By Iain Pears
Hardcover, 608 pages
Spiegel & Grau
List Price: $27.95
Paris, March 1953.
The Church of Saint-Germain des Pres, at the start of what was supposed to be Spring, is a miserable place, made worse by the drabness of a city still in a state of shock, worse still by the little coffin in front of the altar which was my reason for being there, worse again by the aches and pains of my body as I kneeled.
She'd died a week before I arrived. I hadn't even realised she was still alive; she must have been well into her eighties, and the hardships of the past few years had weakened many a younger person. She would not have been impressed, but something approaching a real prayer for her did come into my mind, just before I struggled back onto the pew. Age has few compensations; the indignity of discomfort, the effort to conceal constant nagging pain, is most certainly not one of them.
Until I read the Figaro that morning and saw the announcement, I had been enjoying myself. I was on a farewell tour; the powers-that-be had scraped together enough foreign currency--called in a few favours at the Bank of England even--to allow me to travel. My last visit to the foreign bureaux before I retired; to Paris. Not many people could do that sort of thing these days--and would not until foreign exchange restrictions were lifted. It was a little mark of respect, and one that I appreciated.
It was a fine enough service, I thought, although I was not an expert. The priests took their time, the choir sang prettily enough, the prayers were said, and it was all over. A short eulogy paid tribute to her tireless, selfless work for the unfortunate but said nothing of her character. The congregation was mainly freshly scrubbed and intense-looking children, who were clipped around the ear by teachers if they made any untoward noise. I looked around, to see who would take charge of the next round, but no one seemed to know what to do. Eventually the undertaker took over. The body, he said, would be interred in Pere Lachaise that afternoon, at two o'clock, at 15, Chemin du Dragon. All who wished to attend were welcome. Then the pallbearers picked up the coffin and marched out, leaving the mourners feeling lost and cold.
"Excuse me, but is your name Braddock? Matthew Braddock?"
A quiet voice of a young man, neatly dressed, with a black band around his arm. I nodded, and he held out his hand. "My name is Whitely," he said. "Harold Whitely, of Henderson, Bailey, Fenton. I recognised you from newsreels."
"Solicitors, you know. We dealt with Madame Robillard's residual legal business in England. Not that there was much of it. I am so glad to meet you; I was planning to write in any case, once I got back."
"Really? She didn't leave me any money, did she?"
He smiled. "I'm afraid not. By the time she died she was really quite poor."
"Goodness gracious me," I said, with a smile.
"Why the surprise?"
"She was very wealthy when I knew her."
"I'd heard that. But I knew her only as a sweet old lady with a weakness for worthy causes. But I found her charming, on the few occasions we met. Quite captivating in fact."
"Yes, that's her," I replied. "Why did you come to the funeral?"
"A tradition of the firm," he said with a grimace. "We bury all our clients. A last service. But, you know--it's a trip to Paris, and there's not much opportunity of that these days. Unfortunately, I could get hold of so little currency I have to go straight back this evening."
"I have a little more than that, so would you care for a drink?"
He nodded, and we walked down the Boulevard Saint-Germain to a cafe, past the grim buildings blackened with the filth of a century or more of smoke and fumes. Whitely--formerly Captain Whitely, so he told me--had a slightly annoying tendency to grip my elbow at the difficult bits to make sure I did not trip and fall. I didn't mind, although the assumption of decrepitude was a little annoying.
A good brandy; she deserved no less, and we drank her health by the plate glass window as we sat on our rickety wooden chairs. "Madame Robillard," we intoned, several times over, becoming more garrulous as we drank. He told me of life in Intelligence during the war--the time of his life, he said wistfully, now gone for good and replaced with daily toil as a London solicitor. I told him stories of reporting for the BBC; of D-Day, of telling the world about the Blitz. All yesterday, and another age.
"Who was her husband?" I asked. "I assume he is long dead."
"Robillard died about a decade ago. He ran the orphanages and schools with her."
"Is that why there were all those children in the church?"
"I imagine so. She started her first home after the war--the first war. There were so many orphans and abandoned children, and she somehow got involved with them. By the end there were about ten or twelve schools and orphanages, I gather, all run on the very latest humanitarian principles. They consumed her entire fortune, in fact, so much so that I imagine they will all be taken over by the state now."
"A good enough use for it. When I knew her she was married to Lord Ravenscliff. That was more than forty years ago, though."
I paused. Whitely looked blank. "Have you heard of Ravenscliff?" I enquired.
"No," he said. "Should I have?"
I thought, then shook my head. "Maybe not. He was an industrialist, but most of his companies disappeared in the Depression. Some closed, others were bought up. Vickers took over some, I remember. The lone and level sands stretch far away, you know."
"Nothing." I breathed in the thick air of cigarette smoke and damp, then attracted the waiter's eye and called for more drinks. It seemed a good idea. Whitely was not cheering me up at all. It was quiet; few people around, and the waiters were prepared to work hard for the few customers they had. One of them almost smiled, but managed to restrain himself.
"Tell me about her," I said when we were refilled once more. "I hadn't seen her for many years. I only discovered she was dead by chance."
"Not much to say. She lived in an apartment just up the road here, went to church, did good works, and outlived her friends. She read a great deal, and loved going to the cinema. I understand she had a weakness for Humphrey Bogart films. Her English was excellent, for a Frenchwoman."
"She lived in England when I knew her. Hungarian by birth, though."
"Apart from that there's nothing to say, is there?"
"I suppose not. A quiet and blameless life. What were you going to write to me about?"
"Hmm? Oh, that. Well, Mr. Henderson, you know, our senior partner. He died a year ago and we've been clearing out his papers. There was a package for you."
"For me? What is it? Gold? Jewels? Dollar bills? Swiss watches? I could use some of those. We old age pensioners . . ."
"I couldn't say what's in it. It's sealed. It was part of the estate of Mr. Henry Cort . . ."
"You knew him, I assume?"
"We met, many years ago."
"As I say, part of the Cort estate. Curious thing is that it carried instructions that you were to be given it only on Madame Robillard's death. Which was very exciting for us. There isn't much excitement in a solicitor's office, let me tell you. Hence my intention to write to you. Do you know why?"
"I have absolutely no idea. I scarcely knew Cort at all, and certainly haven't even cast eyes on him for more than thirty years. I came across him when I was writing a biography of Madame Robillard's first husband. That's how I knew her as well."
"I hope it was a great success."
"Unfortunately not. I never finished it. The reaction of most publishers was about as enthusiastic as your own was when I mentioned his name."
"It was a long time ago. I went back to being a journalist, then joined the BBC when it started up, after the war. The first war. When did Cort die?" Curious how, the older you get, the more important other people's deaths become.
"When I get back, send me your package. If it's valuable, I'll be glad to get it. But I doubt it will be. As far as I remember, Cort didn't like me very much. I certainly didn't like him."
And then we ran out of things to say to each other, as strangers of different generations do. I paid and began my old man's routine of wrapping myself up, coat hat, scarf, gloves, pulling everything tight to keep out the bitterness of the weather. Whitely pulled on a thin, threadbare coat. Army demob, by the look of it. But he didn't seem half as cold as I was just thinking of going outside.
"Are you going to the cemetery?"
"That would be the death of me as well. She would not have expected it, and probably would have thought me sentimental. And I have a train at four. When I get back I will dig out my old notes to see how much I actually remember, and how much I merely think I remember."
I took my train from the Gare de Lyon that afternoon, and the cold of Paris faded, along with thoughts of Madame Virginie Robillard, formerly Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff, as I went south to the greater warmth of a Mediterranean spring.
She remained in the back of my mind wherever I went, whatever I saw, until I returned to my little house in Hampstead to dig out my old notes. Then I went to visit Mr. Whitely.
When I became involved in the life and death of William John Stone, First (and last) Baron Ravenscliff, I was working as a journalist. You note I do not say I was a journalist. Merely working as one. It is one of the better kept secrets of the trade that you do have to be quite serious if you wish to have any success. You spend long hours hanging around in pubs, waiting for something to happen, and when it does, it is often of no great interest. I specialised in court cases, and so lived my life around the Old Bailey, eating with my fellows, dozing with them during boring testimony, drinking with them as we awaited a verdict, then running back to the office to knock out some deathless prose.
Murders were the best, of course. "Railway Trunk Murderer to Hang." "Ealing Strangler Begs for Mercy." They all had nicknames, the good ones, anyway. I made up many of them myself; I had a sort of facility for a snappy phrase. I even did what no other reporter did, which was occasionally to investigate a case from the very beginnings; I spent a small portion of my paper's money on policemen, who were then as susceptible to a small inducement--a drink, a meal, a present for their children--as they are now. I became very able at understanding how the police and murderers worked. Far too good at it, in the eyes of my grander colleagues, who thought it squalid. In my defence I can say that it was an interest shared with much of the newspaper-buying public, who loved nothing more than a good garrotting to read about on a Sunday morning, just before going to church to think about love for one's fellow man. The best thing was a beautiful young woman, done to death in a particularly horrible way. Always a crowd pleaser, that.
And it appeared that it was because of some expertise of mine that I came across Lord Ravenscliff. Or his widow, from whom I received a letter, one fine April morning, asking me to come and see her. This was about a fortnight after he died, although that event had rather passed me by at the time.
"Anyone know anything about Lady Elizabeth Ravenscliff?" I asked in the Duck, where I was breakfasting on a pint of beer and a sausage roll. It was fairly empty that morning; there had not been a decent trial for weeks and none in the offing either. Even the judges were complaining that the criminal classes seemed to have lost their appetite for work.
My enquiry was met with a communal grunt that signified a total lack of interest.
"Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff. Do get it right." It was George Short who replied, an old man who was the very definition of a hack. He could turn his hand to anything, and was a better reporter blind drunk than any of his fellows--including me--sober. Give him some information, and he would write it up. And if you didn't give him some information, he would make it up so perfectly the result was better than the truth. Which is, in fact, another one of the rules of journalism. Fiction is generally better than reality, and is usually more trustworthy.
George, who dressed so appallingly that he was once arrested for vagrancy, put down his pint--his fourth that morning, and it was only ten o'clock--and wiped his stubbly chin. Rather like the aristocracy, you can tell a reporter's status by his clothes and manners. The worse they are, the higher up they are, as only the lowly have to make a good impression. George had to impress no one. Everyone knew him, from judges down to the criminals themselves, and all called him George, and most would stand him a drink. At that stage I was more than a beginner, but less than an old hand--I had abandoned the ill-fitting black suit and was now affecting tweeds and a pipe, aiming at the literary, raffish look which, I thought, quite suited me. Few agreed with my opinion, but I felt rather splendid when I looked at myself in the mirror of a morning.
"Very well. Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff, then. Who is she?" I replied.
"The wife of Lord Ravenscliff. Widow, rather."
"And he was?"
"A Baron," said George, who sometimes took the rule about giving all relevant information a little too far. "Given a peerage in 1902, as I recall. I don't know why, he probably bought it like they all do. John Stone was his name. Money man of some sort, I think. Fell out of a window a couple of weeks back. Only an accident, unfortunately."
"What sort of money man?"
"How should I know? He had money. What's it to you, anyway?"
I handed him the letter.
George tapped his pipe on the heel of his shoe and sniffed loudly.
Excerpted from Stone's Fall Copyright © 2009 by Iain Pears. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.