Authors: Helen Macinnes
Frances sat very still. She was conscious of the smile on her lips which had settled there and wouldn’t come off, as if she were having her photograph taken. She watched a man enter. Richard’s back was turned towards him, and he hadn’t noticed him yet. She let her eyes travel slowly back to their own table; she sensed, rather than saw, him making his way out of the restaurant. He was walking unhurriedly, and he would pass their table. Now he was almost behind the waiter, whose broad back blocked the narrow passage effectively as he bent to pick up the coffee cups. Richard was watching her. He was waiting.
“I was telling you about Mrs. Rose.” As she spoke she flipped her cigarette case open. “She told me to be sure to go to Le Lapin Agile. Mrs. Rose said we would like it.”
“Why?” Richard seemed more interested in ordering another drink.
That’s just my sweet husband, she thought a trifle bitterly, and lighted her cigarette. She noticed the rug vendor with the turban who was silently offering his wares at another table.
“She was born in India,” she said. Now let’s see what Richard can make of that.
The waiter became aware of the man who was trying to edge impatiently past him. He stepped aside, but not in time. He must have knocked the man’s elbow, for the cigarette fell from his hand on to their table. The man caught it as it rolled and picked it up. There was just time for them to notice the peculiar way he wore the watch on his wrist and the peculiar time it showed on its clearly marked face.
“India?” Richard was asking with a display of interest. “Oh, yes, she was a great rope-climber in her day, wasn’t she?”
The man had already reached the pavement; he paused for a moment as he lit his cigarette. He might be making up his mind how to spend the rest of his evening, and by the time Frances had replied gently but forcibly he had merged into the crowd.
“Did I ever tell you about my life among the Eskimos?” asked Richard, and shook his head in reply to the rug-seller. He sipped the cognac which the waiter had brought, and added with approval, “Much more like it. Where were we? Oh, yes, with Eskimos…” He talked on. Frances was glad of the opportunity just to relax. She listened to Richard’s inventions with a smile, and waited for him to finish the liqueur. Then they could get back to the hotel.
The dark-haired, sallow-faced chamber-maid had just come out of their room. The towels over her arm were the obvious
excuse. She smiled in her tired way.
“Good evening, Madame, Monsieur. You are back early tonight. Perhaps Madame is tired.”
Frances agreed to that: she had just caught a glimpse of herself in the gilt-edged mirror on the wall. Perhaps it was the very large, very pink flowers on the wallpaper that made her feel so wilted. Richard said good night rather brusquely and opened their door. The woman wasn’t usually conversational, he thought, but she must have been surprised to see them. People generally talked too much when they were embarrassed. He locked the door behind them and stood there listening. Frances watched his face as she took off her hat. She liked him when he was worried: she liked the frown on his brow, the intent look in the thoughtful eyes. It had been his eyes which she had noticed when they had first met. She couldn’t guess what lay behind their calm greyness; there was a hint of so many things. If that had been one of the reasons why she had married him, then she hadn’t been disappointed.
Richard seemed satisfied. He had left the door and started to undress.
“Bed,” he said, and his eyes were smiling now. “And don’t, my love, brush each tooth for five minutes, tonight.”
Frances laughed and started to brush her hair, and then stopped with the hairbrush poised in mid air. Her eyes were puzzled as they rested on her make-up box lying on the dressing-table.
that…” she began.
“I shouldn’t,” said Richard, his lips smiling, his eyes warning.
Frances bit her top lip. “I shan’t be long now,” she ended. Richard nodded approvingly. Good girl, he thought; she could take a hint without having it underlined.
Frances always lay on Richard’s right side. It was hot and stuffy in the room, but Richard would open the windows before they went to sleep. He held her close to him. They could feel each other’s breath coming in little warm waves as they talked, their low voices smothered in the pillow.
“What was wrong, Fran?”
“Someone has been meddling with my things. The cream jars were in the wrong order; you know how I always have them arranged in a certain way. They stand on a little tray which you’ve got to lift up to get at the space underneath: Someone probably wanted to know what I kept there.”
“What do you keep?”
“Just face tissues and cotton wool and odds and ends.”
“Was anything missing?”
“My address book. You know the one—the little one I keep for addresses of hairdressers or hotels or cleaners in any place we have stayed abroad.”
“That won’t be much help to them.”
“But who are they?”
“God knows. It might be friends of Blackbeard, or it might be someone who followed Peter more successfully than he thought. The maid is the obvious agent, anyway. I just couldn’t place her when we met her in the corridor. And how did she know what time we usually returned to the hotel? She may have just been interested, in how you get that complexion, or she may be bored in that empty room next door, this very minute.” He
gripped Frances more tightly, and she let out a sudden squeal. Richard was nearer the truth than he would have cared to be. The dark-haired sallow woman, standing motionless in the empty room, her ear close to the wall, shrugged her shoulders: only murmurs and squeals in bed. A simple-minded race, the English. She moved silently to the door. She could go off duty now and report… Nothing, as usual.
Frances had asked, “You think we have been watched?”
“Only remotely. Our room has been searched, obviously, but there is nothing incriminating to find. And if they did follow us about Paris, then our movements have been innocent enough. The important thing will be whether anyone realised the meaning of tonight’s incident, or whether we shall be watched tomorrow. They can follow us about, otherwise, until they are blue in the face.”
“You sound confident.” In the darkness, Richard smiled to himself. Confident? He had seldom felt worse in his life.
“The chap we met tonight seemed pretty calm and collected. He made everything look quite simple. Damned clever too. You got it, didn’t you? One cigarette, and then, as neat emphasis, the watch which he wore the wrong way round so that we could see that it had stopped at one o’clock, I rather liked that touch.”
“To be perfectly frank, I could hardly believe it was the clue. It was so easy.”
“Well, it’s all we’ve got to go on. Add one to one…and what do you get?”
Frances laughed. “It’s too simple, really. And if at first you don’t succeed…”
“Darling, why mention that when I’d like to get some sleep?”
“Sorry, Richard.” She moved to kiss him and bumped her nose against his chin. “I’ll pack tomorrow afternoon, and then we can leave any time,” she added sleepily. She stifled a yawn against his shoulder. “It’s all this whispering,” she said. “It makes me sleepy.”
She was asleep by the time Richard had opened the windows and let the night air surge in with its welcome coolness. He looked at his wife’s fair hair on the pillow, the curve of her cheek and the dark lashes. She slept like a child, with her hands resting above her head.
He remembered her voice, blurred with sleep. We can leave any time. Leave, perhaps—but for where, and for what? He cursed Peter and himself. First instincts were often the right ones, when it was a matter of self-preservation. And keeping Frances safe was a matter of self-preservation for him. He should have stuck to his dislike of involving Frances. He ought to have come alone. But it had been easy to be persuaded for the selfish reason, quite apart from the more practical one, that this mission must seem a holiday as usual, that he would have been miserable without her. He lay and thought of the way in which two people, each with their own definite personality, could build up a third personality, a greater and more exciting one, to share between them. When two people succeeded in that, then they were complete. Without Frances, however definite his own personality might be, he was incomplete.
Sleep was impossible. He lay and watched the blackness of the courtyard bleach to grey, and felt the coldness of early morning strike his bare shoulders.
A sudden coolness had come to the city. Frances shivered as she stepped out of the taxi. Above the roofs of the twisting narrow streets she could see the illuminated dome of the Sacré Cœur. Behind her, withdrawing modestly into its shadows, was Le Lapin Agile. The doorman, like a nimble gnome in his red cap and tunic, darted down to meet them, and guided them through the narrow gate to the dark doorway.
Nothing had changed since they had last been here. It never did. The old grandfather who had founded it had died, but the rest of the family carried on in the way he had established. In the small entrance hall Madame sat behind the counter with its shaded light gleaming on the trays of cherry brandy. The girl who sang so well to the guitar was leaning on the counter talking to a young man in his shirtsleeves. She was dressed as usual in a skirt and blouse. There was the sound of a piano and of laughter from the narrow doorway at the end of the counter.
Frances and Richard waited until the applause told them that the Rabelaisian improviser had finished. The girl nodded approvingly.
“I’ll find you a place,” she said, and led the way up the few stairs into the room. The long benches on either side of the monastery tables were well filled, but the girl’s eyes, accustomed to the dimness of the lighting, had found a bench where two more could sit. The shirt-sleeved man followed them, carrying two glasses of cherry brandy. You either drank cherry brandy or not at all.
The others at the table made room for Frances and Richard good-naturedly. They joked with the girl.
“Why don’t you bring your guitar over here and sing to us?” asked one of the men. “It’s only Marius here who is going to do a little recitation next. He is with poem, again But we don’t need to listen to it, we have been hearing it all evening.” His round face creased with laughter. Everyone laughed, including Marius, a little self-consciously.
The girl smiled to Marius. “What is it tonight—a new one? Go on, do it now. I have time to listen, too.”
Marius rose and hesitated. His thin, rather hard face relaxed. He might be a student or an apprentice, thought Frances. He looked apologetically round the table and saw that Frances was watching him.
“I am not sure about the last couplet,” he explained shyly to her. They were all looking at her, waiting for her to reply. She gulped, felt her cheeks afire, and decided to risk it.
“Poète, prends ton luth!” she declaimed with her best Alexandrine accent. Everyone laughed again. The fat jovial man was enjoying himself.
“The trouble with women,” he said with mock seriousness, “is that they never finish quotations.” He looked at his wife. “One of the troubles,” he finished. Frances blushed again, and joined in the new chorus of laughter.
Richard was pleased. We couldn’t have arranged it better, he thought, and looked sympathetically across the shadows of the room at a table where other foreigners had been grouped together. He leaned back against the stone wall and filled his pipe. Marius had reached the ancient piano. He cleared his throat, and the conversations and arguments at the other tables politely diminished. He cleared his throat again, and, sweeping back the hair which fell over his eyes, began. Everyone was listening. Richard took the opportunity to look carefully round the room; his seat gave him a good view. He could observe without appearing to.
There was the usual crowd there. At first he couldn’t see anyone remotely like their friend of the Café de la Paix. There might be the possibility of disguise of course. He looked at his watch. It was just after one o’clock: time enough. He looked at the large figure of Buddha at one end of the room, and his eye naturally travelled to the large figure of Christ on the Cross on the opposite wall… And then he saw the man. He couldn’t be sure, but something about one of the men at the table at that end of the room seemed familiar. It might be… He gave all his attention to Marius, who was gathering himself to deliver the uncertain couplet. It was effective, judging by the applause. Marius, flushed with success, was returning.
The girl in the blouse and skirt rose to go.
“I have something new for you tonight,” she explained.
“Sing, sing,” they chanted.
“She has,” explained the fat man, “a most charming voice, and she chooses her songs well. Or perhaps you know?”
“Yes, I know,” said Frances.
“Aristide has set some of Villon’s songs to music for her voice,” the Frenchman continued. He nodded towards the man in shirtsleeves, who was now sitting down at the piano. He played softly to himself, as he waited for the girl to appear.
Marius and Richard had begun a discussion for two about the symbolist poets. Frances turned to the others. They were on to politics now: one of the women had begun the argument.
“Don’t spoil my evening,” said the large man almost savagely. “Politics, politics. There is no living nowadays.” He addressed himself suddenly to Frances. “I am sorry, but you will understand.” Frances could think of several reasons. She wondered which of them was responsible. The Frenchman looked at her gloomily; the laugh-lines round his mouth straightened, giving it an unexpected bitterness. His brown eyes had become hard. He leaned over the table on his elbows and his hands marked each point as he spoke.
“Twice within seven months I have had to look out my old uniform, close my business—I am a contractor—and make my goodbyes. Twice. September 1938, April 1939.” His wife beside him looked away quickly. His eyes, under the heavy brows, held Frances motionless. She could not even smile in sympathy. “There may be a third time. It will be too much. The third time will be just two too much.”