A Desperate Fortune

Page 30

Claudine remarked, “She must have had her reasons.”

I, for one, could not imagine what would make an ordinary woman keep a diary in the first place. I could never see the point in taking time in which you could be doing something, and then simply wasting it by writing down the things you had already done. But Mary Dundas clearly had not shared my view.

Her diary was the size and thickness of a modern hardcover novel, with a leather spine and worn cloth-covered boards and pages turned a golden beige by time, and with a texture of fine ribbing that I gathered was a feature of the way that it had been produced. The color of the ink had changed, as well. It would have once been black, but time had faded it to brown, though it was dark enough to stand out easily against the page.

For all its age and wear, someone had taken quite good care of it. And judging from the way that she had handled it this morning, I was fairly sure that person had not been Claudine.

I asked, “How did you come by this? It’s not a family heirloom, is it?”

“No. Oh, no, my family does not keep such things. They are not sentimental for the past. But several years ago here in Chatou there was an antiques market, and I saw this in a stall and thought that it might be of interest to…” She coughed, and raised her cup to take a drink of coffee. “It looked interesting. Can you break the cipher, do you think?”

“I’ll do my best.”

“I’ll leave you to it, then.” She closed the double doors as she went out, and I was left in blissful solitude—the thing I had been wanting all along.

I turned the diary to the first page written in the cipher, and began to work.

* * *

It should have been a simple thing. Mary Dundas had told me so herself, in words so plain I could not misinterpret them:

And she observing I was writing private thoughts advised me there were ways to write in secret, and when I replied I had no head for ciphers she assured me any person could devise one using anything to hand, whereon she crafted one upon the spot so simple in design that I do presently intend to follow her advice and practice it.

“So simple in design,” the diary promised, yet three days had passed and I had come no closer to unraveling the cipher that another woman had devised “upon the spot” while drinking tea. It drove me to distraction.

I had barely noticed Jacqui leaving Monday. She had smiled and kissed me lightly on the head and given me a hug and seeing I was well absorbed in work, had tiptoed quietly away to drive herself back to the airport. If the house felt slightly different with her gone, I’d scarcely noticed it. I’d socialized when necessary, sharing an aperitif with Claudine every evening before joining her at dinner, where I’d let her take the lead in conversation, which so far had touched on local wines, the euro, and photography, three things that I knew little of myself, so it was natural for me to be the audience for her impromptu and impassioned lectures.

If I had not seen Luc Sabran—which to be honest I had noticed slightly more than other things—it was because he had returned to work after the holidays, and truly it was just as well to not have the distraction.

It was bad enough the cat had found a way to sneak into my workroom when he wanted to, and even though he was a cat and therefore understood the rules of solitude, it still was disconcerting to glance up and find he’d settled in his favorite spot atop the box of files by the windows and was watching me, the way cats did, with steady and unblinking eyes.

I felt the weight of his stare now and raised my head to meet it with my own. “Well then, you try it. See how you get on,” I challenged him.

He twitched an ear and wisely did not answer.

“Fine then. Don’t be so judgmental.” In frustration I turned back to the first entry of the diary and read through it for what seemed the thousandth time in search of clues. What cipher could a person craft that would be “simple in design” and “using anything to hand”? What would a person have “to hand” in those days in a house belonging to a man of some estate? I didn’t know what room they had been sitting in, for Mary never mentioned it. The drawing room, presumably. There was no way to tell. They’d been drinking tea, which meant there’d been a tea service: a tea tray, teacups, lumps of sugar. Totally unhelpful. A design upon the teacups? It was possible. There would have been a fireplace, with its andirons and tongs and pokers. And because Sir Redmond was a man of means and education, there might have been books.

If there’d been books, I thought, and if they’d used one as the basis for their cipher, I was in deep trouble, for the key they’d chosen could be anything: a passage from a poem, or some rare religious tract. Odds were I’d never track it down.

Not giving in to that depressing thought, I pulled my mind back forcibly to focus on the other possibilities. The dog, I thought. Or something that the dog had with it. Or the number of wood panels on the door…

The knock that interrupted didn’t fully register at first. I knew Denise’s knock by now—she usually knocked lightly in an effort not to startle me, not wishing to intrude.

I said, “Come in,” in French, and she put her head round the double doors.

“How does it go this morning?”

“Not well.”

“Oh,” she said. “Well, anyway, I’m leaving in a minute. If you want a little lunch before I go…perhaps some soup…”

“No, thanks. I’m fine.”

“You have to eat.” That was the mother in her talking now, I knew. She stood with hands on hips in the same stance that my own mother struck whenever she was getting set to tell me that I’d been indoors too long.

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