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Messenger of truth, p.1
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       Messenger of Truth, p.1

           Jacqueline Winspear
 
Messenger of Truth


  Dedicated to

  My Cheef Resurcher

  (who knows who he is)

  I am no longer an artist interested and anxious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn in their lousy souls.

  —Paul Nash, Artist

  1899–1946

  Paul Nash served with the Artists’ Rifles and the Royal Hampshire Regiment in the Great War.

  JANUARY: You enter the London year—it is cold—it is wet—but there are gulls on the embankment.

  —from When You Go to London, by H. V. Morton, published 1931

  Contents

  Prologue

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Epilogue

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Prologue

  Romney Marsh, Kent, Tuesday, December 30th, 1930

  The taxi-cab slowed down alongside the gates of Camden Abbey, a red brick former mansion that seemed even more like a refuge as a bitter sleet swept across the gray, forbidding landscape.

  “Is this the place, madam?”

  “Yes, thank you.”

  The driver parked in front of the main entrance and, almost as an afterthought, the woman respectfully covered her head with a silk scarf before leaving the motor car.

  “I shan’t be long.”

  “Right you are, madam.”

  He watched the woman enter by the main door, which slammed shut behind her.

  “Rather you than me, love,” he said to himself as he picked up a newspaper to while away the minutes until the woman returned again.

  THE SITTING ROOM was warm, with a fire in the grate, red carpet on the stone floor and heavy curtains at the windows to counter draughts that the ancient wooden frame could not keep at bay. The woman, now seated facing a grille, had been in conversation with the abbess for some forty-five minutes.

  “Grief is not an event, my dear, but a passage, a pilgrimage along a path that allows us to reflect upon the past from points of remembrance held in the soul. At times the way is filled with stones underfoot and we feel pained by our memories, yet on other days the shadows reflect our longing and those happinesses shared.”

  The woman nodded. “I just wish there were not this doubt.”

  “Uncertainty is sure to follow in such circumstances.”

  “But how do I put my mind at rest, Dame Constance?”

  “Ah, you have not changed, have you?” observed the abbess. “Always seeking to do rather than to be. Do you really seek the counsel of the spirit?”

  The woman began to press down her cuticles with the thumbnail of the opposite hand.

  “I know I missed just about every one of your tutorials when I was at Girton, but I thought…”

  “That I could help you find peace?” Dame Constance paused, took a pencil and small notebook from a pocket within the folds of her habit and scribbled on a piece of paper. “Sometimes help takes the form of directing. And peace is something we find when we have a companion on the journey. Here’s someone who will help you. Indeed, you have common ground, for she was at Girton too, though she came later, in 1914, if my memory serves me well.”

  She passed the folded note through the grille.

  Scotland Yard, London, Wednesday, December 31st, 1930

  “So you see, madam, there’s very little more I can do in the circumstances, which are pretty cut and dried, as far as we’re concerned.”

  “Yes, you’ve made that abundantly clear, Detective Inspector Stratton.” The woman sat bolt upright on her chair, brushing back her hair with an air of defiance. For a mere second she looked at her hands, rubbing an ink stain on calloused skin where her middle finger always pressed against the nib of her fountain pen. “However, I cannot stop searching because your investigations have drawn nothing. To that end I have decided to enlist the services of a private inquiry agent.”

  The policeman, reading his notes, rolled his eyes, then looked up. “That is your prerogative, of course, though I am sure his findings will mirror our own.”

  “It’s not a he, it’s a she.” The woman smiled.

  “May I inquire as to the name of the ‘she’ in question?” asked Stratton, though he had already guessed the answer.

  “A Miss Maisie Dobbs. She’s been highly recommended.”

  Stratton nodded. “Indeed, I’m familiar with her work. She’s honest and knows her business. In fact, we have consulted with her here at Scotland Yard.”

  The woman leaned forward, intrigued. “Really? Not like your boys to admit to needing help, is it?”

  Stratton inclined his head, adding, “Miss Dobbs has certain skills, certain…methods, that seem to bear fruit.”

  “Would it be overstepping the mark if I asked what you know of her, her background? I know she was at Girton College a few years after me, and I understand she was a nurse in the war, and was herself wounded in Flanders.”

  Stratton looked at the woman, gauging the wisdom of sharing his knowledge of the private investigator. At this point it was in his interests to have the woman out of his hair, so he would do and say what was necessary to push her onto someone else’s patch. “She was born in Lambeth, went to work in service when she was thirteen.”

  “In service?”

  “Don’t let that put you off. Her intelligence was discovered by a friend of her employer, a brilliant man, an expert in legal medicine and himself a psychologist. When she came back from Flanders, as far as I know, she convalesced, then worked for a year in a secure institution, nursing profoundly shell-shocked men. She completed her education, spent some time studying at the Department of Legal Medicine in Edinburgh and went to work as assistant to her mentor. She learned her business from the best, if I am to be honest.”

  “And she’s never married? How old is she, thirty-two, thirty-three?”

  “Yes, something like that. And no, she’s never married, though I understand her wartime sweetheart was severely wounded.” He tapped the side of his head. “Up here.”

  “I see.” The woman paused, then held out her hand. “I wish I could say thank you for all that you’ve done Inspector. Perhaps Miss Dobbs will be able to shed light where you have seen nothing.”

  Stratton stood up, shook hands to bid the woman good-bye and called for a constable to escort her from the building. As soon as the door was closed, while reflecting that they had not even wished each other a cordial Happy New Year, he picked up the telephone receiver and placed a call.

  “Yes!”

  Stratton leaned back in his chair. “Well, you’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve got rid of that bloody woman.”

  “Good. How did you manage that?”

  “A fortuitous move on her part—she’s going to a private investigator.”

  “Anyone I should worry about?”

  Stratton shook his head. “Nothing I can’t handle. I can keep an eye on her.”

  “Her?”

  “Yes, her.”

  Fitzroy Square, London, Wednesday, January 7th, 1931

  Snow had begun to fall once again in small, harsh flakes that swirled arou
nd the woman as she emerged from Conway Street into Fitzroy Square. She pulled her fur collar up around her neck and thought that, even though she did not care for hats, she should have worn one this morning. There were those who would have suggested that the almost inconsequential lack of judgment was typical of her, and that she probably wanted to draw attention to herself, what with that thick copper-colored hair cascading in damp waves across her shoulders—and no thought for propriety. But the truth was that, despite drawing glances wherever she went, on this occasion, rather like yesterday morning, and the morning before, she really didn’t want to be seen. Well, not until she was ready, anyway.

  She crossed the square, walking with care lest she slip on slush-covered flagstones, then halted alongside iron railings that surrounded the winter-barren garden. The inquiry agent Dame Constance had instructed—yes, instructed her to see, for when the abbess spoke, there was never a mere suggestion—worked from a room in the building she now surveyed. She had been told by the investigator’s assistant that she should come to the first-floor office at nine on Monday morning. When she had canceled the appointment, he had calmly suggested the same time on the following day. And when, at the last minute, she had canceled the second appointment, he simply moved the time by twenty-four hours. She was intrigued that an accomplished woman with a growing reputation would employ a man with such a common dialect. In fact, such flight in the face of convention served as reassurance in her decision to follow the direction of Dame Constance. She had, after all, never set any stock by convention.

  It was as she paced back and forth in front of the building, wondering whether today she would have the courage to see Maisie Dobbs—and lack of pluck wasn’t something that had dogged her in the past—that she looked up and saw a woman in the first-floor office, standing by the floor-to-ceiling window looking out across the square. There was something about this woman that intrigued her. There she was, simply contemplating the square, her gaze directed at first up to the leafless trees, then at a place in the distance.

  Sweeping a lock of windblown hair from her face, the visitor continued to watch the woman at the window. She wondered if that was her way, if that window was her place to stand and think. She suspected it was. It struck her that the woman in the window was the person she had come to see, Maisie Dobbs. Shivering again, she pushed her hands deep inside the copious sleeves of her coat, and began to turn away. But then, as if commanded to do so by a force she could feel but not see, she looked up at the window once more. Maisie Dobbs was staring directly at her now, and raising her hand in a manner so compelling that the visitor could not leave, could do nothing but meet the other woman’s eyes in return. And in that moment, as Maisie Dobbs captured her with her gaze, she felt a warmth flood her body, and was filled with confidence that she could walk across any terrain, cross any divide and be held steady; it was as if, in lifting her hand, Maisie Dobbs had promised that from the first step in her direction, she would be safe. She began to move forward, but faltered as she looked down at the flagstones. Turning to leave, she was surprised to hear a voice behind her, petitioning her to stop simply by speaking her name.

  “Miss Bassington-Hope…”

  It was not a sharp voice, brittle with cold and frozen in the bitter breath of winter, but instead exuded a strength that gave the visitor confidence, as if she were indeed secure.

  “Yes—” Georgina Bassington-Hope looked up into the eyes of the woman she had just been watching in the window, the woman to whom she had been directed. She had been told that Maisie Dobbs would provide a refuge wherein to share her suspicions, and would prove them to be right, or wrong, as the case may be.

  “Come.” It was an instruction given in a manner that was neither sharp nor soft, and Georgina found that she was mesmerized as Maisie, holding a pale blue cashmere wrap around her shoulders, stood unflinching in windblown snow that was becoming an icy sleet, all the while continuing to extend her hand, palm up, to gently receive her visitor. Georgina Bassington-Hope said nothing, but reached out toward the woman who would lead her across the threshold and through the door alongside which a nameplate bore the words MAISIE DOBBS, PSYCHOLOGIST AND INVESTIGATOR. And she instinctively understood that she had been directed well, that she would be given leave to describe the doubt-ridden wilderness in which she had languished since that terrible moment when she knew in her heart—knew before anyone had told her—that the one who was most dear to her, who knew her as well as she knew herself and with whom she shared all secrets, was dead.

  One

  “Good morning, Miss Bassington-’ope. Come on in out of that cold.” Billy Beale, Maisie Dobbs’s assistant, stood by the door to the first-floor office as Maisie allowed the visitor to ascend the stairs before her.

  “Thank you.” Georgina Bassington-Hope glanced at the man, and thought his smile to be infectious, his eyes kind.

  “I’ve brewed a fresh pot of tea for us.”

  “Thank you, Billy, that will be just the ticket, it’s brassy out there today.” Maisie smiled in return at Billy as she directed Georgina into the room.

  Three chairs had been set by the gas fire and the tea tray placed on Maisie’s desk. As soon as her coat was taken and hung on the hook behind the door, Georgina settled in the middle chair. There was a camaraderie between the investigator and her assistant that intrigued the visitor. The man clearly admired his employer, though it did not appear to be a romantic fondness. But there was a bond, and Georgina Bassington-Hope, her journalist’s eye at work, thought that perhaps the nature of their work had forged a mutual dependence and regard—though there was no doubt that the woman was the boss.

  She turned her attention to Maisie Dobbs, who was collecting a fresh manila folder and a series of colored pencils, along with a clutch of index cards and paper. Her black wavy hair had probably been cut in a bob some time ago but was now in need of a trim. Did she not care to keep up with a hairdressing regime? Or was she simply too busy with her work? She wore a cream silk blouse with a long blue cashmere cardigan, a black skirt with kick pleats and black shoes with a single strap across to secure them. It was a stylish ensemble, but one that marked the investigator as someone who set more stock by comfort than fashion.

  Rejoining Georgina, Maisie said nothing until her assistant had seen that the guest had tea and was comfortable. Georgina did not want to confirm her suspicions by staring, but she thought the woman was sitting with her eyes closed, just for a moment, as if in deep thought. She felt that same sensation of warmth enter her body once more, and opened her mouth to ask a question, but instead expressed gratitude.

  “I’m much obliged to you for agreeing to see me, Miss Dobbs. Thank you.”

  Maisie smiled graciously. It was not a broad smile, not in the way that the assistant had welcomed her, but the woman thought it indicated a person completely in her element.

  “I have come to you in the hope that you might be able to help me….” She turned to face Maisie directly. “You have been recommended by someone we both know from our Girton days, actually.”

  “Might that person have been Dame Constance?” Maisie inclined her head.

  “However did you know?” Georgina seemed puzzled.

  “We rekindled our acquaintance last year. I always looked forward to her lessons, and especially the fact that we had to go to the abbey to see her. It was a fortuitous connection that the order had moved to Kent.” Maisie allowed a few seconds to pass. “So why did you visit Dame Constance, and what led her to suggest you should seek me out?”

  “I must say, I would have had teeth pulled rather than attend her tutorials. However, I went to see her when…” She swallowed, and began to speak again. “It is in connection with my brother’s…my brother’s—” She could barely utter another word. Maisie reached behind her into a black shoulder bag hanging across the back of her chair and pulled out a handkerchief, which she placed on Georgina’s knee. As the woman picked up the pressed handkerchief, the fragrant aroma of lavend
er was released into the air. She sniffed, dabbed her eyes and continued speaking. “My brother died several weeks ago, in early December. A verdict of accidental death has been recorded.” She turned to Maisie, then Billy, as if to ensure they were both listening, then stared into the gas fire. “He is—was—an artist. He was working late on the night before the opening of his first major exhibition in years and, it appears, fell from scaffolding that had been set up at the gallery to allow him to construct his main piece.” She paused. “I needed to speak to someone who might help me navigate this…this…doubt. And Dame Constance suggested I come to you.” She paused. “I have discovered that there was little to be gained from badgering the police, and the man who was called when my brother was found seemed only too pleased when I told him I was going to talk to an inquiry agent—I think he was glad to get me out of his sight, to tell you the truth.”

  “And who was the policeman?” The investigator held her pen ready to note the name.

  “Detective Inspector Richard Stratton, of Scotland Yard.”

  “Stratton was pleased to learn that you were coming to see me?”

  Georgina was intrigued by the faint blush revealed when Maisie looked up from her notes, her midnight-blue eyes even darker under forehead creases when she frowned. “Well, y-yes, and as I said, I think he was heartily sick of me peppering him with questions.”

  Maisie made another note before continuing. “Miss Bassington-Hope, perhaps you could tell me how you wish me to assist you—how can I help?”

  Georgina sat up straight in the chair, and ran her fingers back through thick, drying hair that was springing into even richer copper curls as the room became warmer. She pulled at the hem of her nutmeg-brown tweed jacket, then smoothed soft brown trousers where the fabric fell across her knees. “I believe Nicholas was murdered. I do not think he fell accidentally at all. I believe someone pushed him, or caused him to fall deliberately.” She looked up at Maisie once more. “My brother had friends and enemies. He was a passionate artist and those who expose themselves so readily are often as much reviled as admired. His work drew both accolades and disgust, depending upon the interpreter. I want you to find out how he died.”

 
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