refresh his compassion for the thousands of crippled veterans who were still spilling, years after Waterloo, from the hospitals onto the nation’s streets. Something in the desperate bearing of the violent emissary spoke to Arthur of the military, while everything about Francine suggested, no matter how she accounted for her absence of a past, that she had been either a widow or victim of those wars.
Edkins had apparently educated Francine concerning the geography of Mountsel, for when he reached the Breakfast Room, he found she awaited him there.
She had pinned her hair back, primly. He remarked upon it, because to his mind it drained what pallor remained from her cheeks, so she seemed at once vulnerable, and a little severe. No longer clad in her heavy, travelling clothes she had donned a simple powder blue dress that draped to her ankles in what had come to be known as the Empire Line. Little Samuel stood at her left hand, looking more confident (or defiant) than his mother.
She patted her hair uncomfortably, in response to his comment. “It is too long. Access to care of such personal trifles has been…difficult.”
“I’ll see to it that a maid is placed at your disposal.”
“Oh, there is no need…”
“It is a woman’s matter. I should not trouble you…”
“It is,” he assured her with great gentleness, “Not the least trouble.”
Francine lifted her gaze to meet his and they laughed mutually, sharing their self-consciousness. He saw all he wanted in her eyes.
At table they sampled from a platter of meats; cold tongue, beef and ham with artichoke and Spring leaf. Samuel ignored his mother’s warnings to taste his first horseradish and complained loudly about it. Little was said, although every brain that gathered there blazed with questions. Only when they had eaten, only when Samuel had been released to return to some toys the Housekeeper had provided in the Withdrawing Room, were the barriers breached.
Arthur’s opening gambit; “I feel I have to discover more about you,” sounded too eager.
“I wish I had more to tell you,” Francine rejoined. “Indeed, I wish I knew myself!”
“Yet you know your name.”
“Nay, sir, not even that. My guardian, who is one of those who are unstinting in their admiration of the First Republic, insisted I should answer to a name – in the Gallic mode, he said, and thus I am Francine. His lettering of ‘DeLisle is a little quaint, but notwithstanding his education on the matter I believe he thought me a casualty of Monsieur Bonapat’s campaigns.”
Arthur acknowledged this ratification of his own theory, “You have doubts?”
Francine’s hands were laid upon the table before her. She studied her fingers, taking care with her reply; “The casualties of war are everywhere, most certainly, as much now as when he discovered me, yet – you will think me foolish – I cannot count myself among them.
I have no wounds, no scars, I am not alarmed by sudden noise, as I am told affects so many poor souls; and I have no nightmares, save only one.”
Arthur smiled, “And you are not French.”
She shot him an embarrassed smile of her own. “It seems not. Pray do not test me with the language, for I cannot understand a word! I speak only English, I cannot play the Pianoforte, and although I sense that I have some virtuosity on an instrument, I have no idea what that is! My guardian’s musical accomplishments were not such that he could aid me in these matters.”
“Needlecrafts?” Arthur suggested, She pulled a face.
He shrugged helplessly, “Knitting?”
He laughed, because the disgust in her voice at this last suggestion was another step, as she became more animated, more relaxed in his company, despite his interrogation of her. He decided to advance further. “When we first met,” he said, “You expressed your enjoyment of the storm with words I found curious. Do you remember them?”
Francine blushed prettily, “You embarrass me Arthur. I do. My understanding of them is no greater than yours.”
“You said you found the experience ‘perfect’. You described it as ‘real’, which I thought both original and luminous, although I had never heard them so used before. Could there be some dialect in your past that eludes us both?” When she made no reply, but just stared at the table before her, he quickly stepped back in: “I must introduce you to the Music Room, Francine. Our array of instruments is somewhat limited, I fear, but you may find something there to detain you. I have a meeting with my manager this afternoon, but you will be are well protected. If you wish to allow young Samuel out into the grounds, I will see to it the ostlers are nearby.”
“Sir, you treat me too kindly. I must not stay…”
Reaching forward to cover her fingers with his hand, he cut in, “You are my guests; my very honoured guests. You are welcomed here.”
At around the time that Peter, released from his seafront reverie by the departure of the companionable seagull was making his way home, a very special plane inched into its allotted space on an English airfield, and its V.I.P. (Very Important Passenger – or Person, if you like) prepared for his first public moment on British soil. In the aircraft’s aisle a group of six figures in grey overcoats were being marshaled into order by a grim-faced wedge of humanity who snapped out instructions with the brisk percussion of a snare drum. This was Hal.
Although Hal undoubtedly had more names than that, the Very Important Person they were duty-bound to protect did not know them, or, for that matter, much care. He had long learned that it was necessary to know only a very little about a person in order to find that special wavelength, that personal level of concerned inquiry that had made him Very Important. The security chief’s name was Hal and he had a sick wife in Portland. That was sufficient for one man.
“Hal, my God! So good to see you, boy! It’s been too long, for heaven’s sake! And tell me, Hal, how is your dear wife? I so hope she is better?”
And Hal, who had trouble sometimes remembering that his second name was Bronski, would wait the eight seconds he knew the greeting was timed to take – all the Very Important Person’s greetings took exactly eight seconds – meet that deep, sincere gaze, those eyes almost moist with sorrow, before responding in a voice like a chainsaw ticking over.
“An honour to see you too, sir. She is much better, thank you.” He would refrain from adding: “And living with an Airforce pilot in Kansas.” It was simpler not to tell the Very Important Person things that were unnecessary, like how his ex-wife had gotten over the flu several years ago.
This evening, Hal was perturbed. He mistrusted British security and he did not like the publicity surrounding the Very Important Person’s visit, or the political sensitivities it would arouse.
“Are you ready, sir?”
“Yes, fine, Hal. Go ahead now.”
Shuddering in anticipation of the cold, the Very Important Person followed his protectors as they moved down the aisle which was his last little bit of the United States for a while.
Below on the tarmac, in England, Jeremy Piggott cut a slight, rather pallid figure as he stepped forward, black shoes squelching dismally beside a soggy red carpet in the rain. When the aircraft door de-pressurised Jeremy had reluctantly lowered a black brolly to expose wispy red hair. He hated being wet; but this was a great ceremonial moment, or would have been, had this not been a military airfield from which public and press had been excluded; and anyway, his exposed head was expected as a mark of respect. Jeremy felt he was going to sneeze.
At the foot of the stairway Jeremy’s own Very Important Person stepped forward to greet the visitors. Two Very Important Hands clasped warmly, while some very unimportant pleasantries were exchanged:
“Senator Goodridge. Welcome, sir.” For the Very Important Person was he.
“Bob Cranforth my God! So good to see you, boy! It’s been too long, for heaven’s sake! And tell me, Bob, how is your dear wife? I so hope she is better?”
Secretary of State to the Foreign Office Cranforth was one of a very few members of the present government who openly declared his homosexuality. He smiled distantly, allowed the jnquiry to pass.
Jeremy heard a quiet voice, flint-like, scraping in his left ear.
“Who the hell are you?” Demanded Hal Bronski.
“Erm….Piggott. British security.”
Hal looked down at Jeremy as if he were something which had got stuck on his boot. “My God!”
“Stay out of my way, yes?” Hal grated: “Peggit? You got me?”
“Well, yes….it’s Piggott, actually. And I believe we are supposed to assist each other?”
“Assist my ass. I have a job to do, Pluggit, and you are not part of it. Understand?”
“But I have my orders too, if you don’t mind. I’ll watch my man, you watch yours.” Jeremy mopped at his nose, urgently stifling a repeat sneeze as he stepped delicately out from beneath the shade of the talking tree which towered above him. “Sorry.” He added diffidently.
“Fine.” Hal said, waving towards a distant corner of the airfield. “Go watch him from over there someplace.”
And upon this promising foundation, the co-operative effort of the two nations’ security for the Senator grew. They all followed as their Very Important People headed for a dismally small airfield terminal and shelter, finally, from the interminable English rain.
The arrival in Britain of Salaiman Yahedi on the morning of the very Important Person’s visit was an altogether more subdued affair; but then, Yahedi would have wanted it no other way. The private yacht which took him aboard ten miles off the Sussex coast had set out from Folkestone the previous afternoon: a family party who often sailed that stretch of coast between Kent and Southampton, living the high life on a boat bought from the profits of their travel company. They were well known in yachting circles and their presence unremarkable. So when they brought Salaiman to their mooring on the RiverTest he was merely one more for lunch, a business contact perhaps, because they had frequent guests on these trips. No-one could have known that he had recently been an invitee to quite another party, a French one, which had met with them overnight in mid-channel. And when he left the restaurant by the moorings after a pleasant lunch with no more than an canvas bag and a briefcase – those who were curious assumed he had to return to work – was not the young man in the lounge suit who picked him up in a BMW the stereotypical personal assistant? Had they seen the BMW being exchanged for another, smaller car twenty miles up the road, they might have assumed differently.
For Yahedi, such methods of travel were normal – his life consisted of switches between small boats in the dark, private planes on airstrips which were always a little too short. His worldly goods could only just fill the bag he always carried. Home was the next back bedroom, the space in a sympathiser’s loft, a futon in an unmarked van. He didn’t mind: for his simple business baggage was dangerous. All the luggage he required was fitted delicately but precisely into the briefcase which he kept on his lap – the tool of his trade, the proof of his expertise in a very specialised skill. When assembled in his experienced hands, the sights were accurate to nearly three hundred and fifty metres. Yahedi was an exponent of a very rare and valued craft. He was an assassin.
© Frederick Anderson 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.
Featured Image Dominique Devroy on Pixabay
Yacht at Sea Roman Grac on Pixabay