Part 2 - Besieged Fortress by A.J. Hall
In the fortnight or so that had passed since Ralph had gone to sea Laurie had found himself at loose ends, drifting idly round the house, writing letters and then throwing them into the wastepaper basket unsent - not that this mattered, since Ralph wouldn’t reach port for weeks yet - thinking of what was needed to secure the house against the gales of winter, and, usually, finding that Ralph had been beforehand in that, too.
He found it difficult to make plans. He had thought himself stagnating in the narrow confines of society here on the Rock, suspecting that Ralph’s fishing and smuggling friends saw him merely as his appendage; urban, useless and effete, like someone insisting on wearing patent-leather evening pumps on a country hike.
But their circle did not, it seemed, see it that way after all. Tómas and Annunciata had, if anything, opened their hearts and home more widely since Ralph’s departure. Philippe, on learning that Laurie’s spoken and written German was more than adequate, had beckoned him into a corner, one evening in Niko’s. After much elaborate swearing to secrecy accompanied with gestures which would have been hair-raising had they not been so theatrical, he had produced from an inside pocket a black leather-bound diary, battered with long concealment, stained with blood and worse than blood.
“This,” Philippe had said, “I have shown to no-body. I took it that night we were compelled to - There was something about the way he died that has always had me wondering, and I thought perhaps now enough time has passed that I should try to find out. You will translate it for me, yes?”
And Laurie had done so. At the end of which Philippe had nodded gravely and said, “Thank you. I thought as much. Le pauvre bougre, he deserved a better country. It is a pity he had to die like that.”
And Laurie, unable to think of anything to say in answer, had nodded, and ducked out of the bar leaving Philippe drinking rough brandy with a fierce wolfish smile of vindication on his lips, and gone home to a bed whose restless dreams, for once, were not of Ralph tossing alone on a life-raft far from shore but infused with the waste and pity of war.
His relations with Alec during these weeks were peculiar. Alec rose late, usually, and spent the remainder of the morning between the Post Office, the small reading-room where they took an erratic selection of the English language periodicals and the harbour mole, where he would sit looking out to sea sometimes for hours. He took no siesta (and indeed as the year turned through autumn it was becoming more a matter of habit than of need) and sometimes Laurie found him in early evening, wandering erratically about the streets of the upper town and stopping transfixed to look at odd, random things; a bunch of bright, tiny flowers clinging to a crack in a stone wall, or a lizard sitting on a stone to soak up the last rays of the sinking sun. If Laurie had had less experience in recognising the signs he would have said he had been drinking.
In the evenings Alec was prepared to be more companionable; they would go out for drinks or, very occasionally, a meal down by the harbour, but even there Laurie found him abstracted, noting he would break off from some cool, clinical speculation about the nature of “the fever then raging at Gibraltar” which had accounted for so many of those marble plaques on the walls of the chapel by the Governor’s residence to look Laurie over with a detachment almost equally cool and clinical, as though assessing him for the emergence of dangerous symptoms.
But the flocks of migrating birds were coming in thicker and thicker across the Rock, and the rattle of gunfire in the early morning as the locals took their fill for the pot or for the mere joy of slaughter took Laurie back, waking uneasily in the grey dawn, to his early days with the Army in France, and still he could not make up his mind to leave.
It was Edward Longenhurst who decided that matter for him.
That morning Alec was uncharacteristically cheerful and had a faintly apologetic air, as though trying to make up for past sins of omission. Slightly conscious that his preoccupation with his own affairs might have led him to fail in his duties as host Laurie suggested they take advantage of the continued fine weather and go swimming at Rosa Bay, and undertook to provide the picnic, and Alec accepted the suggestion with alacrity.
So it was that Laurie had his arms full of bread and assorted cheese and sausage when he collided forcibly with someone departing in haste from the little branch of Coutts that occupied the corner of one of the squares in the upper part of town. The rolls flew everywhere and only in-built good manners inhibited his urge to curse at length and with the inventiveness honed by years of Ralph’s companionship. On seeing who he had bumped into, Laurie rather regretted his forbearance.
“Laurie! What a pleasure! I was hoping I might see you boys on my little trip back to British territory. And tell me, how is darling Ralph?”
There was something a little too eager about Longenhurst’s expression; Laurie cursed the efficiency of the gossip network. He had been right, he thought, a trifle wildly; once one touched it one never could get away from this world, no matter how lightly one tried to make one’s foot fall.
He said briefly and without emphasis that Ralph’s profession had taken him to sea again, and, without allowing Longenhurst time to comment, asked what brought him to Gibraltar, and would he be staying long?
Longenhurst giggled. “My dear, I know you’ll think I’m quite the helpless dope fiend, but I simply cannot live without my tea. And then a very dear friend offered to drop two pounds of the best Earl Grey for me here - practically pre-War quality, goodness only knows what he had to do to get it - and as I had to come across anyway to pick up a remittance (Oh, those grubby little men in Westminster! How they have ruined foreign travel for us all!) I thought I might kill three birds with one stone.”
And he fixed his eyes soulfully on Laurie’s face.
“Laurie,” a cool and infinitely welcome voice said from somewhere behind his left ear, “there you are. I’m sorry to drag you away but Tómas said he had to see you for some instructions about laying up the launch for the winter which he said Ralph would have been bound to have left with you, and it didn’t sound as if it could wait until this afternoon.”
Laurie turned to find Alec looking at him quizzically; the relief of seeing him was unexpectedly profound, as though he’d thrown a lifeline to haul him out of a snake-pit.
Which was patently absurd; Longenhurst was objectionable enough but more pathetic than anything, and certainly no danger to anyone.
“I’m sorry,” Laurie said, turning back to Longenhurst. “One of those winter jobs I’d been putting off which has finally caught up with me. And one never realises just how true that tired old bromide about time and tide is until one actually has anything to do with boats, blast them. Goodbye; I hope you enjoy your tea.”
Practice, a good boot at last and sheer determination enabled him to get a fair turn of speed out of the leg; certainly enough that he might quite plausibly have been out of earshot when Longenhurst recovered himself enough to bleat something after him about cocktails that evening, dear boy, since doubtless he must be at loose ends since Ralph’s departure.
Alec, loping by his side, tactfully forebore to make any comment. Laurie felt another quick spark of gratitude to him for his sensitivity. And to Ralph, too: he must have taken the opportunity at some point to explain what a raw place that evening with Longenhurst had left on his spirit.
What was the point of writing at all if that was the response he was going to get? Longenhurst (and how many others? Perhaps the Bishop had not been so far off the mark after all) had taken for the hero the character Laurie had taken most pains to show as a moral cripple: someone who had taken a psychological quirk he’d been born with (which had been shaped by forces he could neither perceive nor compel) and treated it as an inexhaustible credit balance he could draw on for all eternity. “The dice were loaded against me from the start: therefore I owe the world nothing,” had been Rattenbury’s misbegotten creed, and from it, with proper classical inevitability, had come his tragedy.
Only Longenhurst, it seemed, had missed that particular point. That evening he had turned to Laurie, his eyes watering under the effects of gin and synthetic emotion, and declared tremulously,
“When I first came across Rattenbury - that beastly, beastly moment where he’s treated so mortifyingly on the cricket pitch by that horrid hearty games captain - I all but wept. There I said to anyone who had the gumption to listen, speaks someone who has been there, who knows how it feels and who is not afraid to let the world know how it feels to stand in Rattenbury’s shoes at a moment like that.”
And Laurie, who had not had Hazell far from his thoughts as he created Rattenbury - though the two men were not, in many external respects, particularly similar - had almost been ill on the spot, until he had been brought back to some sense, at least, of proportion by the calming pressure of Ralph’s hand on his thigh under the concealment of the bar table. And heard Ralph’s coolly sardonic inflection as he said,
“Boots, surely, rather than shoes if he was playing cricket? Otherwise I’m not surprised the Head of Games was giving him hell.”
Yes; it was typical of Ralph’s thoughtfulness to have dropped a hint to Alec about Longenhurst. He must remember to thank him when he wrote.
Next morning Laurie realised, of course, that only a hopeless optimist would have dreamt that a pachyderm like Longenhurst would even have registered the snub, let alone been deterred by it. But by then the man was in his living room, and there was nothing to be done about matters. No help from Alec this time either; he had risen early, dressed with a jaunty precision which had been wholly foreign to his manner hitherto, and had vanished into town with an injunction not to fret should he not be back for lunch. He had volunteered no confidences and Laurie had sought none. He wished him the best of whatever it might be he was up to, and abandoned any hope of his assistance in the current matter.
This turned out to be nothing other than an invitation to Laurie to come to stay indefinitely with him in Tangier, on terms that the densest would have no trouble whatsoever decoding. While Laurie was still trying to retrieve his lower jaw from the floor and to put together a half-way polite but completely unequivocal form of refusal Longenhurst was prattling on in the blithe assumption that the whole thing was settled.
“And of course you’ll be able to mix so much more with a sympatique crowd that those oafs you’ve been forced to rub shoulders with here - but perhaps the less said about that the better. At least that sort of thing’s all over now, thank God. Anyway, there’s a simply wonderful mix of people congregating for the winter - very much our sort, of course; de Carteret has already opened up his villa for the winter season. They call him “the Sun Queen” you know.” Longenhurst giggled, and gesticulated excitably.
“He’s fantastically old now, of course, but his parties remain legendary. He’s such an admirer of your work. When I told him you were only just across the Straits he positively demanded that you come to the next one. You see, dear boy, there are some people, even out here, capable of appreciating the fineness of your talent. And I can do so much for you - introduce you to all the right people, people who’ll be really useful to you - if you’ll only let me.”
Laurie almost choked, and his carefully crafted, almost complete sentence of refusal was lost altogether.
Once, shortly after he and Ralph had first arrived in Gibraltar, they’d got stinking on red wine and brandy, sitting on the terrace at the Rock Hotel; glad in the first instance to be alive, glad to be together after the months and years of separation, glad to be out of grey, exhausted England and under the blue skies of the Med. Hardly able to talk himself, he’d challenged Ralph as visibly the drunker, and, when Ralph, laughing, contested the accusation Laurie had demanded he prove himself sober by reciting “the Leith police dismisseth us”.
At which Ralph, his voice having the careful over-precision which only descended when he was very drunk indeed, had said,
“We aren’t in Scotland, my dear, and my experiences of Rosyth and and Loch Eriboll are too recent to care to revisit them. But if you want me to prove I’m still capable of speaking straight, this might be a bit more suited to the locality.”
And, his eyes crossing a little with the effort, he’d recited solemnly,
“God save us my dear from the Queer of Tangier;
Whom absinthe makes fonder, whose fingers will wander;
Who’s had boys by the score, but who’ll always want more
Who joined with the Devil,
And screwed the Bishop of Seville
In some hellish revel.
So God save us my dear from the Queer of Tangier.”
And then, very softly, and as though something had sobered him up abruptly, he had indicated a doddery old man with parchment skin and a panama hat being seated by an obsequious waiter at a table further down the terrace,
“Good Lord. That’s uncanny. And I thought he’d have been dead long ago, too.”
Laurie had looked, struggling a little with the changed mood. Ralph’s face in the lamplight of the terrace had looked suddenly hard, and a little fey, as though he had accidentally conjured an evil spirit by a rash incantation in one of the archaic sacred places of the world.
“I hadn’t thought of that verse in years, and then the man it was written about actually walks into the hotel. Hugh de Carteret. Dabbler in anything and everything from black magic to belles lettres. Knew everyone from Blavatsky to Bosie - in every sense of the word, in the latter case, no doubt. Someone once dragged me to a party he was throwing, and I went because I thought it would be “interesting”. God, Spud, when I think of your face when you found out what you’d got yourself into when you fetched up at Sandy’s bash, and yet, you know, it was like a Sunday school picnic compared to de Carteret’s orgy. I was twenty-four and thought I was unshockable. I think, Spud, you’re right. I have had enough. Should we go?”
It was the memory of how Ralph’s face had looked then that shaped Laurie’s next words.
“Longenhurst, I think you’d better leave. Now. And don’t come back.”
Longenhurst was gaping at him, but there was the pressure of blood thundering in his ears and a fierce pleasure - like the pleasure he had used to get from walking over hills in a high wind, or swimming in a rough sea - as he abandoned all attempts at tact and temporisation.
“But Laurie - my dear boy - I don’t understand -” Longenhurst bleated.
Laurie drew a deep breath.
“No. You don’t. And you never will. I wouldn’t discuss my personal affairs with you in any case I can conceivably imagine, but I can tell you that whatever you may have been told, or surmised, or speculated about is likely to have been utter and complete rot. But in any event, it’s none of your business. If you were enough of a gentleman for it to mean anything at all I’d ask you to stop gossiping about it, but I’d have more chance of getting sense out of a parrot. So just get out. Now.”
There was something about the expression on Longenhurst’s face that was wholly unexpected and yet familiar; as though Laurie was seeing for the first time in real life something he had read or heard of in fiction. For a split second he racked his brains trying to work out what it was. And then it hit him.
Hazell. He gulped. Had that been how Hazell had looked when Ralph had lost his temper for the last time?
But before he could formulate his thoughts more clearly Longenhurst had flung his arms round his neck and was kissing him passionately; his tongue was trying to force itself between Laurie’s lips and his breath was hot and coming in thick panting gasps.
Panic, revulsion, and an appalled sense that hysterical laughter was the only possible response to the sheer grotesque absurdity of the situation warred within him. Shockled and caught off balance it was difficult to free himself, and before he could do so there came the sound of a familiar voice from the doorway.
“Laurie, have you seen my - Oh, God!”
The note in Alec’s voice spurred Laurie’s efforts; with brutal efficiency (the sergeant who had taught him the basics of unarmed combat would be proud he had remembered so much) he broke out of Longenhurst’s grip, thrusting him away from him with such vigour that he went sprawling across the floor. But by then Alec had gone.
Longenhurst looked up, bewilderment slowly changing to something more profoundly malignant on his expression.
“I see. Well, you haven’t wasted any time, have you? Or - how long has that little affaire been going on, after all? Quite the little hypocrite, aren’t we? Well, I’m sorry to have - ah, queered your pitch.”
Laurie grabbed Longenhurst by his shirt collar, twisting so that his face reddened as his air-supply was cut off and he choked. The savage within his blood exulted; it would take only that little, little extra force -
He choked back the thought, frog-marching Longenhurst to the door and thrusting him bodily out into the gutter. The effort was too much; his knee bent backwards treacherously. He clung for support to the door frame, determined not to let Longenhurst see him stagger or fall.
Longenhurst gathered himself together, his face a mask of hatred (the fall had bloodied his nose, too, a small part of Laurie’s brain noted with a detached approval).
“Don’t think you’ll get away with this, you filthy little whore.”
Laurie managed an indifferent shrug. From its stiff feel his face must be a mask of distaste; he could see it reflected back in Longenhurst’s eyes. Longenhurst pulled himself to his feet and with a precise enunciation which reminded Laurie, incongruously, of nothing so much as a small boy reciting Casabianca for his governess began to swear, interspersing his obscenities with threats about what he would do to Laurie via his publishing connections.
Rather dully, Laurie stood in silence and let him run himself to a standstill without essaying anything by way of response. With one final piece of advice (notable for its staggering biological impossibility) Longenhurst took his departure. Having seen him out of sight Laurie locked up the house behind him with careful precision, though his hands shook.
Longenhurst might, for all he knew, be capable of making good on those threats, and he was certainly mean and vicious enough to try. But if he bankrupted him (Laurie’s mind went nervously to unfulfilled contracts and spent advances) and ensured his voice was never heard again Laurie was damned if he would let that misapprehension caused by the scene in the living room (God! His skin crawled still to think of it!)destroy his good name with one of the few people whose opinion he valued.
Unsure whether it was the smoke of burnt bridges or the breath of freedom in his nostrils Laurie dropped the key into his pocket and went whistling down the hill into the town in search of Alec.
Alec was not in Nikos’. Phillippe, who was, gave a brief assessing look at Laurie’s drawn white face (by now his leg was putting up a level of protest about the unaccustomed exertions of the morning which he was finding increasingly hard to ignore) and snapped his fingers for the barman, who produced, at a curt phrase, a glass of Fundador brandy which he stood over Laurie and watched him drink, despite his somewhat feeble protests.
“So,” Phillippe said cheerfully, “a little early in the day, is it not, for a fight?”
Laurie looked up, sharply. Phillippe’s expression - piratical as always - was nevertheless tinged with a benign approval. He gestured towards Laurie’s right hand, which was resting on the table. The knuckles were already beginning to look a little puffy and he had, unwittingly until now, been massaging them with his other hand.
“The chin, yes? One cannot tell this to an Englishman of your type, but you would have done better to have gone for the gut. Him, he’s soft enough there.”
Laurie’s expression of shock must have been apparent, because Phillippe laughed out loud.
“You alone expected your affairs to be a secret from anyone else on this Rock?”
After a second Laurie joined in the laughter. And to think he had thought the bush telegraph confined to Longenhurst and his friends! Phillippe made an explanatory gesture.
“I passed the fat -” (here Phillippe applied a descriptive noun to Longenhurst that had certainly never sullied the virginal pages of Larousse) “on my way up from the harbour - I have been night-fishing, you understand.” There was something about the emphasis on “understand” that led Laurie to guess that whatever he had been fishing for had been left carefully buoyed and wrapped in oilskin. He nodded and Phillippe continued.
“He was almost running, so anxious he was to get back to his hotel. And his face! It was not difficult to guess what must have happened. And I knew he had been causing trouble for you and for the Captain.” He paused, and then spat reflectively into the fireplace. “This man - Longenhurst? - takes foolish risks. I think one of these days he may find himself with a knife stuck in his fat belly.”
Laurie swallowed, hard. It was moments like this that made him realise just how close they lived to the very edge of civilisation. Briefly he remembered the expression on Longenhurst’s face as the punch had sunk home; the absolute bewilderment that anything so barbaric could possibly be happening to him, Edward Longenhurst, with his twee little flat somewhere in Chelsea with the Beardsley etchings and the Swinburne ‘Firsts’ that he babbled so endlessly about.
“I hope,” Laurie said with cautious emphasis, “that was merely a prediction and not an invitation?”
“No?” Phillippe looked quizzically at him for a moment, and then shrugged. “I have killed far better men than him.” His hand went towards the jacket pocket from which he had extracted the German officer’s diary the other day. “But it will do very well as a prediction, instead. He takes no care where he goes; he chooses his enemies badly and his friends worse; he makes a big noise about being so wealthy (though he is not, I think, so wealthy as he would have people believe) and he thinks that everyone is for sale. He would be safer back in London.”
It hit Laurie unpleasantly that from his own perspective he would be safer if Longenhurst were to remain indefinitely in Tangier. No doubt that, too, could be arranged with an oblique word or so. But - he gave himself a mental shake - even had he been that kind of man, these days there were telegrams and international telephone calls to render any such steps useless.
“I think I’m the one who needs to be in London, actually. Before he manages to stir up any more trouble. But I’ve got to find Alec first - you wouldn’t happen to know -?”
Phillippe looked up at the clock behind the bar; it was just before noon.
“I think - by now - he will be at the Grand Hotel. With his friend the distinguished physician.” He looked sidelong at Laurie. “Now Alexandre, he is not someone who chooses his friends badly.”
“I can’t say it’s a trait I’ve noted before,” Laurie snapped before he could stop himself. Phillippe grinned again.
“Ah, that. I meant, in important matters. Yes, I should think you would find him there.”
Rather disconcertingly, Phillippe proved entirely correct. Alec was sitting having a pre-lunch sherry on a terrace table, opposite a silver-haired gentleman of startlingly deep tan, whom Laurie had little doubt was “the distinguished physician” Phillippe had asserted him to be. Alec made no move to introduce him. Laurie turned towards him.
“I do apologise, sir, for disturbing you.” He turned back to Alec. “Alec; this shouldn’t take more than five minutes, but I have to speak to you. It really is extremely urgent.”
For a moment it looked as though Alec was weighing whether or not to refuse outright. Laurie put a desperate, silent appeal into his face, and Alec, rather heavily, got to his feet.
“Please excuse us, sir,” he said to his companion, and followed Laurie round the curve of the terrace, out of earshot and sight line. His face, once the constraints imposed by his guest had been removed, looked thunderous.
“Look, what is it, Odell? I suppose if you’re worried about this morning -”
“Alec, for God’s sake if you’re planning to behave like a fool about this at least could you try not to be a bloody fool?”
The crisp decisiveness in Laurie’s tone took even he himself by surprise. Alec shut up abruptly. Laurie followed up his temporary advantage without delay.
“If you’d waited another half-minute I could have asked for your help in kicking Longenhurst’s backside for him. He grabbed me completely out of the blue: I punched his objectionable face, and he may well have broken his nose on the edge of the gutter outside our house, which is where he landed when I chucked him out. If I’d had two good legs I’d certainly have tried to kick him back to Tangier.”
Alec looked down at Laurie’s right hand; it was unclear whether for corroboration or out of simple professional interest. Whatever it was his voice changed, became friendlier.
“I should get some arnica put on that as soon as you can, if I were you.”
Laurie grinned, a trifle ruefully. “Phillippe’s professional opinion was I should have gone for the gut. Preferably with six inches of steel. Anyway, that isn’t particularly important. What is, is that I’ve got to get the night boat to Marseilles today, and then on to London however I can.”
Alec frowned slightly.
“Why do you have to go? Surely you can’t suppose he’d be likely to press charges?”
“Only if he’s a complete imbecile. However -”
He shrugged and Alec laughed, softly.
“Indeed. As you say. But nevertheless -”
“Nevertheless he’s my publisher’s nephew. And I’m in a jam about the new book. It’s overdue and it just won’t - well, I won’t bore you with all that. Somehow, I haven’t been able to write properly out here. Too much sunshine or something. Well, the long and the short of it is that Longenhurst could cause me a lot of trouble, and I’d rather be on the spot to try and limit the damage. You’re welcome to stay on in the house as long as you want, of course.”
“Thanks - though actually, I’m going to be on my travels myself sooner than I’d expected. But I’ll explain about that later. Look here, Laurie -”
Alec’s expression had changed; he almost looked contrite. “I’m sorry I was a bit of an ass about this morning. But I didn’t honestly think anything like that. Heavens knows, we’ve all had our moments that looked at in the cold light of day - well, you know. But there are some idiocies I’d certainly never credit you with. I hope you didn’t think - look, when I bolted it was more that - well, I’ve been at sixes and sevens ever since I left London, and I felt I just ‘couldn’t be doing with any of that there’ as my mother’s char used to say. the same when you showed up just now. I’m sorry.”
It was as though the delirious world of a fever dream had suddenly tilted back to the level plain of cool, sober waking existence. Laurie had not realised until then how important Alec’s good opinion was to him.
“Idiot! I hardly think you’ve got anything to apologise for. It’s for me to apologise for dropping you into things -”
Alec looked at him. “Don’t be absurd. If you two are going through a rough patch - well, I’m the last person who’s going to throw that in your face. Look; I know that however much he tries to pretend he can ever settle down in a country cottage with roses round the porch or however he sets it out for himself in his own head the fact is that - as you’d know perfectly well if you’d admit it to yourself - Ralph gets the worst case of port rot known to man if he’s a fortnight on shore together, and no berth in the offing. No use pretending; he’s intolerable when land-bound, and worse when he won’t admit it to himself.”
Alec, having delivered himself of this tirade, frowned slightly. “Odd, you’d think, for old Ralph to be so besotted with the sea, given the bloody thing’s invariably personified as female?”
The conversation had, in a few short moments, transgressed so far beyond the usual polite equivocations that it seemed entirely reasonable to be totally honest in responding to it.
“He told me once,” Laurie said, “that the only women he could really get on with were absolute bitches.”
Alec grinned. “I suppose - for the psychologists of my acquaintance - that would make the sea the über-bitch?”
“I expect so.”
But it was more than that. During the days, weeks and months of the War Ralph had fought the Battle of the Atlantic, and Laurie had sat snug, overworked, and bored in his Ministry job which he knew intellectually (and was informed repeatedly by propagandists of one stripe or another ) was just as crucial to the War Effort as anything done on the score or so of Front Lines where the penalty for one’s inevitable failures was thrust in one’s face, written in blood which splashed warmly over one.
And he hadn’t believed a word of it. Although Ralph had never said anything, Laurie’s consciousness that Ralph had had a conspicuously good war ,and that he had not, had - he realised - always nagged at the back of his mind. He wondered, now, whether it was about time he got over that sense of inferiority.
A number of things suddenly clicked into place. But he had first to clean up the difficulties caused by Longenhurst.
He grinned at Alec. “Well, I suppose I’d better be getting back to the house to start packing.”
Alec looked faintly awkward. “Can I introduce you to Professeur Dubois, first? I’m sorry about earlier, and goodness only knows what he must have thought. And I’m rather keen to stay on his good side; he’s just offered me a job.”
“A job? Congratulations.”
“I suspect the congratulations should go to Lyall-Owens. He must have been pulling every string he could find ever since I left London. And he’s reeled in Professeur Dubois. You see - he’s running a big hospital out in French Indo-China -”
Alec waved a hand airily. “I have suddenly discovered a life-long desire to explore the East.”
Laurie must have looked sceptical. Alec’s face changed; he was making a conscious effort to sound reassuring, it seemed.
“Seriously, though, while I’d not have thought of it if the Nurse Urquhart complication hadn’t arisen, it is a fantastic opportunity.”
He looked, Laurie thought, almost on fire. And he could see, now he thought about it, the logic of that: Alec had from the first struck him with the single-mindedness of his approach to life and if Alec was determined to make a go of Indo-China then he would undoubtedly succeed. Laurie’s congratulations, as they walked back along the terrace towards the table where Professor Dubois was sitting, were wholly sincere.
It came as a surprise - and Laurie found himself feeling genuinely touched - to see how many people came to see him off at the quayside. Annuciata was even crying, a little, as she assured him that no-one would have a house on the Rock better cared for than his own in his absence. And at the end, just before the boat was about to leave, and Laurie was actually standing on the gang-plank, Phillippe thrust his way through the groups and pushed a small packet into his hand.
“Here,” he said abruptly. “It may be that with the people you know in London you will be able to think of a way to return it to his family, and to let them know that he died well.”
There was no time to do anything more: he was being bustled on board. He stood at the ship’s rail until the little group on the quayside had vanished to specks, and then been swallowed by the darkness.