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Authors: Jacqueline Winspear

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He knocked on the middle door and called out. “It’s all right. Mr. Beale here, and I’ve got the lady I told you about—Miss Dobbs.”

A chain rattled on the other side of the door, and it opened to reveal a petite woman of about thirty-five years of age. She was slender to the point of looking as if she could do with a good meal, and Maisie could see the woman was filled with fear. She locked the door behind them.

“I was so scared you’d come back with someone to hurt me.”

Maisie introduced herself, and looked around the room. A kettle sat on top of a small single-ring gas stove in the corner, which in turn was set on top of a cupboard with a blue gingham curtain pulled to one side to reveal an assortment of crockery and two saucepans. Knives and forks were poking out of one of the saucepans.

“Would you mind if Mr. Beale puts the kettle on to boil for a cup of tea?” She did not wait for an answer, but instructed Billy, “Strong, with plenty of sugar in each cup.” She motioned for Elizabeth Peterson to sit on the bed, and sat down next to her.

“You’ve had a horrible time of it, haven’t you?” said Maisie.

The woman nodded, pulled a handkerchief out from the sleeve of her cardigan, and began to cry. Maisie put her arms around her and allowed her to weep until the heaving sobs abated, and the woman pulled back.

“I’ve been so scared, ’specially since Mr. Mullen didn’t come again.”

“You sound as if you didn’t know him very well.”

She shook her head. “No, I only met him a few months ago. He turned up one Saturday morning, saying he was an old friend of Michael Clifton’s. I believed him.”

“What did he want?” asked Maisie.

“He said he had always wondered about the woman his friend had fallen in love with, and he wanted to meet me, to tell me how much Michael had loved me too. Then he sort of kept coming round every now and again, and he started asking me whether I had anything of Michael’s.”

Maisie nodded. “Miss Peterson—Elizabeth—can we go back to the beginning?”

She rubbed her eyes with the handkerchief, and blew her nose. “But the beginning was in the war.”

“Then let’s go back to the war. What did you do in the war, Elizabeth?”

“I was a nurse. I was with Lady Casterman, she was the founder of The English Nursing Unit. Have you heard of us?”

Maisie nodded.

“Well, it all started when I met Lieutenant Clifton in Paris, when I was on leave.”

Her eyes began to fill with tears, and before she could use her own soiled handkerchief, Maisie reached down into her shoulder bag and passed a clean linen square to the woman.

“I wasn’t out to meet a boy, really I wasn’t, but he was so kind, so charming, and he was alone in Paris—he didn’t have family to go back to in Britain, and I only had a short time on leave, so I wasn’t going back.” She shivered, and gave a weak smile. “We had a lovely time, a really lovely time. We did all these things I’d never done before, and in Paris! We went to a show, we had coffee at these little cafés they have, and we just walked along the streets. And afterward we wrote to each
other. But we had to be careful, because we were sending our letters back and forth with the ambulance drivers.”

Maisie nodded again. She had done the same thing herself.

“That’s why I had to think up another name, so I wasn’t caught red-handed and sent home.”

“Tennie.”

“How do you know?”

“Later. Go on with your story. You saw each other again?”

“Once more. By that time we were in love. But I was very scared. I mean, he was an American. My friend said that he was probably just telling me all these things—about his land in America, his family’s home in”—she faltered and shook her head—“Beacon Hill. I’ve kept his letters. She said he probably just wanted to, you know, have a bit of fun.”

She looked at Maisie, who said nothing, but waited for her to continue.

“But I think my friend was wrong. And I don’t know why I doubted him, but I started wondering why he told me he loved me, when there were so many girls out there. I began to have second thoughts.”

Maisie looked at the woman and imagined how she might have been at twenty years of age, and thought she had probably looked like a ballerina, with her long dark hair drawn back into a bun, her delicate fingers and petite frame.

“And anyway, we had another leave together and…and we became very close. Very close, if you know what I mean. I loved him, really I did. Then we said good-bye, and it was very…it was very difficult, because I never knew if I’d see him again, and before I got back to the unit, I’d panicked. I was frightened. You see, I’d already lost my father and brother at Ypres, both of them at the same time, and I thought, ‘What if I lose him too?’ I didn’t know what I’d do, so I wrote and told him that it was better if we didn’t continue to write, didn’t keep in touch. I thought that if we happened to see each other at the end of the war, then we’d
know. I had the letter in my pocket for days afterward, and then I sent it off.”

As the woman began to weep again, Billy pulled a chair across to use as a table, and set down two cups of tea.

“There you go—that’ll do you good.”

The woman stuttered her thanks, and Maisie smiled at Billy and whispered, “Thank you.”

Billy sat down on another chair with a cup of tea in his hands, as Maisie asked another question.

“And you never heard from him again?”

She nodded. “Just one letter.”

“Did you hear from anyone else?”

“Not for a couple of years, then I had a letter. It was from a man—I can’t remember his name—asking if I knew Michael Clifton. He said he had known him in the army and wanted to find his friends so that his parents could find out about what he did in the war.”

“Do you still have the letter?”

She shook her head.

“Did you answer it?”

“No. I didn’t see the point. In any case, Michael had told me to be careful of anyone wanting to see me on his behalf.”

Maisie inclined her head. “Why did he do that, do you think?”

The woman looked at Maisie and stared into her eyes for what seemed to be a long time, though Maisie held her gaze. Then she stood up, knelt down, and pulled back the threadbare carpet to reveal a small section of loose floorboard.

“I’ve done this in every place I’ve lived in since the war. I don’t know why—it was just what Michael asked of me. To be careful.”

She lifted the board and pulled out a parcel bound with rubbered cloth and string—the same type of cloth that had protected Michael
Clifton’s letters and journal for years, while buried in the soil of a French battlefield.

“Do you know what’s in here?” asked Maisie, taking the parcel.

Peterson shook her head. “No. It wasn’t my property. I asked him if I should return his belongings when I sent that last letter, and received just the one letter back. He said he understood my sentiments, that the war had filled us all with fear and bravery both, and you never knew which would claim the best of you—that was what he said. And he asked me to keep the parcel safe, and that he would find me after the war. He said that if he didn’t come, it meant he didn’t need the things, or he was dead. And if he was dead, it wouldn’t matter anyway.” She began sobbing again. “And he said that if he found me again after the war, he’d whisk me off and take me to America as his wife. I suppose I never stopped hoping that he’d turn up one day. Stupid of me, really.”

Maisie cast her eyes around the aching loneliness of the bed-sitting-room, a cocoon of solitary existence in a building of such rooms where women of a certain age—of her age—tried to fashion their lives to meet a circumstance never imagined in their earlier years.

“May I ask you a couple more questions?” asked Maisie.

“Yes, that’s all right.”

“Did you have more letters from the person who sent that first inquiry?”

“I might have,” replied Peterson, “but I’ve had to move a few times, what with the rent going up and then losing my job.”

“Where do you work now? Are you still a nurse?”

She shook her head. “I just couldn’t bear it anymore, after seeing all those boys die. So after the war I went on a commercial course. That’s what I do now. I’m in a typing pool, but I’ve been going to night school for my bookkeeping, and I’m up for promotion.”

“And the next you heard was from Mr. Mullen?”

“Yes.”

“Did he scare you?”

“No,” said Peterson. “Not at first, anyway. He was all nice, friendly. Then he started getting, well, pushy. Kept asking me if Michael Clifton had given me anything for safekeeping. I was scared, so I said no. Then he came round with the advertisement, the one placed by Mr. and Mrs. Clifton. He kept on at me to reply to it, saying there could be money in it, because Michael was not only a rich man, but a rich man’s son, and that we could all benefit from it. I didn’t want to do it, then I thought they might want to meet me, to know someone who Michael knew, you know, the girl who sent him the letters. I thought about my brother and how my mother and I liked it when one of his pals came to see us after the war. It was only for a chat, but it meant the world to my mother.”

“So you wrote to Michael Clifton’s parents, and you went with Mullen to the Dorchester—is that right?”

“And we had a row, a nasty row. He started getting even pushier, and I knew I didn’t want to see Mr. and Mrs. Clifton with him, I didn’t want them to get that sort of impression of me. At first he seemed to be not such a bad sort, but then, when we were outside and that other man came up to us—”

“What man?”

“I don’t know his name.” She lifted the cup to her lips and sipped the piping hot tea. “He was quite tall, taller than Mr. Mullen, and I think he’d known him before.”

“What did he look like—can you tell me anything else about him?”

“I didn’t like to look at him, to tell you the truth. He didn’t talk to me, but I knew he was Mr. Mullen’s boss. He had that sort of look, you know…” Her voice trailed off as she searched for the right word. “Authoritarian. Yes, he looked like someone with a lot of power. I
thought he looked as if he had it in him to be a bit cruel.” She shrugged. “Mind you, I’ve never liked those cravat things on a man, makes them look as if they’ve got nothing to do all day, and that’s not very attractive.”

Maisie noticed that the woman was still shaking as she set the cup down on its saucer.

Peterson continued. “After he had a word with Mr. Mullen—I was standing to one side—off he went. Mr. Mullen took my elbow to steer me into the hotel, and because I didn’t want to see Mr. and Mrs. Clifton, we started rowing again, and he was very angry with me. The doorman ended up telling us to leave, so I went off, but I’m sure Mr. Mullen went back to the hotel. He was dressed up a bit more than usual, so no one would’ve considered him out of place, and I’m sure the doorman thought I was the troublemaker. Mind you, Mr. Mullen probably knew another way in. He looked quite scared though.”

“Are you afraid, Elizabeth?”

“I think that man had something to do with Mr. Mullen being dead. I saw it in the newspaper that he’d been found murdered.” She rubbed her arms and shivered. “Yes, I am a bit scared.”

“Is there anywhere you can go? Is your mother still alive?”

“She’s in a home now, but I’ve an aunt and uncle in Shooters Hill.”

“Would you be able to stay there?”

“Yes, I get on all right with them. I could go there.”

Maisie looked at Billy. “Would you escort Miss Peterson to her uncle’s house, Billy?”

“We can go as soon as you’re ready to leave, Miss Peterson.”

“I can pack my things in five minutes.”

“Do you need to speak to your employer? If you like, I can make a telephone call on your behalf so your job is safe.”

“No, it’ll be all right, Miss Dobbs. Thank you very much. I’ve done a
lot of overtime lately, so it won’t hurt. I’ll get in touch with them. They know I’m a good worker.”

“Good. You pack your bag now, and Mr. Beale will leave with you. Take any valuables.”

Elizabeth Peterson went to a chest of drawers and pushed a few items of clothing into a case she pulled from under the bed, while Maisie and Billy washed and dried the cup and saucers.

“Will you look after Michael’s things?”

“Don’t worry, everything is going to be all right. Either I or Mr. Beale will come to bring you home when it’s safe to return.”

“Will it be long?”

Maisie shook her head. “A day or two.” She motioned for Billy to open the door and check the way out. “We’ll leave by the back, if we can, Billy.”

She watched as Billy steered Peterson along the alley at the back of the hostel, and did not turn to go back to her motor car until she saw him hail a taxi-cab. She looked both ways along the alley and went on her way. Before returning to her motor car, she went into a telephone kiosk to place a call.

“James?”

“Maisie—don’t tell me, you can’t meet me for supper.”

“No, that’s not it. James, does your office have a safe?”

“Do you mean the sort of safe behind a portrait of the Laughing Cavalier, moving eyes and all?”

“As long as it’s a safe safe, James, and it’s in your personal office, where only you have access to it, I don’t mind if it’s behind the Mona Lisa making eyes at you!”

“I have a safe, Maisie, a very good safe. It’s next to my desk, and only I know how to get into it.”

“I’ll come to your office now. If you like, we can have supper in your neck of the woods, or stick to the original plan.”

“Right you are. Does this mean I won’t have the pleasure of driving you home afterward?”

“Not this time.”

“Maisie—I can’t wait to see you.”

She held her breath for a second before answering. “Can’t wait to see you, either.”

M
aisie looked around what seemed to be an expanse of room. As soon as the secretary had closed the door, she could not help but make a comment. James Compton’s office was enormous.

“You could fit my father’s cottage in this room—to say nothing of my flat.”

James laughed, and took Maisie in his arms.

“I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too.” She smiled at him, and realized she was telling the truth. She had missed him.

“So, you wish me to keep something safe for you?”

She nodded. “Yes. It’s here.” She took the wrapped parcel from a brown paper carrier bag.

“You need something a bit more, well, elegant—that bag looks a bit rough, if I may say so, Maisie.”

“I had something more professional, but it was stolen, and when found, it was in no condition for me to use when I visit clients. I was
very fond of that old case, and don’t want to rush into replacing it. It seems disrespectful in some way.”

“What’s in the parcel?”

“I’m not exactly sure, but it was too important for me to stop and look on the way.”

“I see. Dangerous important?”

“It would appear to be, when I think of the people who would like to get their hands on it.”

“Do you want to open it? I can go out and leave you here for a few moments, if you like.”

“Would you?”

He picked up a ledger from his desk, kissed her on the cheek, and left the office.

Maisie set the parcel on the desk and proceeded to untie the string and pull back the wrapping. The leather-bound sketchbook with silver-tipped ties that she held in her hands looked as if it had been used infrequently, perhaps for one set of notes. She loosened the leather ties and opened the book at the beginning. On the first page was a date in August 1914, followed by map coordinates for a place called the Santa Ynez Valley, in California. She turned the pages with care, aware that she was hardly breathing, so exquisite were the pen-and-ink drawings that followed. She had never been to such a place, yet in the simple sketches, she felt as if she could smell dried earth and the musky fragrance of a landscape so different from the lush greenness of Kent or Sussex. Following the sketches of broad swaths of land there was what she would call a close-up sketch of small bumps in the earth, of cracks where a narrow dark stream emerged, and of outcroppings of rock. There were paragraphs in technical language that made little sense to her, followed by delicate miniature maps, with notes to the effect that they were copies of larger versions.

She sat down on James’ chair and looked out across the rooftops, the
view almost jarring after being immersed in the sketches of a land so far away. The drawings, rendered with a nib so fine it was beyond belief that a person could wield the pen with such dexterity, were so beautiful that she could hardly bear to look at them. They had all been signed by Michael Clifton, who had been but twenty-three years old when he created this inventory of his land. She turned back to the notes and could see that he had clearly marked places where work must begin. It was the map to his wealth, to his legacy. It would show whoever had the map in his possession where to find the land’s most valuable resource—oil.

According to the notes, penned in the fine, precise hand of an engineer, Union Oil and other companies had long surveyed most of the valley, but the farmer in this corner had refused to sell—until he met Michael Clifton. She gathered that even if those oil companies came close, they could not siphon off the oil from under his property. “It’s been there for thousands of years,” the farmer had said. “It’ll be there until someone drills on my land, even if that person isn’t me.”

Maisie turned a few more pages until she came to the end of Michael Clifton’s entries, which were all made in the days before he left for Southampton. It was clear from his notes that he thought he would be back in the United States by the end of 1914. As she closed the book, she noticed indentations on the back cover, so opened it again and found a pocket. She slipped a finger under the flap and pulled out a small key. Further investigation revealed a piece of paper bearing the words “The Central Bank of Santa Barbara,” followed by details of two accounts held in the name of Michael Clifton. There was also information on a last will and testament in a safe deposit box, along with maps and documents of title pertaining to his land.

She heard James talking to his secretary outside the door, and replaced Michael Clifton’s belongings as she had found them. The door opened.

“Had enough time?”

“Yes, thank you, James. It’s ready to go into your safe now.”

“Right you are, just a few clever flicks of the hand, and this will be as secure as the Bank of England.”

James opened a cabinet set against the wall to reveal a small safe into which he placed the parcel. He spun the dial, then closed and locked the cabinet door.

“I will not touch this until you come to claim the parcel.”

“Thank you.”

As they left the office and walked to Maisie’s motor car, James reached for her hand.

“James, do you know anything about land, inheritance, and such in America?”

“Oh, inheritance—that’s a bit of a dark legal tunnel wherever you are.”

“I wonder,” said Maisie. “If someone died without family—or anyone else for that matter—knowing whether they had left a will, or indeed the deeds to their property, would it be difficult gaining access for those who might inherit?”

“There are laws of probate that might make it tricky, I do know that. These cases can carry on for years—and that’s when you have proof that the deceased is actually no longer drawing breath.”

“That’s what I’ve been told.” She was thoughtful as they approached the MG. When they had taken their seats and Maisie had started the engine, she turned to James. “And if someone else gained access—of sorts—to the deeds, would they have grounds for a claim?”

“They might, yes. Especially if they had a will.” He turned to her. “I can see where your mind is going—and no, it might not take much to prove authenticity. The judges in such cases might just look at the paperwork and with a couple of thumps of the gavel let it go through. Or money could change hands somewhere along the line. I’m in the business of land, Maisie, and though we find that maintaining our ethics
leads to less trouble in the long run, I have seen all sorts of bribery and other under-the-table goings-on in my time—and by people who are in positions made particularly vulnerable by such action. Comes down to greed. Pure greed.” He shrugged. “And of course, there are other motivations, so you could go through several of the deadly sins. Sometimes people assume something is theirs by right simply because they deserve it. But I think it’s the likes of you and Maurice who are the experts on that sort of thing, not a humble office boy like me.”

Maisie looked at him and smiled, before slipping the MG into gear.

“Thank you, James, I think that tells me everything I need to know.”

 

I
t was late by the time Maisie and James left Bertorelli’s.

“Do I have to wait long to see you again?” asked James.

“I think this case will be more or less wound up soon. I hope you can bear with me.”

He pulled her to him and kissed her, then held her in his arms.

“I knew what I was letting myself in for, Maisie, so of course I don’t mind waiting.”

“Shall I run you back to your club?” offered Maisie.

He shook his head. “No, not to worry. I’ll find a taxi-cab. You’re tired, so go home.” He kissed her again. “Sweet dreams, my darling.”

Maisie took her seat in the MG, waved once more, and drove slowly down Charlotte Street. She did not have to turn to know that James Compton would watch her drive away until he could no longer see her crimson motor car.

 

S
he arrived back at her flat in Pimlico, took off her coat and hat, and put the kettle on for a cup of tea. Soon she was seated in front of the fireplace, and though the evening was not cold, she ignited a row of
jets on the gas fire, to see and feel the comfort of warmth. She rubbed her neck as she considered the events of the day. The pieces were falling into place. She was almost ready to make her move.

After making a cup of tea, she took up Michael Clifton’s journal again, and reread certain entries. He seemed unafraid to put his feelings down on paper, to share with no one but himself the emotions he experienced both on the battlefield and during the few short spells of leave he had in his two years in France. There were entries that made her laugh—observations of his new British friends, the way they spoke, their mannerisms; or impressions of the more senior officers. Yet his homesickness was palpable, and after a while it seemed to seep from between the lines, until his confession in the later pages:

It’s cold here, a cold that goes right to your bones and eats away at them. It’s not like the cold in Boston. Back home you can wrap yourself in warm clothing and fight it, and there was always a warm house to come back to—hot chocolate and marshmallows, coffee cake right out of the oven. But I want to go out west again, back to the valley. Every time I close my eyes, I see the valley. I want to feel that heat on my skin and the breeze that skims across your arms and feels like warm silk. I want to ride across the hills with the ocean in the distance. I guess I don’t care about the oil anymore. I just want to build a cabin on my land and live there for as long as it takes to get this place, this mud and rain and terrible, terrible killing out of my system. I want to spend my days under one of those California oaks and know that I am far away from here. I want to go back to my beautiful valley.

Maisie could sense the ache in Michael’s soul to be in a place that was his home. She thought that, young as he was, he knew that the valley had been the place where he belonged from his first view across
its golden hills. And she thought that, though he had lost his life, he was blessed in such knowing—to have traveled far and found home.

 

A
t her desk the following morning, Maisie took a deep breath and picked up the telephone receiver to place a call to Chelstone Manor. It was answered by the butler, Mr. Carter, whom she had known since her first day of employ at 15 Ebury Place.

“Good morning, Mr. Carter, how are you?”

“Very well. Do I take it you would like to speak to Lady Rowan?”

“Lord Julian, actually.”

“Right you are, Maisie.” He cleared his throat.

“Is everything all right, Mr. Carter? You sound as if you have a sore throat.”

“Fit as a fiddle.” He coughed again. “I was going to say, though, we’ll be calling you by another name soon, won’t we?”

Maisie’s stomach turned. “Might there be rumors going round about me, Mr. Carter?”

“No, not a rumor, Maisie, but—”

“I trust you know how to nip them in the bud, don’t you?”

“I won’t give credence to a word I hear spoken about—”

“I knew I could depend upon you. Now, may I speak to his lordship?”

“One moment. Very nice to talk to you, Maisie.”

“You too, Mr. Carter. You too.”

Maisie waited for a few moments, then heard the telephone receiver in the library being picked up, and the main receiver replaced.

“Maisie, how are you, my dear?”

My dear?
Maisie was taken aback. Had Lord Julian ever called her “my dear” before? He was always cordial and more than helpful, but “my dear” was not an expected greeting.

“Very well, thank you, Lord Julian.”

“What can I do for you?”

“I’m after information again, I’m afraid.”

“Go on, I have a pen and paper at the ready.”

“I’m interested in a Major Temple. He is currently at the School of Military Engineering in Chatham. I’d like to know who his commanding officer was during the war. I expect he was a first lieutenant then, or perhaps a captain. I believe he was in the artillery, but worked closely with a cartography unit, or perhaps working between several units—to tell you the truth, I am not sure, but I do want to know the chain of command above him.”

“Right you are—I will see what I can do.”

“Thank you, I am grateful for anything you can dig up for me.”

“Anything else?”

“Um, yes. How is Maurice today?”

“Oh, dear, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask, but I should have known you would want to remain apprised of his condition.” He sighed. “He’s not at all well. The doctor—that chap called Dene—has been to see him today, and he’s comfortable. Maurice being Maurice, he’s said he won’t go back to the clinic, that he wants to remain at home for the time being. Of course, in my day, unless you were poor, you were treated at home, but now the doctors have more modern equipment at their disposal, don’t they? So you have to go into hospital if you want that top-notch medical care with all the bells and whistles.”

“Yes, you’re right.” Maisie thought Lord Julian was more loquacious than she had ever known him. “Would you please ensure that someone calls me if his condition deteriorates? If he gets worse, I want to be there.”

Maisie could hear a voice in the background.

“Maisie, just a moment, Rowan would like a word with you.”

Maisie blew out her cheeks.
I bet she would.

“Maisie! How fortuitous that you’ve called to speak to Julian. I’m coming up to town with him tomorrow—a bit of shopping, and you know how I loathe shopping, but needs must—might you have time to join me for tea? Fortnum’s, say, half past three?”

“Well, yes, that would be lovely. I’ll see you there. Half past three.”

“Excellent.”

Though it was Lady Rowan who had first noticed her intellectual ability and love of learning, and later sponsored her education, Maisie remained somewhat intimidated by the thought of an invitation to tea the following day. She knew James had spoken to his parents and would have said something to the effect that they were walking out together—as her father might describe it—but she was sure that, underneath the warmth exuded in the telephone conversations, a dire warning was waiting for her. She had lived at Ebury Place as both a servant and, later, a guest with her own rooms, but this new development—now far from secret, as Carter’s comment indicated—would test the Comptons’ self-described socialist leanings.

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