And so we come to the last part of this story. I am sorry if it has been a little drawn out, circumstances have made it so. But I hope you’ve enjoyed it nonetheless. I did say I would try to get it out this Friday, and I’m happy I’ve managed to do so for some of you! If you missed Part I it is here, and Part II is here
THE KEY THAT TURNED BACK TIME
(a Cole family story)
02.00am, AUGUST 8TH, 1945
The rain swept in from the south-west, scudding through the treetops and sending roosting birds indignantly up into the night sky. On the hill nestled between the vines, a maelstrom swept the lake into turbid darkness, as though stirring up a spell of destiny. At the château, gravel pinged off windows as it scurried from the rooftop terrace and a small child turned restlessly in her small bed high on the third floor under a slated finger of roof that pointed to the angry heavens. There was a huge full moon which seemed to stretch a glow across the valley, and as it skated from cloud to cloud it provided just enough light for a small car below to crawl along the road by the river, over the bridge, and into the glistening cobble-stoned square. It came to a wheezing halt behind the bakery, and a small figure bent with burden walked carefully to the door of the joiner’s shop, where a small hand found the knocker and tapped it twice in rapid succession.
Michel Levant sat bolt upright in bed, scattering his blankets and he listened hard again. Five years of German occupation had taught those who listened well that advance warning was a good trait to develop. His wife turned beside him and opened her eyes. They were a young couple, living alone in the rooms above the joiner’s shop, and they knew there was no one else in the house.
“Michel,” she whispered, “What did you hear?” The young woman’s voice echoed with an accent, for her French was flavoured by the mountains of north Africa, and the pale brown colour of her skin was homage to an ancient Berber ancestor. Her name was Imane, and her dark curls of hair shook against the white pillow as she struggled to come awake properly.
Her husband put out his hand for silence, and stopped a finger to his lips. There was the drumming of wind against the panes of the window and then, faintly, there came again the sound of a double-knock, deep in the bowels of the house.
They looked at each other, eyes wide, and Michel said, “It cannot be the Boche, – they are not here. Perhaps it is someone from the village?” and Imane said nothing as he turned and put his feet on the floor. He walked softly to the door, and put on a dressing-gown and turned to her, his shoulders wide with the courage that had once born him thorough three years of military service in Algeria, a combat all but forgotten during the war that had followed. From there he had returned with a beautiful and exotic wife, a woman who had waited patiently for five long years for the village to come to terms with her, whose kind demeanour and gentle character had eventually won everyone over, a rare integration in those raw ungodly times.
“If you hear me shouting, hide in the roof space,” he warned her, “ But if not, then come down quietly and see who I am talking to before showing yourself, all right?” and he bravely opened the door.
His wife nodded, mainly to herself, and quietly slipped out of bed in bare feet, trusting her husband enough to do as he said. Five years of war had inured them to much, but this was a visit at an ungodly hour, and who knew what devils were out at work in such weather, under the eyes of the American military police. The war may have nearly ended, but people afoot at night were still a possible source of trouble. She crossed to the door and half closed it, listening intently to her husband as he went down the stairs, her ears as sharp as those of a desert mouse under the flightpath of an owl.
The door to the street sounded once more before Michel had had time to find a candle and light it, shielding it from the windows as he walked towards the door. He stood there and tapped back at the wood, hoping to find some sort of reaction before he slid the bolt. The floor was cold under his feet, despite the slippers, and the wind whistled somewhere about the door-frame.
There was a loud whisper from the other side; a woman was there, and he instantly knew from her accent she was French – this was no German ruse, and besides they had been gone now for 10 months. He quietly slid the bolt back and swung the door inwards away from the rain, and a small figure stood there in front of him, holding a basket, shielding it from the weather.
“Hello, Michel,” said a soft familiar feminine voice, and he relaxed, knowing this was someone he knew. At that moment the moon threw a finger of light down the street and the woman before him shrugged off her hood and stood there looking steadily at him. It was Francine de Brosse, her pale blue eyes regarding him with an assured gaze, her coat dripping rainwater onto the stone sill of the doorway.
“Where have you been, Countess?” Michel could not restrain himself, he was almost hissing with excitement, “You’ve been gone for nearly half a year – we’ve missed you terribly,” and he turned to welcome her into the house, aware of the vast gulf in social class between them, but comfortable in the knowledge that Francine was someone who cared not a jot for such a thing.
They left just the one candle alight in the downstairs room, next to the workshop. There was a small fire there that had been smouldering and it came to life with a kick and a piece of wood. Francine sat at the head of the small table sipping a tea as Michel sat opposite her, staring at the basket on the floor besides the Countess’ feet. Imane stood at the back of the room, wary of the enormity of the decision Francine had put to them.
“Where did you say you found him, Countess?” asked Michel hoarsely. He could not take his eyes off the baby in the basket, whose blue eyes were softly closing in sleep. It could barely keep awake.
Before Francine could reply, Imane asked another question, her face awry with concern and wonder.
“How old is he, Countess? What will we say?”
And that was the crux of the matter. What would the village say when a childless couple suddenly announced they had a three month-old baby? They looked to Francine, who had the answers she had carefully thought through for many days.
“I found him in a camp in a field outside Bordeaux,” she said. “I stopped for water and a couple came forward with him, saying they already had two other children and could not cope with a third. The two of you came to mind instantly,” and she smiled, a welcome change of mood that lit the whole room. She knew the couple before her well, for Michel had worked with her many times at the château when heavy lifting was needed, and Imane had often come to the kitchen when extra staff had arrived to help with parties and functions. Francine knew only too well that there was something wrong – that perhaps Imane could not conceive. With no family in the village to help, a lifetime of barrenness stretched out before them. A foster child seemed a perfectly suited arrangement for all concerned, and within a decade it would all be forgotten anyway.
“You can say you found him like I did,” she continued. “The roads are full of refugees, there are hundreds along the road between here and Bordeaux, of all nationalities – no one will think anything of you saying you are helping out with an orphan, for example.” And it was true, the village may have been French, but it had long held a reputation for hospitality and generosity. There were two other adopted children in the village already, victims of a war that had slowly moved past and headed north.
“But he has no papers,” Imane added as a thought.
Francine had an answer to that, too. “Talk to Le Joubet at the petrol station – he’ll set you up with some, he’s been doing it for a long time now. It’s a baby, no one will ask questions,” and she looked at the small child again, fast asleep on the floor. She was so weary, so tired, and she had so much to do still. But there remained one more thing to ask.
“Michel, and Imane, do you have a paper and pen – and perhaps an envelope?”
The young couple looked at each other in surprise, and then back at the Countess, realising she was watching them closely.
“Of course,” Imane said immediately, forestalling her husband’s reply, “of course – may I ask why?” and she stepped to the battered desk in the corner of the room, slid open a long drawer and searched for the necessary items.
Francine paused before replying, adding emphasis to her words, “I am going to write a note – it is to you both, and I ask you to swear on the life of this child to not open it until the day you attend my funeral. Will you promise me that?” and she looked steadily at them as Imane laid the envelope, paper and pen before her on the table.
The couple stood together, and they touched hands in affirmation, before replying.
“I promise,” said Michel, in a young man’s voice that ached with what was unfolding before him. Imane was more practical, and simply nodded, steadying herself with a hand on the table as Francine started to write.
“Of course, Countess,” she then said after a pause, her voice small but purposeful over the scratching of the pen. “Yes, of course,” and her words trailed away.
Francine finished writing, scanned what she had put on the paper, and folding it, slid it into the envelope before noting something on the front of it. She licked the tab and sealing the envelope, let it rest where it fell, a punctuation mark of finality to the affair. She stood up, mentally girding herself with courage at the thought of what she had to do next, her chest heavy with sadness and love.
“I have to go,” she said to Michel as he got up as well. “I have to go to the château and find something I left there. Will you look after the child for me?” and she looked at them carefully, gauging their reaction.
“You’re not coming back, are you?” asked Michel in a steady voice, knowing the answer already. Imane closed her eyes at the thought. It was she who spoke next.
“And Catherine? What will happen to her?” and in the silence that followed Francine blanched inside at the thought of her little girl, asleep on the hill.
“I can’t stay now, I have to go, and I will come back when I can,” Francine told them softly, “I cannot do what I have to do with her alongside me. I have the car for only so long, and the papers that let me use it are only valid another four days. Answer me, please, will you care for the baby?”
Michel and Imane looked at each other, and they nodded slowly in unison, unsure how they were going to manage, but sure enough in each other to know it would work.
“Yes, we will,” said Imane in a firm voice. “We’ll do it. Michel and I will love him very much,” and they watched as the Countess bent down to the basket and laid a kiss with her fingers on the baby’s cheek. Seconds later she was by the door, and gave them a little lopsided smile. Then her hand was on the bolt, and she was gone, stepping out into that raucous night as she went to her meeting with destiny, the visit having lasted barely thirty minutes. The moon showed Francine the way across to the car before it slunk back behind a cloud, darkening the village in a rush of shadow.
She turned once at the car door, and saw the small light silhouetting Michel and Imane in the doorway, as they held her child. She ducked down inside the vehicle, her face wet with tears, and with a heart bursting with the injustice of it all, stabbed at the starter button and puttered away across the square. The die was thrown, there was no turning back.
They closed the door, Michel and Imane Levant, and stood there looking at the baby in the basket held between them. Imane reached out for her husband’s arm, and said, “You know that is not the whole of the story, Michel, don’t you?” and she looked up at him as he turned to her, his eyes uneasy with a sudden sense of foreboding.
“What do you mean, my love?” he replied, a cold finger of truth prickling his spine. “What have you seen?”
His wife sighed, and gently moved her hand to the baby’s face, caressing it softly. Her eyes shone with a glint of clairvoyance, a gift from a bloodline which had roamed a dark continent since the beginning of times.
“This is not a refugee, Michel, this is Francine’s child. I knew the instant she asked us,” and she blinked back tears. “This poor child has been born of her love for someone else, and she has given that love to us, to hold and cherish for ever…” and her voice slowly fell silent. Her dark face stared down into the basket and it seemed the room held its breath, the wind ceasing its ferocity outside for thirty long seconds of stillness.
The two of them stood like that, Michel with his head spinning at the path ahead the night had brought, and Imane with her hand slowly lulling the baby back to sleep. Finally she broke the silence, and said,“But this is now our child, even if it is a de Brosse, and we cannot, ever, tell anyone; we must promise that for their sake and for ours,” and she touched the baby’s hair again with wonderment.
We were at the table in the library again the next day, sunshine pouring through the windows and the letters spread out in some order on the vast table. Catherine had carefully organised them into the sequence she thought they had been written in, and she had carefully placed coins on each corner of the letters to keep them flat and in place. It was obvious she had had a long and sleepless night, and she sat at the end, nursing a cup of coffee that never strayed far from the pot that Jeanette kept refilling. There were six of us, for although it was a Thursday, both Emma and Tim were back at the start of a long weekend and he had asked Vivienne to come too – I wondered perhaps if the two of them were becoming close. It was an incongruous thought for such an important morning.
Catherine made sure we were sitting comfortably, and told us what she had found out so far. Her voice trembled as she told us the story, both from the exhaustion of finding out so much of her mother’s past, and at the new-found knowledge that promised so much.
“It started after I lost my leg,” she said simply, immediately drawing us into the confusion of her story, as quickly as a bomb might fall, explode and then change and end lives.
“My mother writes to say ‘Thank you’ to the commander of the American base for their concern for me, and for their support.” She stopped and looked at us all, making sure we were following her closely. “And then, it appears the pilots used to come and visit me regularly. I became a sort of mascot. I would have thought that contact was by telephone in those days, but these letters would suggest otherwise. Perhaps we had no telephone, I can’t remember. But the letters also say the Americans brought gifts for us all, and one man, Flight Lieutenant Richard Peebles, came more often than most.” She paused then, and clenched a hand hard on the table, her arm trembling. None of us said a word, but waited patiently, our minds reeling from the denouement unfolding before us.
It was a long minute before she continued. “It appears that Mr Peebles came more and more often, and they eventually fell in love with each other, my mother and he. I can only imagine that my mother was in a state of receptiveness, that my father and his antics had finally left their marriage loveless. I remember my father as a tall, loud man, and can imagine how easy it would have been for my mother to reach out for help, support…..perhaps even love.” She leant forward over the table and rested her face in her hands, perhaps to ease away a tear. Emma reached out from where she was sitting and touched the Countess’ elbow in support, and the old woman touched Emma’s hand back in comfort as she added, “And the letters from my mother are not originals. They’re copies – she must have written them with a carbon sheet, so she could keep her outgoing messages for ever.”
I felt barren inside then, and closed my eyes to see the study not far away, where a small particular woman might have written carefully on a blotter board, sealing a letter and taking it perhaps to a busy town and its post office to avoid attention.
“It appears she fell pregnant that autumn, I am not sure when,” Catherine eventually continued. “She mentions it in a letter dated from November, but there is no date, I am afraid. I know that my mother left here in January of 1945, and although I thought I heard her in the house once more that spring, I know nothing more. The last letter is dated from Christmas Eve, I assume 1944.”
There was a pause then as we all counted furiously in our heads, and it was Vivienne who spoke first.
“She must have left when she though she could no longer hide the pregnancy, Catherine,” she ventured. “That would make sense, no? Do we know where she went to?”
There was a shake of head from the Countess, and she murmured, “No. I have no idea. I’m sorry, but your idea does make sense, Vivienne.”
And there we were. We now had an answer as to why Francine had left the château in January of 1945, but we had no leads as to where the child might have gone. A thought occurred to me, and I turned to Catherine.
“Catherine, this may be presumptuous of me, but how do you know you have a brother, and not a sister? Your mother must have written those letters before the baby was born, surely?”
And Catherine touched a later on the table in reply, her finger seeking the sentence before she read it.
“I feel is is a boy, Richard, my sweet love. We will have a boy to call our own, a child perhaps born in a dark time before the light comes back.”
I fought back an urge to cough, something was in my throat, heaven knew what. But then I had another thought an instant later, and asked, “Is there anything about this relationship in the journal, Catherine? Does she mention anything?”
Across from me the Countess shook her head, “No, nothing,” she replied. “I imagine she deliberately kept it out of the journal, but these letters explain why she hid it, I assume, when she left.” There was a pause and then she said in a very low voice, “I know it is only a half-brother, but I so would like to find him, help me, my cheries, please…” and her voice tailed off into a dull silence that rung in the room like a small tarnished bell.
It was Tim who spoke next, with an idea so brilliant I could have hugged him. “Catherine,” he said very steadily, “May I have your permission to try and find out who Richard Peebles was, and where he or his descendants may be now?”
There was a moment of puzzlement around the table before Tim continued, “I’m pretty good on the internet at doing research and finding stuff; I’m sure I can find something out about him,” and he looked steadily at Catherine as he said this.
I found myself nodding in agreement and the general movement about me seemed to indicate broad approval at the idea.
“Of course, Tim,” said Catherine, “that’s a wonderful idea, thank you.”, and Tim grinned and immediately the three young people huddled together and started to write a list of ideas of what to start searching for. I turned back to Catherine as Jeanette poured out yet more coffee, and the three of us looked at each other over the murmuring from the other end of the table.
“What else have you found out from the letters, Catherine?” asked Janette a moment later, and I saw the Countess harden a little before speaking.
“The last letter, written just before Christmas, indicates she was planning to go away in the New Year – to go somewhere safe and have the baby. She does in fact mention a month, March, for a birth. I forgot that. It makes sense, she could easily have hidden a pregnancy from my father for three months – I did not think they were seeing anything of each other.” She stopped, suddenly sad.
“Is there a letter back from him, after she wrote that last time?” I asked, wondering.
Catherine shook her head, “No, nothing, I don’t know why.”
I had a sudden premonition, and thoughtlessly wondered out loud, “Maybe Maximilian found the reply, and read it? Maybe that’s why he….” and I stopped as I realised how blunt I had been, and started to stammer out an apology which Catherine instantly stopped with a hand.
“Don’t worry Sophie, dear, I have thought the same, it’s nothing,” and even though she said it genuinely, I could not but help feel a prickle of unease that I had half described the way Catherine’s mother may have finally met her fate. I slunk into my seat ashamed, aware that the hall where Francine appeared to have faced her death was but a passageway away.
Jeanette then spoke, “You have told me the story of the night you thought you heard your mother here, Catherine, why do you think she was here?” and I knew the answer instantly.
“She came back for the journal”, I said. “I would imagine she wanted to leave Maximilian and start life afresh, perhaps with her new love, and she wanted an untainted past. If she had managed to leave with the journal then no one would ever have known anything…” and my voice trailed away as I realised I had come to the end of my thought process. I looked up to see Catherine watching me intently, nodding her head in agreement.
“I am with you, Sophie, on that thought,” she said, and we all then wondered what we would think of next. I was sure we were overlooking something simple, even though I could not imagine what it could be.
Ten minutes later we had drained the last of the coffee and were heading home, with Tim promising Catherine news when he had spent some time on the internet. I didn’t know what I could do next, and simply hugged Catherine tightly before saying we would come back a day or so later to see how things were. We drove down the driveway with Jeanette and Catherine in the mirror watching us as we descended the hill past the lake. It was fitting that none of us in the car could bring ourselves to look at that dark body of water. But then, as we passed the trees I could not help but notice that right where we had found the cauldron was a clutch of flowers and a wooden cross, like the memorials found all over the roadsides of France where someone has died in an accident. Someone had obviously thought enough of Francine to commemorate the place of her remain’s discovery.
Ten yards further down the track, out of sight of the château, I hauled the car to a stop, surprising everyone including myself with the sudden arrest of movement. Tim and Vivienne were in the back and they clutched each other in playfulness, and Emma turned to me a look of shock.
“Mum? What’s the matter?”
I checked the mirror again to check we were out of sight before I replied, “Emma, do me a favour. Climb the bank and go back ten yards to where we found the cauldron. There’s a bunch of flowers on the bank, I could just see it when we came past. See if there’s a florist’s card on it, would you?” and I half wondered whether I was creating a bad luck charm for my own back.
Emma stared at me, and then said, “Sure,” and flinging open the car door she was up the bank to the lake as fast as a vixen fox, her auburn hair glowing in the sunlight. Thirty seconds later, she was back.
“There is a card in the bouquet, Mum!” she said a trifle breathlessly, “It’s from the florist in Blancheron.” and I instantly knew where she meant. Blancheron was our local town, some twenty minutes to the west, and I wondered how I was going to find out more.
“The flowers were from someone called Levant, it was written on the card,” she added triumphantly, and instantly I realised that Carole from the bar must have bought the bouquet, or perhaps even Jeanette had done so. It seemed that little mystery was solved before it had even been started.
It took Tim a week to find Richard Peebles. My son came downstairs the following Friday just before supper and announced to all and sundry that our chase was over, perhaps forever. He’d spent a good deal of his free time in Bordeaux that week glued to a computer screen, and from the USA national military archives he had found out that Flight Lieutenant Richard Peebles had been killed on May 24th, 1945, when a transport C47 had crashed on take-off at Châteaudun Air Base, south-west of Paris. He had not even survived the war, and most likely, had never seen his child or Francine ever again.
I gasped out loud at Tim’s news and blundered into the kitchen, my eyes watering; it was a punctuation mark of such severity on the whole affair that when Emma came downstairs a moment later, she found me crying like a love-lorn teenager over the sink in the kitchen.
I explained what Tim had found out, and we hugged each other tightly before going back into the living room. Simon and Tim both looked at us, my husband with some sympathy. They knew I was upset, and I slumped into a chair.
I sniffed loudly, and wiped my eyes. “That’s it,” I said, “we’ll never find out any more. I can’t think of any way we will find Catherine’s half-brother – all the leads have come to a dead end.” and I sobbed again involuntarily into my hands as I stood by the window to the garden.
There was a hand on my shoulder an instant later, and Emma was there, her fingers touching softly.
“Mum, mum,” she whispered, “Don’t let it get to you, we’ll find out more,” and I shook my head slowly in disagreement.
“We won’t,” I whispered back, “Where do we look further?” And no one had an answer.
I was in the village the next morning, and I saw Jeanette’s car parked in the square as I came out of the pharmacie. I assumed she was in the bar seeing her mother, and realised it would be a good opportunity to pass on our findings, perhaps with a view to discussing how we would tell Catherine the bad news. I set off determinedly across the square, wondering whether the grey sky above would relieve me later of watering duties in the garden.
Within a minute I was at the counter in the bar, and Carole stepped out from the back room to see me there. She grinned instantly, and came out to give me one of her great Afro-Gallic hugs. When I surfaced she was holding my hands in hers, and then Jeanette appeared as well, her mouth working on something obviously both edible and on offer in the interior. I smiled at her, but then said to them both, “I have some news to give you about Catherine’s situation – and I’m afraid it’s not good. Shall we go in the back room?”
A minute later, and we were standing by the great window overlooking the river, sombrely discussing Tim’s findings. I said hesitantly, “How do we tell Catherine?”
Carole shrugged and replied, “She will have to take it as it comes, Sophie. It’s not good news but we cannot dress it in sugar. It must be told as it is,” and Jeanette nodded in agreement.
“It’s sad,” Jeanette added, “But at least she has found out what happened to her mother. I can’t imagine what she is going through, though – imagine having a brother somewhere who you will probably never find?” and we stood, lost in thought.
I broke into our rather dark reverie a moment later by saying simply that I though it was wonderful that one of them had had the heartfelt thought of putting flowers on the bank by the lake. However, their reaction was not what I expected – they stood there blankly, apparently completely unaware of what I had said.
“I saw the flowers there, too” said Jeanette, “and I wondered who they were from.” and she turned to her mother, who still looked blank.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Jeanette,” said Carole, and there was a moment of confusion as each regarded the other.
“It said on the card,” I blurted out, shamelessly aware that I might have done something wrong by stopping to look in the bouquet, “They were from a Levant,” and both Carole and Jeanette shook their heads in unified denial, their dark curls uncoiling and coiling in harmony.
I was thunderstruck. Who was there left to do that then, and Jeanette came to my rescue with a suggestion. “Perhaps it was grandad”, she said. “He knew Francine well,” and I stood slightly confused, reconciling this new idea with the memory of an old man in a wheelchair with tears streaming down his face at Francine’s funeral.
“Is your grandfather in a wheelchair,” I asked slowly. “Was he at the funeral?” and I saw instantly from their response that I was thinking of the same man.
Five minutes later I was on my way home, wondering out loud why I had a sudden urge to go and visit an old man in a wheelchair, nodding his life away in the old people’s home along the road to the east.
A quarter of an hour after that and I had hatched a plan with Simon; a phone-call to the Ombrerie just afterwards arranged a visit to a Mr Levant for the following Sunday afternoon. Venez-vous à 1600 heures, they had said, just in time for tea.
Mr Levant had a small room on a level from which he had a wonderful view of the valley and its river. The Ombrerie was a fully-staffed home, and his living quarters looked out on a garden that descended from a concrete terrace, with a sloping ramp and many railings in evidence. The nurses that took us to him had dressed him in an old blazer and they wheeled him outside into the summer afternoon, and then left us as we explained to Mr. Levant what we had come for. The sun shone away to the west and the landscape beneath us was still relatively green, despite the long dry summer. The river was its lifeline, a perpetual voice of movement through it all as it chattered its way westwards. It was a peacefulness that was shortly to be rudely interrupted, despite our best laid plans.
We’d left home with Tim still clattering away at his laptop, and on the short drive we’d rehearsed what we would say. Simon decided he was going to be a reporter doing a piece on local traditional crafts, researching a story on how times had changed so much since the war, and to go with that story I was to be the photographer, and so I sat there clutching Simon’s big Nikon to me in the manner I assumed a professional would use. It was a hastily arranged plan, and obviously not well thought through, for as we sat opposite the old man after introducing ourselves, he looked at us brightly for an instant and then said in a slightly tremulous voice, “This is not about me, is it?”, after which he sat back with such alacrity and authority that Simon and I both blinked in surprise, completely lost for words. I had no answer to the question, and it was such an opening salvo that it seemed a red hot wind was blowing against the back of my head, burning my ears.
The old man stared at me, eyes querying my intent like a wise crow, and his wrinkled face furrowed so deeply in thought I wondered if all was well. There was a twitch, and a mouth opened and said, “This is about the Countess, isn’t it? I know you, young lady, you were at the funeral. You’re English, aren’t you? Mrs Cole, perhaps?” and I wondered how he knew my name.
I felt Simon beside me in his plastic chair, uncomfortably wriggling like a fish on a hook. I was aflame with heat, subtly becoming aware that the bright-eyed centurion opposite me might suddenly have a part to play in unravelling the mystery we had been trying to solve now for nearly three weeks. I could barely imagine the enormity of time Mr Levant had lived in the village, and my mind rolled with images of warplanes, Swastikas and a body in a cauldron. My head spun with thoughts, and I wondered if I was going to faint.
The old man suddenly raised his hand to his jacket, and slowly took out a wallet from his inside pocket. I was amazed at his dexterity and co-ordination, and he demonstrated his capabilities as he opened the wallet and took out a small black and white photograph – a slight tremble of his fingers his only clue to his great age.
“I’ll tell you what I know in a moment,” he said, “but first, I want to show you a photograph – it’s from a long time ago, but it will show you how my wife and I once looked, eighty years past. She is long gone, I am afraid, but it might give you a clue to the answer you are seeking. I know that is why you are here.” There was a pause into which neither Simon nor I wanted to throw a word, so we waited, holding our breaths. When at last M. Levant’s mouth opened again, his next words were almost a carbon copy of a sentence I had heard recently in another place, and their message took my breath away.
”I have a secret my wife said I should never tell,” and he looked into my eyes as he leaned forward towards me with an outstretched hand holding the trembling photo.
I reached forward to take the photo and realised it was a copy, fresh from a machine, of a much older photo. As I drew it towards me. Simon leaned sideways to look too, and my phone chirped softly in my bag. The photo showed a young man in his prime, lovingly touching his wife, a small petite dark woman with a beautiful face. There was nothing about the scene that should have elicited any alarm, and I looked at it thoughtfully, wondering at lifetimes long passed. The phone chirped again, and I instinctively reached for it, only to see it was a message from Tim.
I briefly read the one short line of text, and felt my hair stand on end, and i quickly re-read it before I had even reached the last word. My heart pounded with excitement and at my sudden intake of breath Simon slid over to me and read the text over my shoulder. It seemed Francine’s mystery had leapt a huge step towards a solution. The unreality of everything jolted me below my ribs, and I suddenly forgot to breath.
“Oh my goodness,” I said in a small voice, “Oh my goodness gracious,” and Simon uttered a phrase of such masculine surprise that I knew I was not alone in a sudden sea of foaming disbelief. I re-read the message again, Tim had used block capitals for emphasis;
“I KNOW WHO FRANCINE’S CHILD WAS!!!!!!!!”
I looked up to see the old man watching us closely, an eyebrow raised in question. It took me just one second to make a decision and I leaned over and handed him the phone, pointing to Tim’s text. Surprised by the offer, there was a fumbling for a pair of old spectacles in a jacket pocket, and then Mr. Levant was squinting at the screen, the phone a mere six inches or so from his nose. I watched as the message was read, and the phone was slowly lowered to his lap, and then his eyes closed as if in prayer; for thirty long seconds Simon and I watched and waited and then the old man nodded to himself, a decision made, and a slight smile played around his mouth. He opened his eyes, and then looked back at me, and I saw a face that perhaps was at last free of a burden.
“I have an idea,” said M Levant. “Let’s ask if you can take me out for tea, and we’ll go and see the young Countess, shall we? I feel it is time I went against my wife’s wishes and told you all something that has been kept from her for too long.”
And so we went to talk to the nurses, and soon we were rattling back to the village with a wheelchair in the back of the car, a very old man dressed in a blazer in the front passenger seat and a cane by his side. The river ran alongside the car for the whole half mile it took to get to the village, as it always had done and would continue to do, probably for ever.
11.55pm, January 15th, 1944
They were wet through, the two of them. He dropped a hand to the grass verge and held the small boat steady as she stepped out, her boots sliding on the muddy bank. The rain poured unceasingly on them in the near complete darkness as they dragged the boat up the bank to the small boathouse.
“The rain will wash away the marks,” he gasped, pointing to the sullen sky and a faint hesitant moon. “By morning there will be nothing.”
She turned to him and nodded, exhausted after the four hours of hard labour. It would be difficult enough for one, but she was not her normal self, and the bulge under her sodden shirt ached beneath her very inadequate raincoat. He held out a hand for her to hold onto and they started back up the path to the horse and cart. She stumbled as they went, and once, as she leant into his young shoulder, she said in a whisper, “You cannot tell anyone, remember.” And they stopped for a brief second, looking at each other in the poor light. His young face glowed with adoration and fervour.
“I won’t,” he promised. “I won’t, I’ll wait till you tell me what to do.” and he meant it with all his heart, for the small woman with him was a person he admired and loved as much as any man could – even if it was a woman he would never marry.
“I will give you a gift,” she replied, “Soon. It will be a pact between us, you and I. Not a reward, but a meeting of lives.” and she reached out and touched him as a true friend would.
Together they reached the top of the rise, and heard the horse snort in alarm at their arrival, the bit clinking quietly in its covering. The night was at its deepest, but they knew time was of essence and the world would soon be awake once again.
Sat in the passenger seat, I phoned Tim as we reached the village, and told him to grab his little Peugeot and join us up at the château. I had no qualms about doing so, for Tim had all the information and I knew that Catherine would want to hear everything. I told him to bring Emma and to see if Vivienne wanted to come too. His earlier text had been simple, but without any further information my mind was racing at how the mystery was to be revealed.
As we went up the hill, past the lake and then turned into the gravelled drive, I saw Jeanette’s old car there too, and idly wondered if if we would drinking tea or champagne later. The old man had remained bright and lucid for the twenty minutes or so it had taken us to get there, and I had fast become aware that he was of that rare breed, an old person with many attributes still vital and alert, and the words we exchanged on that short trip made me mindful his brain was still razor sharp. He mad a small sound of exclamation when he saw Jeanette’s car and it was Jeanette herself who came to the door when I banged on it; she looked over my shoulder with some surprise as she saw Simon below me at the foot of the steps, helping her grandfather out of the car.
“Sophie,” she said, her eyes wide, “And grand-père, aussi! Why are you all here?” and her face was friendly enough but agog at the arrival of us all.
I answered in a voice still a little unsure of events, “Tim is coming, too. He says he has found out who Catherine’s half-brother is,” and Jeanette’s eyes almost fell out of her head. “Is she here?” I asked, cutting off any further queries.
She nodded, her familiar round earrings intent on a synchronised beat of emotion. “Oui, of course,“ she replied. “She gives Jean a lesson every Sunday afternoon,” and she turned to let us in, a movement interrupted by a word from her grandfather as he slowly came up the steps on his cane, Simon holding one arm in support. We waited as he reached the top and Jeanette stepped forward to hug him softly, with a huge kiss on each cheek. M Levant seemed to revel in the embrace and as his face glowed with emotion, he put out a hand to forestall any questions.
“Cherie,” he said in a steady tone, “Is your mother at home?”
“Oui, grand-père,” said Jeanette, nodding affirmation, “She is, why?”
“Have you your telephone with you?” the old man asked, “I need to talk to her,” and the two of them moved along the entrance a little to let Simon and I go on inside.
I hesitated, and Jeanette turned and said, “You go on, Sophie, you know where they are….I’ll bring grand-père along in a minute,” and she smiled and turned back to her father, her phone held against his ear.
Inside, the hall stretched out, the flagstones echoing to a faint rendition of something classical, a tinkle of chords that drifted down from the passageway to the left. Simon and I stepped quietly as we could across the huge space and turned down towards the Grand Salon. The room was lit by sunlight sweeping in through the west windows, and a single light above the Bösendorfer illuminated a tableau the room had seen a thousand times before – a small pupil perched on a piano stool, with the teacher standing to one side, offering encouragement and advice. Catherine was so steadfast in her lesson that she did not notice us standing there, and Jean was so serious in his repetition of instruction he did not either. He was playing a chord again and again, with great dexterity, and it was only when Simon gently coughed that the two by the piano became aware of our presence.
Catherine looked up and her expression instantly hardened, her eyes taut with query. She was wearing a long dress, simple in its elegance and almost identical to the one her mother was wearing in the portrait still on the wall from the internment a week before. I guessed that the Countess knew why we were there. Her hand stretched out to Jean’s shoulder and she said in a quiet voice, “Stop a moment, Jean. You can go to the kitchen and find your mother if you’d like a drink. We’ll carry on later,” and the boy slipped off the stool and stepped lithely to the small door in the far side of the room, shyly waving to us as he did so.
Catherine stood there facing us, her hands quietly by her side, and she simply said, “Welcome, Sophie, and Simon. You have some news for me, I think? I can tell you ….” and her voice trailed off in surprise as there was movement behind us, her eyes widening as she looked over my shoulder.
I half turned and realised that not only were Jeanette and her grandfather there, but so were the others, Tim with a conspiratorial smile, and Emma and Vivienne just behind him. They’d arrived and we’d not heard the car at all.
“Oh,” said Catherine in a small voice, and I turned back to her, “Oh, I see. This is obviously something serious,” and she stared hard at Mr Levant, her mouth working over a solution for his presence, She could find nothing to say and after ten long seconds, she simply said, “Welcome Monsieur Levant, it’s been a while since you were last in this room, I think?”. Her words were not unkind, but simply buying her time while she composed herself.
The old man stood straight, and nodded once, before saying, “Bonjour, Madame Countess” and he half bowed a little, a gesture of tradition that Catherine acknowledged with a small nod and a smile in return. She then turned and stepping forward, exchanged greetings with the rest of us, a little choreographed routine that we all self consciously knew was a delay in the proceedings.
When the murmurs had stopped, Catherine looked at us all, and suggested, “Shall we go through to the library? We will have a table and some chairs there for us all,” and with some sort of acquiescence we all trooped through sheepishly to the room where a week earlier we had found the journal. Catherine was first, and she snapped on some lights as she came through the doorway and led the way to the table, surrounded by the shelves we had all searched so thoroughly a week before. Jeannette and Simon settled the old man into a chair opposite Catherine at the other end of the table from where she was sitting, and the rest of us picked a chair each, scraping legs along the floor. When we had finished, Catherine looked at me, as though I was the emissary in charge of a group of traders. One single eyebrow hung in question, and I started.
“Catherine, we would have come here with bad news yesterday, but I had a thought that I should visit Mr Levant at his rest-home, as I had some questions to ask him about your mother….he had other ideas though, and says he has something to tell you. Perhaps he should start before Tim says something else – I do not know what though, he has not told us the whole story,” and at this Tim squirmed uncomfortably in his chair a little. All our eyes turned to Mr Levant though, and he looked at us brightly in turn before settling on Catherine.
“Madame Countess,” he started in a low voice we all strained to hear, “I have become aware that you believe you have a brother or sister in your life, and Mrs Cole,” and he stopped to direct a forthright glance at me, “came to see if I knew anything about the subject.” He looked about the table at this point and he would only have seen faces rapt with attention.
He continued at the same pace. “I have been sworn to secrecy all my life, especially by my dear wife, Imane, departed now for twenty one years, and until recently I have thought to do nothing but defer to those edicts.” He paused then, with his two old hands clasped in front of him on the table, his gaze lowered a little as he fought back the memories of a lifetime nearly finished.
“But I think the time has come for me to be frank with you, Countess,” and he looked at her directly, “For we recently interred your mother and her death has an additional meaning to me, as you will see. But most of all, I will now divulge that secret, for it is surely the right time to do so.” and he stopped for breath, perhaps unaccustomed to such statements of monumental importance.
He started with intent, “The first point I must tell you is that you did indeed have a half-brother, who alas has now gone, but his descendants still live in the village,” and looking up he glanced at Tim. There was a gasp from some about the table at the solid fact he had just presented, and I saw Catherine couch her face in her hands across the table from him, her shoulders shaking again with tears for the hundredth time that week. I could not but sympathise with her; the past three weeks and her health issues would have been enough for me pass the rest of my life in unhappiness, too. Grief was mounting on grief.
Mr Levant looked across at me, aware of the ripple of thought passing about the table, and he said, “Perhaps your son should explain, Mrs Cole. I think he deserves a little reward for his detective work – I know the whole story anyway,” and he stopped, suddenly aware that Catherine was crying. His tone changed a little, became softer and more familiar.
“Catherine,” he said, using her given name for the first time, “I knew your mother well, she would not have wanted you to cry now, she would have hoped you would smile, I think,” and he glanced around at us all. “The news is not all bad, there is good to come, trust me,” and I wondered what on earth he meant by that.
There was silence round the table, and we all watched Catherine take her face out of her hands, wipe her eyes, and sit straight; perhaps she was taking heed of the old man’s words, or perhaps she was making an attempt to refute the future and what was ordained to happen. What she said next seemed a statement of intent, a beginning to an end, perhaps.
“Tim, would you explain what you have found out for us, then?” she asked in a small voice. Her tone was bright but false, the pink highlights on her cheeks a clue to the turmoil she was surely suffering. I prayed that my son would not rush with the story, hoping beyond hope that Tim would dole out a measure of maturity in the telling of it, but I need not have worried. He had it all planned.
There was a scrape of his chair as he stood up, and he looked at us all in turn before settling his gaze and full attention on the Countess. He coughed once, and then said, “Catherine, I have spent a week researching the elusive Mr Peebles, and I’ll tell you as much as I can. He was a pilot officer who joined the war in 1943, and flew operational sorties out of Italy. He was a fighter pilot, and a decorated one at that.” There was an intake of breath about the table, and Catherine opened her eyes wide. I saw Simon double his attention to the story – he had always had a keen interest in WWII, with a shelf full of books and a wide assortment of DVD’s on the subject. He pursed his lips and steepled his hands together for his nose to lean on, a trait which I think he used solely for people who thought he might be frivolous when he actually wanted to be thought of as serious man.
“I joined a forum on Tuesday that is full of ex-airmen from the US Airforce,” Tim continued, “and I have talked to three people who knew of Richard Peebles, including one man who flew with him during that period. That man is now 93, but his daughter is his correspondent, and I have been talking with her a great deal.” Tim paused and looked at Mr Levant for a moment, and I knew he was imagining the great length of time that had passed since those days. Glancing round the table, I saw Simon was following the tale keenly, and Catherine had her eyes half closed as she listened.
“Mr Peebles was most likely on his way back to Italy from England when he was here. During a mission deep over Germany in March 1944, he was separated from his squadron, his plane badly damaged, and he crash-landed somewhere in northern France. It appears he was taken in by the Resistance and smuggled back to Britain, where arrangements were then made for him to make his way to Italy. I think he was at the temporary US airbase here near Blancheron waiting for onward transport which never came during that summer. I think the war passed him by a little, and he was probably making his way north to another airbase when he was killed on a transport aircraft in 1945 outside Paris.”
Tim stopped then, and let the information sink in amongst us. A moment later he added one more detail, a sentence which brought Simon half to his feet with an exclamation of amazement.
“Mr Peebles was part of the 100th Squadron, which was one of three making up the 332nd Fighter Group.” Tim paused as he saw his father recognise the fact. They stared at each other, and Simon looked down at the table, shaking his head as he integrated this information into the mystery, and as only a woman who loves a man dearly can recognise, I realised with abrupt clarity that Simon was now also party to the identity of Francine’s son. There was obviously something special enough about this squadron for Simon to have noted it at some point in the past. I arched my eyebrows at him when he glanced at me, and he simply shook his head at me in wonderment, leaving me no closer to knowledge than before. I would have shaken him by the shoulders, but he was too far away.
Everyone else was probably a little perplexed by the additional facts, but at this point Tim decided he had said enough and he sat down with a thump; inclining his head a little to the old man, he added, “I think perhaps it is only right that Mr Levant should finish the story….” and there was silence in the room again as we all looked at the old man, sitting proud in his chair. It seemed his composure might have been a little ruffled by Tim’s recounting of his discoveries, but then after a long silence, Mr Levant opened his mouth and Francine’s bequest to her children, so long hidden by tacit agreement and the grave, finally spilled out into the summer light.
Mr Levant looked directly at Catherine as he said the next few sentences, each one a phrase of such clarity and purpose that no one said a word between them.
“Francine came to us in the dead of night, Catherine, in August of 1945. She came with a basket, which she left with Imane and I. She said it was a temporary measure, but we were never sure. We both thought she would be back, for she spoke of you, too, and I do not think she knew what was going to happen here at the château that night; she simply said she had to fetch something from the château and had to do it alone.” His words hung like stalagmites from the library ceiling as we all dwelt on them, wondering which of them had the deepest meaning, but then his next sentence distilled three weeks of waiting into one intense moment of amazement.
“In the basket was your half-brother. He was about six month’s old.” The statement hung in the air, like the blade of a guillotine, dramatic and dangerously provocative.
There was a reaction about the table which created a tableau of faces and movement no one could have imagined. Catherine pushed her chair back, and stared at Mr Levant, two bright spots of emotion high on her cheekbones, and Jeanette looked around the table, bewildered. What had her grand-parents done with the baby? I could see the same question on Emma and Vivienne’s face, and behind them, on little Jean’s face too – he had padded back into the room with a glass of water and had probably been standing there all the time. And then I glanced sideways a Simon and Tim to see them looking at each other with a faint grin. The suspense was killing me, my heart was going like a marathon runner’s near the end of a long race.
The old man’s next words were the final answer to a long saga, a finale to a story that had spanned eight long decades, and in so doing had locked away a family secret that was a miracle in itself.
“Francine brought the baby to us for three reasons, Catherine. The first is an easy one to understand, for we were childless. Imane and I had tried to conceive a child for a long time, and in those days there was little one could do about it. We told few people outside of our families that we had adopted a child; times were tough, life was hard and communities were still close-knit enough that keeping that a little secret was not such an effort. As time went by so the memories of that year became a little foggier for everyone, and the baby became ours in all but blood.”
I looked to Catherine to see her still listening with intent – the colour on her cheeks had faded a little, but there was understanding in her eyes.
“The second reason,” continued M Levant, “Is also easy to understand – for a woman of Francine’s standing to have a lover, and then a child by him, would have created an uproar in her society. I do not know if she was going to stay here or not, but the millstone of a bastard child about her neck, whether conceived of true love or not, would have made her an outcast anywhere in France.” He looked at us all then, in turn, noting our reactions, and perhaps relieved that we understood what it must have been like back then, close enough to the war to remember the sound of bombs and the tread of boots across cobblestones.
“And then there is the third reason, Catherine, and I look upon our company today as hope that you will understand that third reason, for I think you are a rare breed. You and I have much in common, Catherine…..” and he stumbled for a long second before continuing, his voice even quieter, husky with the shards of memory from a summer long ago. We all strained to hear in the still room.
“The third reason is that Imane and I were an odd couple then, so long ago. I brought her back from the mountains of Algeria. We had fallen in love under the starlight of a new moon in a country far away. If we had had children, they would have been a mix of our love, and of two different cultures. They would have been a mix of black and white, mixed-race children – not such a problem now but a considerable social difficulty back then – except, perhaps in this village where no one really cared.”
I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and saw Carole was standing in the doorway, a coat over one arm and a bag over one shoulder, starting intently at her father-in-law as he finished the tale. I had no idea where she had come from or how long she had been there, but her arrival proved to be a perfect moment of destiny.
“Which is the reason Francine also came to us. For your half-brother, Catherine, was a mix of white and black love. Your half-brother was Jean Levant, the child who I called my son and whom everyone thought was my own; and his father – Richard Peebles – was a black airman, a Tuskegee pilot, a member of the US Airforce’s first all-black squadrons.” and he stopped, perhaps as shocked by the truth coming out of his mouth as anyone else.
Like a piece of cliff falling from a great height into a calm lake, so the old man’s words and their meaning spread around the quiet room like of series of ripples; faces and hands moved, mouths opened and then there was much noise. In the middle of it all, three women stood up from their seats. There was Catherine, looking at Jeanette, and there was Jeanette looking back at Catherine, and then there was Emma. Emma was the keenest and her words pierced the hubbub, as she clearly said to the Countess;
“OH MY GOODNESS! Jeanette is your niece!!” She paused, and then without taking breath, added, “Or something like that, anyway,” and she squealed a little with excitement.
And then there was a moment of such poignancy it should have been recorded, distilled and spread to the heavens, for Catherine walked slowly around the table, and reaching out, grasped Jeanette to her as hard as she could, an embrace of such understanding, affection and love that the crystals of the chandelier shimmered with joy above the table, a warm glow matched only by the grin of a young boy standing against his grandmother, hands joined in gratitude by a change of events that owed much to a small, tarnished key. And then there were tears, and I looked across the table at Mr Levant, who noticed my glance, and turning to me, winked – in a very old fashioned conspiratorial way. At this my face burned with emotion, and my eyes prickled with tears too. It would have been most rude not to have cried as well, so I did.
It was an hour later, as we were still contemplating the enormous changes that life had brought to Catherine and Jeanette, and – by virtue of that relationship – young Jean, that Catherine brought us all back to earth. We were still in the library, where two empty champagne bottles from the château’s cellar stood on the table amongst a dozen glasses, when she urged us all to silence and thanked us all for the saddest and happiest weeks of her life. She stood apart, eyeing us all like a speaker at a wedding, and reminded us that despite the divided but reconciled lineage of the family, the château and herself still had some issues ahead. There was, first and foremost, her ill health and the time-limit that the doctors had placed on her life, and because of that, even though there was now an heir to the estate (at this last utterance, Catherine had stepped pointedly to Jeanette’s side and held her hand), there remained the one problem – the money that was needed to be raised for her own forthcoming death duties. As she finished, we stood in silence, chastened by the dull unavoidable facts that life and death always present.
I knew of no one who could have spoken of those facts with the courage that Catherine did that day. She remained as calm and content about her lot as ever, but with a hint of more than a smile as one problem had been resolved. “But,” she said, “I think the time has come for us to accept that the Bôsendorfer will have to go. I suggest we go through to the Grand Salon, and Jean and I will play something for you as a farewell, for tomorrow I will call and arrange the piano’s sale. It may be some time before we find a buyer, perhaps,” and her voice choked a little at the thought.
Mr Levant was still sitting at the table, his old frame tired but content, and he coughed once when Catherine had finished, and waited until we were all looking at him. He glanced at us all in turn, and my spine tingled with premonition. He turned to Carole, and said, “Did you find it?” and Carole started at the question before she remembered and replied.
“Yes, papa, I have it here – it was in the Bible as you said it would be,” and she reached into her bag and brought out a small and very old envelope. She put it gently on the table and slid it towards the old man. He picked it up, and showed it to us all before speaking. I could see it was faded and crinkled, and there appeared to be some writing on the front. My spine tingled a little more.
“The evening your mother left Jean with us, Catherine, she also left us this note, saying it was to be opened at or after her funeral.” M Levant started, staring at Catherine as he did so. “I imagine that she did not think that occasion was to be 83 years later. I would have brought it to a reading of her will. but there was no will, was there?” and he looked around the table. I knew the answer, for no will had been found.
Catherine had had to find a chair, and was sat in it, the two spots of colour on her cheeks returning. I wondered whether they were a symptom of whatever it was she was slowly dying of.
“For a week I have thought of this envelope since Francine’s interment, and today would seem to be as good an occasion as any to open it. I am not privy to the message inside, but I assume it is for Francine’s children. It says here on the front that either myself, Imane or one of our descendants are to open it, and the contents should be read to any such descendants of Francine who are alive.” He stopped at this stage and looked around at us all before continuing. “As I assume this is a matter related to the family, then the presence of Countess Catherine de Brosse, and Jeanette Levant, is very relevant.”
He paused then, as if for theatrical effect, and then he said, “I believe I may know what this note will tell,” and he smiled to himself at the great buzz of comment that rose from us all.
Without any ado, he slit open the envelope with a little finger, and produced a sheet of paper, also old and faded. Taking his glasses out of his blazer pocket, he steadied the letter in his hands, propped his elbows on the table to minimise any shaking, and started to read. Across eighty years of time, through decades of confinement in the cauldron, Francine’s voice was at last heard again through the mouth of someone who had once known her. It was a slightly surreal experience.
“To whoever is present for the reading of this letter, it should be noted that these are the words of Francine, Countess de Brosse. If you are present, you are listening to the voice of Michel Levant, or a descendant of his choosing. Whatever results from what is said, is my gift to you. Do not be sad, for I am with you; look up, and you shall see my smiling dust in the light above your heads. If I were there, I would love you very much, Francine.”
There was a stunned silence around the table, and we looked at each other in wonder. The old man at the end folded the note, took his glasses off and smiled to himself, nodding agreement with what he had just said. A person looking closely would have seen him blinking away tears, but I was too busy exchanging glances with everyone except Jeanette and Catherine, who were close enough to touch each other. Jeanette had still not fully come to terms with her changed circumstances, and was shrugging her shoulders at Catherine, unable to choose what to do. The Countess was watching her, still pondering on Michel’s words. I looked up to see Simon and Tim watching me, and I realised I was the Emissary again.
“Do you want us to leave, Catherine and Jeanette?” I asked, deferentially. Whatever Michel had to say was surely for their ears only. I noted Simon nod his approval across the table, while Tim pursed his lips a little in disappointment. Neither reaction would have changed the outcome though, for Catherine shook her head at my words.
“No – of course not,” she replied. “ I think you are part of the château family now, and Emma surely is already,” and she smiled at me. “Let’s hear what Michel has to say,” and she turned to him, and softly reached out to hold one of Jeanette’s hands, a move that made Jeanette look down in wonder, and then tightly clutch her relative’s hand in return.
The old man across the table put his hands on it, and coughed a little, just once. The light was fading outside and the last ray of sunshine reached in through the window and suddenly picked out his old face in a beam of softness; it seemed as though he was on a stage, and he met the occasion with the solemnity it deserved. We waited, all of us, Jean close to Carole, Emma and Vivienne, Tim and Simon, and the two women opposite me, now joint guardians of a gracious old building and its vine-rich lands. I almost held my breath in anticipation.
Michel coughed once again, but this time to clear his throat, not to create attention, and then he slowly, word by word, told us a story, looking directly at Catherine and Jeanette as he did so.
“Francine called me to the château a week into the New Year of 1945. The Count had gone away for two days, and she told me she had something to do, something of great importance, before he came back. She also told me she was leaving the very next day for a month or two, and I was to keep an eye on Catherine. I had no idea she was pregnant, I don’t think anyone did. We worked for half a night in the cold rain, and when we were finished, she swore me to secrecy. I was to tell no one ever, not even Imane, but I think I am right in saying this letter is designed to reveal what we did that night.”
And he stopped, looking hard at the table while we fidgeted, squirmed and wriggled in the waiting of it. Except for Catherine and Jeanette.
The silence grew out longer, and Mr Levant looked about the table, wondering if someone would realise what the secret was before he had to tell us. The pause drew out, until suddenly there was a movement and was a gasp from Emma, for she had suddenly remembered – for she already thought first of the answer, five weeks or so previously. She put her hand to her mouth, and looked with huge eyes at the old man. He looked back at her with amusement, and some level of admiration.
“You know, Emma Cole, do you not? What is the secret?” and he paused as he waited for an answer. There was a hush in the library and I felt the flutter of angels’ wings, up high amongst the shadows. The world seemed to tilt on its axis a little as I watched my daughter across the table.
Emma steeled herself, and then uttered, as clear as a bell, “I think you and Francine hid the château’s armour in the lake after all! It really is in there!”
Michel Levant grinned enormously, showing a fine set of brushed dentures, and said, “Correct, young lady, well done.” and we all looked huge-eyed at each other before breaking into spontaneous joy.
Amidst the huge round of noise and exclamation, the old man sat back with a smile, and at the first opportunity said, “If I remember rightly, there are 75 pieces of armour in there, down in the deeps opposite the boathouse. I wonder how much of it is still intact?”, and at that I thought of the tarnished key and how well the sediment of the lake had protected it; and then I smiled too.