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.”
“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.
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.”
Fitzroy Square, London, Wednesday, January 7th, 1931
Snow had begun to fall once again in small, harsh flakes that swirled around 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.
Copyright © 2006 by Jacqueline Winspear