Authors: Nina de Gramont
The four of us slept most of the day before adjourning again to the great room, settling with food and wine before a crackling fire. We’d exhausted the supply of fresh food, and Finbarr hadn’t ventured out, so it was back to tins of tongue and kippers, laid out on a large linen tablecloth going yellow at the edges.
Once wine had been poured, Finbarr said to me: ‘It’s time to come out with it, Nan. They think you’ve done murder.’
People can seem especially beautiful by firelight. Agatha sat cross-legged, looking like a lady explorer in her man’s clothes, hair vivid and tumbled, cheeks rosy. Chilton looked younger than I supposed he had in years, lying on his side, downright insouciant. Finbarr reached out and clasped my hand. I kissed his cheek.
‘Do they?’ is all I said.
Agatha held out a plate to me but I waved it away, not a bit hungry. ‘Would you like to hear a story,’ I said, ‘about a time I could have done murder?’
It was a good night for ghost stories. Some wind outside. Nothing but the firelight. The four of us, close and safe and strangely delighted. I told them about my escape from the convent, and my hands around Sister Mary Clare’s throat.
‘And that was Mrs Marston,’ Chilton said.
I didn’t agree, but told them another ghost story, about a priest and a pregnant girl. Iron bars, plus laws of God and man, imprisoned us all inside a rambling stone convent. The priest had licence to do what he would. Inside the convent there was forgiveness for his sins, but not those of the girls he abused.
I didn’t provide every piece of the story. Not Kitty and Carmichael (Chilton, as it turned out, was no Hercule Poirot – he had forgotten all about hearing their Irish accents), or Bess’s real name, or where she lived.
‘I’ve never done murder,’ I said. ‘I’ve only made my own justice.’
From upstairs a door creaked on its hinges, the wind rattling it open. Agatha’s eyes moved to the ceiling, alert to anything
that could indicate her discovery. I didn’t want her thinking about that. I wanted her to realize and admit. When she had taken that baby into her home she’d accepted something stolen.
‘Tell the truth,’ I said to her.
‘Yes,’ Finbarr urged. ‘Tell her. Put an end to it once and for all.’
The joy had snapped out of the room. Agatha said, ‘I thought you knew without a doubt. Both of you.’
‘I do know,’ I said. ‘But I want to hear you say it. I’ve confessed. Now it’s your turn.’
‘Very well, then. It’s all true.’
Finbarr got to his feet. He rolled up his sleeves, almost as if he would hit her. Chilton tensed and sat up, ready to stand between them.
‘Which,’ Finbarr said. ‘Which part is true?’
‘That’s not right,’ Finbarr said. ‘You know it’s not.’
‘I’m sorry, Finbarr. But that’s what I’ve got to say. Nan’s right. I couldn’t have a baby of my own so Archie got one for me. And I didn’t know, I didn’t think. The cruelty of it was lost on me. I’m sorry.’
‘Nan,’ Finbarr said to me. ‘Don’t listen to that. She’s said just the opposite to me all along. I don’t know why she’s changing her story now.’ He fell to his knees and gathered up Agatha’s hands. Looked at her with his melting, convincing eyes. Convincing for just the right reason. Not because he was scheming, or had any ulterior motive. But because he was true to his core in every word he ever spoke.
‘I’m sorry, Finbarr,’ Agatha said. ‘I truly am.’
He let go of her hands and stood. ‘I don’t know why you’re doing this. I’ll never know.’
But I knew. Everybody stared at me. Perhaps I was beautiful in the firelight, too.
It could be Agatha admitted Teddy was mine because she didn’t want Archie anymore, and knew her pronouncement would make me go back to him. Or else she knew it was inevitable, that her marriage was over, and now she’d ensured that no matter what happened next, I’d always look out for her daughter as if she were my own. Perhaps she felt terrible for all I’d been through, and wanted to let me believe Teddy was mine, because my real child was lost to me forever, and with this kind lie she could return her to me, if only in deception.
Or perhaps the solution was simpler. Occam’s razor. Perhaps she told me Teddy was Genevieve for one reason and one reason only:
Because it was the truth.
Upstairs Finbarr sat on the bed. I stood in front of him, his knees bracing either side of me. He tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. ‘Remember when you used to wear it long?’
He’d never seen it cropped far shorter than this, up above my ears. ‘I remember everything.’
‘Will you remember this?’
If not for the fire, the room would have stood completely dark. As it was, our faces were obscured enough to look like they had our first summer – open to and untouched by the future. I could almost pretend I didn’t know: we’d never be together like this again.
The room glowed with the fire’s warmth. Smoke from the manor’s chimneys should have given us away – four love-struck
outlaws. The flames made the windows glow. This night in particular: when I picture the Timeless Manor, I picture the view from outside, every last window thrumming and glowing like a place possessed.
Day of Discovery
Tuesday, 14 December 1926
WOKE LONG BEFORE
dawn and put more wood on the fire. At any moment the owners of the house could return, from wherever their primary residence was, or else the new owners, if this were a time of transition. Or, more likely, servants sent ahead to prepare. Whoever walked through the door next would find clues we’d been here. Ashes left in the fireplaces. Tins of food gone missing. Empty bottles slid back into place on the cellar’s wine rack. And perhaps the remnants of happiness infusing the rooms, swirling like dust mites.
I kissed Finbarr’s sleeping head and stole out of the room to walk the country roads in the low mist, not afraid of a thing: not of dogs barking from their fields, or the frigid air, or even the form of a man, who walked by me as a shadow and tipped his hat. If I’d walked right off the road into another world, it wouldn’t have surprised me. But no matter how lovely the other world turned out to be, I’d do anything I could to claw my way back into this one, because my child still lived here, and I must never be far from her, not in this lifetime.
I crept up the stairs at the Bellefort and crawled into bed, where I slept for hours, until I woke to the sound of a familiar
voice, loud enough to reach me from the lobby, searching – but not for me.
Chilton woke early too. He sat up in bed beside a sleeping Agatha. Last night they’d decided to move to one of the grander bedrooms on the first floor. He hadn’t questioned Agatha’s assertion about her daughter (did it contradict what she’d told him previously?), nor the assumption all three of them made, that he would protect me. Two people dead. And Chilton expected to just let it go.
He stroked Agatha’s hair, softly, so as not to wake her. Somewhere in what passed between them a tacit agreement had been made, never to say the words. But now that she was safely, deeply asleep – her lips parted, her face flushed with that childlike fever dreams can induce – he let himself whisper it: ‘I love you, Agatha.’ Beneath their lids her eyes moved. A slight smile curled across her lips. Why shouldn’t they expect him to do the wrong thing, where Nan was concerned? He’d done the wrong thing for Agatha.
For want of a nail the kingdom was lost.
How many crimes were being neglected, throughout England, because of the manpower devoted to the discovery of the woman who lay beside him now, safe and sound and intoxicating, her warm breath across his face all he wanted of life from this day forward? He crept out of bed and walked to the window. He always did his best thinking while contemplating a landscape. From behind him he heard the rustle of Agatha waking. She rose and glided to him. Still he didn’t turn towards her. She pressed herself against his back, wrapped her arms around his waist, rested her pointed chin on his shoulder to share the
view with him, the further-reaching hills obscured by a stand of fir trees.
‘I suppose you’re thinking about Nan,’ she said.
‘Do you know the artist Claude Monet?’
‘Lilies and blurs?’
‘That’s the one. He died earlier this month. I read in a notice about his death that he once said, “To see, we must forget the name of the thing we are looking at.” ’
‘And that means what, precisely?’
‘This is your case. You’re the one looking at it. By grand good luck, you’re the one who’s been charged to solve it. So can’t the solution, the name, be anything you like?’
‘I suppose it can be.’
‘Good.’ She stepped away from him as though the matter were settled.
‘And then what? We can’t stay here forever.’
She sat on the edge of the bed.
‘There can be no more days,’ Chilton said. He kneeled in front of her and took up her hands. ‘Or there can be all the days. If we leave, you and I. Together. Today. Let the disappearance last a lifetime. Why not?’
‘Why not?’ she repeated.
He didn’t want to interrupt the joy bursting forth within him by muddying her agreement with details. They could work that out later. A car, a train, a destination.
‘I’ll go back to the Bellefort,’ he said. ‘And collect my things. Then we can work out a plan.’
‘I’ll go with you,’ she said. ‘I could do with some air.’
‘But darling, you can’t be seen with me.’
‘That will make our life together rather difficult, won’t it?’
She laughed and put on his hat, pulled it down over her forehead. ‘Nobody will recognize me. They might even take me for your brother.’
Perhaps Chilton was unnerved by the word ‘brother’ and that’s why he didn’t protest. Perhaps Agatha – in her heart, more than she was able to admit – wanted to be found after all. Or perhaps, as far as they knew, all the chances they’d taken so far had netted no danger. So why not take one more? Plain sight had proved as good a place to hide as anywhere.
Archie and Lippincott arrived at the Bellefort Hotel while Agatha was upstairs in Chilton’s room, helping him gather his things. Mrs Leech ushered them into the library. She brought out the guest ledger for the two of them to look over.