London, September 1930
The young policewoman stood in the corner of the room. Plain whitewashed walls, a heavy door, a wooden table with two chairs, and one small window with frosted glass rendered the room soulless. It was a cold afternoon and she'd been in the corner since coming on duty two hours ago, her only company the rumpled and bent girl sitting in the chair that faced the wall. Others had come into the room to sit in the second chair: first, Detective Inspector Richard Stratton, with Detective Sergeant Caldwell standing behind him; then Stratton standing while a doctor from the Maudsley Hospital sat before the girl, trying to get her to speak. The girl --- no one knew her age or where she had come from because she hadn't spoken a word since she was brought in this morning, her bloodstained dress, hands and face showing a month's worth of dirt --- was now waiting for another person who had been summoned to question her: a Miss Maisie Dobbs. The policewoman had heard of Maisie Dobbs, but with what she had seen today, she wasn't sure that anyone could get this young scrubber to talk.
The policewoman heard voices outside the door: Stratton and Caldwell and then another voice. A smooth voice. A voice that was neither loud nor soft, that did not need to be raised to be heard or, thought the policewoman, to get someone to listen.
The door opened and Stratton came in, followed by a woman she presumed to be Maisie Dobbs. The policewoman was surprised, for the woman was nothing like she had expected, but then she realized that the voice had revealed little about the owner, except that it had depth without being deep.
Wearing a plain burgundy suit with black shoes and carrying a worn black leather document case, the visitor smiled at both the policewoman and Stratton in a way that almost startled the uniformed woman, as her eyes met the midnight-blue eyes of Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and investigator.
"Pleased to meet you, Miss Chalmers," said Maisie, though they had not been introduced. The warm familiarity of the greeting took Chalmers aback. "Brrr. It's cold in here," added the investigator, turning to Stratton. "Inspector, can we bring in an oil stove? Just to take the edge off?"
Stratton raised an eyebrow and inclined his head at the unusual nature of the request. Amused at seeing her superior caught off guard, Chalmers tried to hide a grin, and the seated girl looked up, just for a second, because the woman's voice compelled her to do so.
"Good. Thank you, Inspector. Oh --- and perhaps a chair for Miss Chalmers." Maisie Dobbs removed her gloves, placing them on top of the black bag, which she set on the floor, before pulling a chair around so that she was seated not opposite the girl, on the other side of the table, but close to her.
Strange, thought Chalmers, as the door opened and a constable brought in another chair, left the room, and returned with a small paraffin stove, which he placed by the wall. They exchanged quick glances and shrugged shoulders.
"Thank you," said Maisie, smiling.
And they knew she had seen their furtive communication.
Now, sitting alongside the girl, Maisie said nothing. She said nothing for some time, so that after a while Chalmers wondered what in heaven's name she was there for. Then she realized that the Dobbs woman had closed her eyes and had changed her position slowly, and though she couldn't put her finger on it, it was as if she were talking to the girl without opening her mouth, so that the girl --- as if she couldn't help herself --- leaned toward Maisie Dobbs. Blimey, she's going to talk.
"I'm getting warmer now." It was a rounded voice, a west-country voice. The girl spoke deliberately, with rolled r's and a nod when her sentence was finished. A farm girl. Yes, Chalmers would have pegged her for a farm girl.
But Maisie Dobbs said nothing, just opened her eyes and smiled, but not with her mouth. No, it was her eyes that smiled. Then she touched the girl's hand, taking it in her own. The girl began to cry and, very strange again, thought Chalmers, the Dobbs woman didn't reach out to put an arm around her shoulder, or try to stop her or use the moment as Stratton and Caldwell might have. No, she just sat and nodded, as if she had all the time in the world. Then she surprised the policewoman again.
"Miss Chalmers. Would you be so kind as to poke your head around the door and ask for a bowl of hot water, some soap, two flannels, and a towel, please."
Chalmers gave a single nod and moved toward the door. Oh, this would surely give the girls something to chew over later. They'd all have a giggle about this little pantomime.
A bowl of hot water was brought to the room by the police constable, along with the flannels, soap, and towel. Maisie removed her jacket, placed it over the back of the chair, and rolled up the sleeves of her cream silk blouse. Reaching into the bowl, she rubbed some soap on a wet flannel and squeezed out the excess water. Then she lifted the girl's chin, smiled into her reddened and bloodshot eyes, and began to wash her face, rinsing the flannel and going back again, dabbing the hot cloth on the girl's temples and across her forehead. She washed her arms, holding first her left hand in the hot flannel and working the cloth up to her elbow, then reaching for the girl's right hand. The girl flinched, but Maisie showed no sign of noticing the movement, instead massaging her right hand with the cloth, gently working it along her arm to the elbow, and then rinsing again.
It was as she knelt on the floor, taking one filthy bare foot after the other and washing the dirt and grime away with the second flannel, that the policewoman realized she had become mesmerized by the scene unfolding before her. It's like being in church.
The girl spoke again. "You've got right soft 'ands, miss."
Maisie Dobbs smiled. "Thank you. I used to be a nurse, years ago, in the war. That's what the soldiers used to say: that my hands were soft."
The girl nodded.
"What's your name?"
Chalmers stared as the girl --- who had been sitting in that room without so much as a cup of tea since she was brought in twelve hours ago --- replied immediately.
"Avril Jarvis, miss."
"Where are you from?"
"Taunton, miss." She began to sob.
Maisie Dobbs reached into the black bag and brought out a clean linen handkerchief, which she placed on the table in front of the girl. Chalmers waited for Maisie to take out a sheet of paper to write notes, but she didn't; instead she simply continued with her questions as she finished drying the girl's feet.
"How old are you, Avril?"
"Fourteen next April, I reckon."
Maisie smiled. "Tell me, why are you in London and not Taunton?"
Avril Jarvis sobbed continuously as Maisie folded the towel and sat next to her again. But she did answer the question, along with every other question put to her over the next hour, at which point Maisie said that was enough for now; she would be taken care of and they would speak again tomorrow --- only Detective Inspector Stratton would have to hear her story too. Then, adding fuel to the tale that Chalmers would tell the other policewomen lodging in rooms upstairs at Vine Street, the Jarvis girl nodded and said, "All right, then. Just so long as you'll be with me, miss."
"Yes. I'll be here. Don't worry. You can rest now, Avril."
Following a debriefing with Stratton and Caldwell, Maisie was taken back to her office in Fitzroy Square by Stratton's driver, who would collect her again tomorrow morning for another interview with Avril Jarvis. Maisie knew that much rested on the outcome of this second interview. Depending upon what was revealed and what could be corroborated, Avril Jarvis might spend the rest of her life behind bars.
"You've been gone a long time, Miss," said Billy Beale, her assistant, running his fingers back through his sun-burnished hair. He came to Maisie's side, took her coat and placed it on the hook behind the door.
"Yes, it was a long one, Billy. Poor little mite didn't stand a chance. Mind you, I'm not sure how deeply the police are looking into her background at this point, and I would like to have some closer-to-the-bone impressions and information. If I'm required to give evidence under oath, I want to be better prepared." Maisie took off her hat, placed it on the corner of her desk, and slipped her gloves into the top drawer. "I'm wondering, Billy. Would you and Doreen fancy a trip down to Taunton for the weekend, with everything paid for?"
"You mean like an 'oliday, Miss?"
Maisie inclined her head. "Well, it won't be quite like being on holiday. I want you to find out more about Avril Jarvis, the girl I interviewed this morning. She said she's from Taunton and I have no reason to disbelieve her. Find out where she lived, who her family are, whether she went to school there, if she worked, and when
she left to come to London. I want to know why she came to London --- I doubt if she knew it was for a life on the streets --- and what she was like as a child." She shook her head. "Heavens, she's only thirteen now --- all but a child. It's wretched."
"She in trouble, Miss?"
"Oh, yes. Very big trouble. She is about to be charged with the crime of murder."
"Gawd --- and she's only thirteen?"
"Yes. Now then, can you go to Taunton?"
Billy pressed his lips together. "Well, it's not as if me and Doreen have had much of an 'oliday together, ever, really. She don't like to leave the nippers, but you know, I suppose me mum can look after 'em while we're away."
Maisie nodded and took out a new manila folder, which she inscribed avril jarvis and passed to Billy, along with a collection of index cards upon which she had scribbled notes while waiting for her debriefing with Stratton and Caldwell. "Good. Let me know as soon as possible if and when you can go. I'll advance you the money for the train, a guesthouse, and incidentals. Now then, let's get on as I've to leave early this evening."
Billy took the folder and sat down at his desk. "Oh, yeah, you're seein' that old friend of yours, Mrs. Partridge."
Maisie turned her attention to a ledger before her. She did not look up. "Yes, Priscilla Partridge --- Evernden, as she was when we were at Girton together. After two terms she joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry in 1915 and drove an ambulance in France." Maisie sighed and looked up. "She couldn't stand to stay in England after the Armistice. She'd lost all three brothers to war, and her parents to the flu, so she went to live on the Atlantic coast of France. That's where she met Douglas Partridge."
"I reckon I've 'eard that name before." Billy tapped the side of his head with a pencil.
"Douglas is a famous author and poet. He was badly wounded in the war, lost an arm. His poetry about the war was very controversial when it was first published here, but he's managed to continue with his work --- though it's very dark, if you know what I mean."
"Not really, Miss. I'd 'eard of 'im, but, y'know, poetry's not up my alley, to tell you the truth."
Maisie smiled and continued. "Priscilla has three boys. She calls them ‘the toads' and says they are just like her brothers, always up to something. She's back in London to look at schools for them for next year. She and Douglas have decided that the boys are growing up and need to have a British education."
Billy shook his head. "Don't think I could part with my nippers --- oh, sorry, Miss." He pressed his hand to his mouth, remembering that Frankie Dobbs had sent Maisie to work as a maid in the home of Lord Julian Compton and his wife, Lady Rowan, when her mother died. At the time, Maisie was barely thirteen years old.
Maisie shrugged. "That's all right, Billy. It's well past now. My father was doing what he thought best for me, and no doubt that's what Priscilla is doing. Each to their own --- we've all got to part one day, haven't we?" Maisie shrugged. "Let's just get these bills finished and go home."
For the past year, Maisie had lived at Lord and Lady Compton's Belgravia home. The accommodation had been offered to Maisie in the context of a favor to Lady Rowan, who wanted someone she trusted living "upstairs" during her absence --- Maisie was now an independent woman with her own business, since her mentor and former employer, Maurice Blanche, retired. So instead of a lowly bed in the servants' quarters at the top of the mansion --- her first experience of life in the household --- Maisie occupied elegant rooms on the second floor. The Comptons were spending more time at Chelstone, their country home in Kent, where Maisie's father was the groom. It was generally thought that the Belgravia property was now retained only to pass on to James, the Comptons' son who managed the family's business affairs in Canada.
For most of the time, Maisie was alone in the house but for a small complement of servants; then at the end of summer, Lady Rowan would sweep into town to take up her position as one of London's premier hostesses. However, extravagance had been curtailed since last year when Lady Rowan, with a compassion uncommon among the aristocracy, declared, "I simply cannot indulge in such goings-on when half the country hasn't enough food in its belly! No, we will draw in our horns and instead see what we can do to get the country out of this wretched mess!"
Upon arriving at Ebury Place that evening, Maisie brought her MG to the mews behind the mansion and noticed immediately that Lord Compton's Rolls-Royce was parked alongside the old Lanchester and that George, his chauffeur, was in conversation with Eric, a footman who took charge of the motor cars when George was in Kent.
George touched his forehead and opened Maisie's door for her. "Evening, m'um. Very nice to see you."
"George! What are you doing here? Is Lady Rowan in London?"
"No, m'um, only His Lordship. But he's not staying. Just a business meeting and then to his club."
"Oh. A meeting at the house?"
"Yes, m'um. And if you don't mind, he's said that as soon as you returned he'd like you to join him in the library."
"Me?" Maisie was surprised. She sometimes thought that Lord Compton had merely indulged his wife in her support of her in the early years of her education, though he had always been nothing less than cordial in his communications.
"Yes, m'um. He knows you're going out later, but he said to say it wouldn't take long."
Maisie nodded to George and thanked Eric, who stepped forward with a cloth to attend to the already shining MG. Instead of entering through the kitchen door, an informality that had become her custom, she walked quickly to the front entrance, whereupon the door was immediately opened by Sandra, the most senior "below stairs" employee in the absence of the butler, Carter, who was at Chelstone.
"Evening, m'um." Sandra gave only a short curtsy, knowing that Maisie hated such formalities. "His Lordship --- "
"Yes, George just told me." She passed her hat and coat to Sandra but kept hold of her document case. She checked the silver nurse's watch that was pinned to her lapel, a gift from Lady Rowan when she was sent to France in 1916. The watch had been her talisman ever since. "Thank you, Sandra. Look, could you run me a bath, please? I have to meet Mrs. Partridge at the Strand Palace by seven, and I really don't want to be late."
"Right you are, m'um. Pity she couldn't have stayed here. It's not as if we don't have the room."
Maisie patted her thick black hair and replied as she sped toward the sweeping staircase. "Oh, she said she wanted to be waited on hand and foot in a lavish hotel now that she has a few days' respite from her boys."
Outside the library door, Maisie composed herself before knocking. The men's voices carried; Lord Compton's was sharp and decisive. The second voice seemed deep and resolute, and as Maisie listened she closed her eyes and began to mouth the overheard words, automatically moving her body to assume a posture suggested by the voice. Yes, this was a man of decision, a man of bearing, with weight upon his shoulders. She thought he might be a solicitor, though one thing sparked her interest in the seconds before she knocked on the door and walked into the library: The man's voice, as Maisie interpreted it, held more than a hint of fear.
"Maisie, good of you to spare us a few moments of your precious time." Julian Compton held out his hand to Maisie to draw her into the room. He was a tall, thin man, with gray hair swept back and a debonair ease of movement that suggested wealth, confidence and success.
"It's a pleasure to see you, Lord Julian. How is Lady Rowan?"
"Apart from that wretched hip, there's no stopping her! Of course, there's another foal on the way now --- perhaps another Derby promise in a couple of years!" Lord Compton turned to the man standing with his back to the fireplace. "Allow me to introduce a very good friend of mine, Sir Cecil Lawton, QC."
Maisie approached the man and shook hands. "Good evening, Sir Cecil." She noticed the man's discomfort, the way his eyes did not quite meet her own, focusing instead on a place over her shoulder before looking down at his feet, then back to Lord Julian. I can almost smell the fear, thought Maisie.
Cecil Lawton was only one or two inches taller than Maisie. He had dark-gray wavy hair that parted in the center and was swept to the sides. He wore half-moon spectacles, and his bulbous nose seemed to sit uncomfortably above a waxed mustache. His clothes were expensive, though not new. Maisie had met many such men in the course of her work, barristers and judges who had once invested heavily in making an impression but, having reached the pinnacle of success in the legal profession, did not regard Savile Row with the reverence of their younger days.
"I'm delighted to see you, Miss Dobbs; you may remember that we have met before. It was when you gave evidence for the defense in the Tadworth case. The man might have been on his way to Wormwood Scrubs, had it not been for your acute observations."
"Thank you, Sir Cecil." Maisie was now anxious to know the reason for her being introduced to Lawton, not least to allow her time to get ready for supper with Priscilla. She turned to Lord Julian. "I understand that you wanted to see me, Lord Julian. Is there a matter I might assist you with?"
Lord Julian looked at Lawton briefly. "Let's sit down. Maisie, Sir Cecil requires confirmation of information received some years ago, during the war. He came to me, and I immediately suggested that you might be able to help." Lord Julian glanced at Lawton, then brought his attention back to Maisie. "I think it best if Sir Cecil explains the situation to you in private, without any commentary from me. I know you would prefer to hear the details in his words, and any questions you put to him can be answered in absolute confidence. I should add, Maisie" --- Lord Julian smiled at his friend --- "I have informed my good friend here that your fees are not insignificant and you are worth every penny!"
Maisie smiled and inclined her head. "Thank you, Lord Julian."
"Very well. Good. I'm off to my lair for ten minutes or so. I'll be back shortly."
Sir Cecil Lawton fidgeted in his seat, then stood again with his back to the fire. Maisie leaned back slightly in her chair, a move that caused Lawton to clear his throat and begin speaking.
"This is most unusual, Miss Dobbs. I had not imagined that I might one day be seeking assistance in this matter. . . ." Lawton shook his head, his eyes closed, then looked up and continued. "My only son, Ralph, was killed in the war."
"I'm sorry, Sir Cecil." Maisie issued her regret softly. Sensing that Lawton had a burden to shed, she leaned forward to indicate that she was listening closely. He had pronounced his son's name Rafe in the old-fashioned manner.
"I was in a position to ask questions, so there was --- is --- no doubt in my mind that Ralph was lost. He was in the Flying Corps. Those chaps were lucky if they were still alive three weeks after arriving in France."
Maisie nodded but said nothing.
Lawton cleared his throat, held his fist against his mouth for a second, folded his arms, and continued. "My wife, however, always maintained that Ralph was alive. She became very --- very unstable, I think you would say, after we received the news. She believed that one day he would come back again. She said a mother knew such things. Agnes suffered a nervous collapse a year after the war. She had become involved with spiritualists, mediums, and all sorts of quackery, all in an attempt to prove that Ralph was still alive."
"There were many who consulted such people, Sir Cecil. Your wife was not alone in that respect."
Lawton nodded and pressed on with his story. "One of them even said that a spirit guide --- " He shook his head and once again took a seat opposite Maisie. "I'm sorry, Miss Dobbs. The mere thought of it all makes my blood boil. The fact that one person can wield such power over another is abhorrent. Is it not enough for a family to endure loss, without having a witch --- " Lawton appeared to falter, then regained composure. "Anyway, my wife was told that a spirit guide had passed on a message from the other side that Ralph was not dead, but very much alive."
"How difficult for you." Maisie was careful to maintain a middle ground as she listened to the story. There was something in Lawton's manner as he spoke of his son that made her feel uneasy. Her skin prickled slightly at the nape of her neck, where the scar left by an exploding shell was etched into her scalp. His regard for his son was compromised.
"My wife spent the final two years of her life in an asylum, Miss Dobbs, a private institution in the country. I could not afford rumors that might jeopardize my position. She was cared for in very comfortable circumstances."
Maisie looked at the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. She needed to move on. "Tell me, Sir Cecil, how may I be of service to you?"
Lawton cleared his throat and began to speak. "Agnes, my wife, passed away three months ago. There was only a small funeral and the usual notice of her passing in The Times. However, on her deathbed, she begged me to promise that I would find Ralph."
"Oh." Maisie placed her hands together and brought them to her lips, as if in prayer.
"Yes. I promised to find someone who is dead." He turned to face Maisie directly for the first time. "I am duty bound to search for him. That's why I have come to you --- at Julian's suggestion."
"Lord Julian was at the War Office during the war. I am sure he has access to records."
"Of course, and the search only revealed what we already know: Captain Ralph Lawton, RFC, died in France in August 1917."
"What do you want me to do, Sir Cecil?"
"I want you to prove my son dead, once and for all."
"I'm sorry, but I must ask: What about his grave?"
"Ah, yes, the grave. My son died in an inferno when his aeroplane came down. There was little left of the craft, let alone my son. His remains are buried in France."
"I am taking this step to keep a promise to my wife."
Maisie frowned. "But such a search could go on indefinitely, and difficult to bear, if I may say so, Sir Cecil."
"Yes, yes, quite, I understand. However, I have decided that there must be a time limit set for such a task."
Maisie sighed deeply. "Sir Cecil, as you no doubt understand, in my work I am familiar with unusual requests and have taken on assignments that others have refused or abused. In a case such as this, my responsibility must extend to your well-being --- if I may speak frankly."
"I'm perfectly all right, you know. I --- "
Standing, Maisie walked to the window, glanced at her watch, and turned to face Lawton. "Brutal honesty is often a requirement of my work, and I must --- as I said --- be frank. You are recently bereaved, and your wife has burdened you with a terrible promise: to find a son who, to all intents and purposes, is dead. It would seem that, since you received word of his death, you have not been able to seal his passing with the rituals that we must all go through to release those who are lost to the past."
Maisie paused for a moment, looked back at Lawton, and continued. "It is only through such a pilgrimage of mourning that we are free to remember the dead with a fullness of heart. In taking on this case, your passage through grief and remembrance will be of paramount consideration. You see, Sir Cecil, I am not yet sure how I might proceed with such work, but I know only too well how difficult it will be for you to relive your loss as I go about my inquiry. And of course I would be investigating those your wife consulted in her search for confirmation of her sense that he was alive."
"I see. At least I think I see. I thought you could just search records, go over to France, and . . ." Lawton's words stalled. It was clear he had no idea what Maisie might do in France.
"Allow me to make a suggestion, if I may, Sir Cecil. Consider all I have said, and the implications of my investigation. Then please telephone me at my office, and we will proceed from that day if you still wish me to search for the truth regarding Ralph's death." Maisie reached into her document case and pulled out a calling card that she passed to Lawton. It was inscribed with her name, followed by Psychologist and Investigator and her telephone number.
Lawton studied the card for a moment before pushing it into the pocket of his waistcoat. "Yes, quite. I'll consider the breadth of my request."
"Good. Now, if you will excuse me, Sir Cecil, I really must hurry. I have a supper engagement this evening."
A single knock at the door heralded the perfectly timed entrance of Lord Julian Compton.
"I thought you'd be just about finished by now."
"Yes, Julian. Miss Dobbs has been most helpful." Sir Cecil held out his hand to Maisie.
"I look forward to hearing from you in due course, Sir Cecil." Maisie shook the proffered hand and turned to leave. "One more thing regarding your wife's assertion, Sir Cecil: Should you choose to commence with the investigation, I will be curious to know if your wife ever attributed a reason for Ralph's not returning home --- if she thought him alive."
Returning to her rooms, Maisie bathed, then styled her hair quickly before putting on her black day dress. She had no gowns or evening wear, choosing instead something from her wardrobe that would "do" for supper at the Strand Palace Hotel. She applied rouge sparingly, along with a swish of lipstick, and patted her hair one last time. Her long tresses had finally met the hairdresser's scissors in early summer and, though the new haircut was stylish, she found she missed the weight at the back of her head and along her spine when she unpinned her chignon. Now the chin-length bob was growing out, which Maisie liked: For once in her life she was following fashion.
Collecting the freshly polished MG, Maisie sped off toward the Strand Palace, where she was to meet Priscilla. Though they had kept in touch, the women had met only once or twice after Priscilla left England to live in Biarritz. At first, Maisie had questioned her friend's decision to reside abroad, but she knew Priscilla needed to reignite an effervescent personality numbed by loss and grief. In Biarritz she had immersed herself in a round of parties but was saved from a life of postwar decadence by the quiet strength and resolve of her husband, the poet Douglas Partridge, who welcomed Priscilla into his home on the coast and into the calming influence of his life of artistic endeavor and introspection. Maisie was happy for her friend and considered the union sound. Priscilla had discovered true joy again and in so doing encouraged Douglas's confidence in company. Now, with three sons, Priscilla's enviable energy was often sapped by the end of the day, though Maisie wondered how her friend would ever fare if she lost the boys' nanny.
It wasn't just Priscilla and her family that occupied Maisie's thoughts as she maneuvered through the London traffic. She was troubled by the meeting with Sir Cecil Lawton, by a case that might be lucrative but seemed fraught with ambiguity. She liked to bring her cases to a complete close, to know her notes could be filed away with all loose ends tied. She could not fail to notice that Agnes Lawton had clearly asked her husband to find their son, whereas Lawton had briefed Maisie to prove him dead, a distinction that hinted at a client who might be more troublesome than most. She hoped Lawton would decide against the investigation.
Maisie parked the motor car. As she rushed into the grand entrance of the Strand Palace, she caught a glimpse of herself in the newly refurbished modern and very avant-garde mirrored glass foyer and sighed. In truth, there was one aspect of the reunion that she was dreading: Priscilla was a self-confessed fashion hound. Her long limbs, aquiline features, and shining chestnut hair seemed to lend themselves to any style, any ensemble—always brand-new and very expensive. As she had written to Maisie, "I spend much of my day on my hands and knees or otherwise steeped in the life of three impish toads, so I never begrudge myself the odd shopping trip to Paris." Maisie knew she would feel hopelessly drab in her company.
Maisie noticed Priscilla immediately, sitting on an armchair at the agreed-upon meeting place. She stopped for a moment to regard her old friend. Priscilla wore wide trousers of heavy black silk, with a pale gray chemise tucked into the wide waistband. A black silk jacket, shorter than the thigh length Maisie favored, was set upon her shoulders. Pale gray piping edged the jacket, and a gray silk handkerchief was tucked into a breast pocket. Maisie brushed a few specks of lint from her dress, which she suddenly felt to be pitifully behind the times. Priscilla turned to face her; then, with a beaming smile, quickly but elegantly unfolded her long legs and rose from the chair.
"Maisie, darling, you look absolutely smashing. It must be love!"
"Oh, come on, Pris." Maisie kissed Priscilla on both cheeks before the women stood back to appraise each other.
"Well, I'll say this for you, you don't have wrinkles." Priscilla reached into her bag and pulled out a fresh cigarette, which she pressed into an ebony holder. Maisie remembered the flourish with which Priscilla would smoke her illicit cigarettes when they were at Girton, waving the holder to emphasize a point, sometimes blowing a perfect smoke ring before saying, "Well, if you want my opinion . . ." which she would give without waiting for a response.
Priscilla put her arm through Maisie's and led her conspiratorially toward the Grill Room. "Now then, I want to know everything—and I mean everything, especially about whoever it is that has given you a twinkle in your eye. I know you've had a couple of suitors, and I know that twinkle. I remember seeing it when we went to Simon's leaving party. Do you remember—" Priscilla stopped suddenly. "Oh, God. Sorry, Maisie, I didn't mean—"
"Oh, not to worry, Pris. It was a long time ago. And it was a wonderful party, the best of my life." Maisie smiled to let Priscilla know that a reference to Simon was not ill-timed. Captain Simon Lynch was the young army doctor whom she had loved, but whose terrible injuries in the Great War had rendered him incapacitated in body and mind.
Priscilla stopped and looked into Maisie's eyes, her own glistening with tears that revealed the depth of her remembered grief. Maisie rubbed her friend's hand as it rested on her arm. "Come on, let's have that drink, Pris. I know I'd like one."
"My, you have changed! Now all I have to do is take you shopping."
Maisie turned to Priscilla as they were shown to a table. "I knew it would be only a minute or two before you tried to take me in hand."
"All right, I'll leave that topic until later. You may be seeing a country doctor—it is him, isn't it?—but there's no need to go all frumpy and pearly yet."
"But I'm not—"
Priscilla held up a hand playfully as she ordered a gin and tonic. Maisie asked for a cream sherry.
"So. Come on, out with it; tell me all about him. Is it that Andrew Dene? Dr. Andrew Dene? The one you wrote about in your last letter?"
"Look, it's not serious courting, we're—oh, thank you." Maisie smiled at the waiter, glad for the interruption of their drinks being set upon the table.
"Not serious? I'll wager, Maisie, that it's serious for Dr. Dene! Has he asked you to marry him?"
"Well, no. . . ."
"Oh, come on. Here you are, a successful woman of professional standing, and seeing you blush I feel as if I'm talking to my lovesick nanny." Priscilla stubbed out her cigarette and took a hefty sip of her gin and tonic. "Who, I might add, has almost given me gray hair by conducting an affair with a man I consider to be a very nasty piece of work."
"Thank heavens the comparison ends there. Andrew's actually very nice."
"So why aren't you marrying him?"
Maisie sipped her sherry and set her glass down. "If you must know, he hasn't asked me. For goodness' sake, we've hardly seen each other since we first went to the theater. I enjoy his company—he is such fun, you'd like him—but apart from spending the odd day together at the weekend, or an evening during the week if he's in town, we are both busy."
Priscilla pressed another cigarette into the holder, raised an eyebrow, and leaned toward Maisie. "Are you sure you've only spent the odd day at the weekend? Not the whole weekend?"
"That's it; no more, Priscilla Evernden. You are a devil!" Maisie laughed, joined by Priscilla. "Oh, it is good to see you, Pris. Come on, tell me about the boys. Have you found a suitable school for them?"
The waiter returned to take their order for supper, and as he left, Priscilla went on to bring Maisie up-to-date with family life and the search for a school that would accommodate three boys, used to a certain freedom in their fashionable French coastal resort but who must now begin to prepare for a more restrained life ahead. The conversation continued over the meal.
"So, we're sort of between the devil and the deep blue sea, trying to get them educated without having the life whipped out of them if they so much as put a foot wrong." Priscilla placed her knife and fork on her plate and reached for her wineglass. "Anyway, I'm to see three more schools this week, plus I have to meet with my solicitors to discuss upkeep of the estate. Part of me wants to sell, but on the other hand I'd love to keep it for the boys." Priscilla shook her head. "Anyway, far too boring for supper talk. Now then, what about you? What's your latest case?"
"You know I can't tell you about my cases."
"Not even a snippet for a hard-pressed mother?"
"That will be the day!" Maisie smiled. "All right, let's just say that my next case, if I am awarded the assignment, involves proving that someone who died in the war really is dead." Maisie was careful not to say aviator and was aware that the information shared with Priscilla was more than she had ever before disclosed to someone not directly involved in an investigation.
Priscilla pulled a face. "Gosh, I wish I hadn't asked now—mind you, it's not unusual when you think about it. After all, so many were listed as missing, which caused terrible heartache."
"And I may well have to go over to France to complete my inquiries," continued Maisie. "Though I can't say I'm looking forward to it."
"Then you must come to Biarritz—consider it a break following all that hard work. Heavens, I've been trying to get you to come for years!"
"It's probably a bit out of my way. If you were at your flat in Paris, I might be able to visit you there."
Priscilla shook her head. "I'm hardly ever in Paris except for the odd shopping expedition. Douglas goes to the flat to write sometimes. There's a sort of League of Nations bookish set in Paris that he finds stimulating. The Americans are rather fun, but it appears to me that a fair bit of backstabbing goes on, you know."
"I wouldn't know, Pris. There's a similar set in Fitzroy Square, but I hardly see them. We're not even on nodding ‘good-morning' terms."
Priscilla was quiet for a moment, and as she ran a finger around the rim of her wineglass, Maisie regarded her closely. Her demeanor had changed; a tension had moved into her shoulders that Maisie knew came from Priscilla's heart.
"What is it, Priscilla?"
"Oh, nothing. Nothing, really. . . ."
Maisie leaned back as Priscilla in turn leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. She began to unburden her troublesome thoughts with a nervous half laugh and a joke.
"You know, my father would have sent me from the table for this. ‘Only cooked meat on the table' was a favorite quip as he pricked you on the arm with a fork."
"Those who are gone are never far away," said Maisie.
"Yes, I know. I'm seeing it more and more in the boys as they get older. Though they never knew their uncles, I see reminders every day, even when one of them is just about to box another around the ears! God, I miss them; I still miss my family, Maisie." Priscilla took up the ebony holder and, despite disparaging looks from two matrons dining nearby, lit another cigarette.
"But there's more, isn't there?" Maisie rested her hands on the table, not with palms down but relaxed and slightly upturned.
Priscilla blew a smoke ring and smiled broadly at the neighboring diners. She doesn't change, thought Maisie.
"It's that case you mentioned, Maisie." Priscilla seemed to falter but then continued. "It made me think of my eldest brother, Peter. As you know, I was the youngest; the boys were all older. Phil and Pat were both killed in 1916, within two weeks of each other, but Peter—I don't know about Peter."
"Don't know?" Maisie resisted the urge to lean toward Priscilla, instead leaving room for her to continue her story.
"No. I have no idea." Priscilla looked at Maisie directly. "It's my boys growing up so quickly, I think. I pushed it all back after the war, after Mummy and Daddy died. Off I went to France like a shot, drank myself silly for a year, and, thank God, along came Douglas to drag me from the abyss. I adore him, Maisie, and I adore my boys. Douglas and I have helped each other, really, and I don't want to look back, but . . ."
"We never knew where Peter died. His body was never found, though that wasn't unusual, was it? I never even saw the telegram. My parents had already lost Patrick and Philip, so they burned it, and I've been troubled about it ever since. I'll put it to the back of my mind for a while, and then something—and sometimes it's something really simple, not a big thing like this case of yours—brings it all back again."
Maisie did not respond for some moments. Then she reached across to her friend and took her hands in her own. "Look, Pris, I want you to consider something—and please don't dismiss my suggestion immediately. I can direct you to someone who, in conversation, can help you to put Peter to rest in your heart. I'm your friend, too close for such work, but Maurice—"
Priscilla pulled her right hand from Maisie's grasp, holding it up to stop her speaking. "I know what you're suggesting, Maisie. I've heard all about these newfangled talk therapies, and they're not my bag. I'd rather listen to an old gramophone record and have a drink and a cigarette until misery finds someone else to pick on." She paused briefly and changed the subject. "Have you received a letter from Girton asking for contributions to the new fund-raising campaign? I thought I'd send something."
Maisie and Priscilla remained together for another hour or so, reminiscing over dinner about their time at Girton College and their lives since the war. They agreed to meet again for lunch before Priscilla flew from Croydon Aerodrome back to France. But as she left her friend, driving back to Ebury Place with the top down on the MG, for it was a warm Indian-summer night, Maisie considered the possibility of a return to France, a prospect she anticipated with dread in her heart.
Excerpted from PARDONABLE LIES: A Maisie Dobbs Novel, © Copyright 2005 by Jacqueline Winspear. Reprinted with permission by Picador All rights reserved.
Pardonable Lies: A Maisie Dobbs Novel