Authors: Mary Jane Staples
Handsome war hero Edward Somers is recuperating in the South of France when he stumbles upon a lonely villa inhabited by the bewitching and beautiful, but ailing, Countess Katerina.
At first Edward is delighted to have such a charming and lovely companion, but as a sinister chain of events begin to unfold it becomes apparent that he and Katerina are in very grave danger. Is it really Katerina's ill health that has forced her into such an isolated position? Will she always be on the run? And will her remote and perilous life deny her the love that she craves and needs so dearly?
An enthralling wartime adventure by the ever-popular author of the Adams family sagas.
The isle of Formentera, veined by dry gullies and patterned by Mediterranean shrubs, lay like an uncut stone of brown and green in a setting of oceanic blue. Although it was close to Ibiza and not far from the Spanish mainland, it had escaped the rampaging development that had smothered so much of the Balearic islands. It had even escaped an airport. Its principal town, San Francisco, was tiny, its scattered hamlets were few, and its people, for the most part, were still compulsive tillers of its baked soil. Formenterans looked after their own business and each other. Holidaymakers were a race apart, a species of sunseekers accepted and politely indulged.
On slopes and lowlands the almond trees were dusty, the olive trees laden, the fall of the fruit still some way off. The isle was as quiet as a slumbering monastery, except for the
Playa d'es Pujols in the north and the Playa de Mitjorn in the south. There the eccentric holidaymakers disported in skimpily-clad fashion, swamping their bodies in oil.
East of Es Calo, the sun-splashed cliffs showed their brown, barren face to the shimmering sea. The single-storeyed villa, lapped by almond trees and overlooking the cliffs, was enclosed by a bougainvillea hedge, the shrubs explosive with bursting colour. The large garden was an enchantment, its beauty the consequence of being lovingly tended from the time, fifty years ago, when it had first been won from the intemperate ground.
There were no holidaymakers in this area save for the family which had just arrived at the only other villa, two hundred yards from the first and a short walk from the village. Kate Matthews, slipping off her jeans and T-shirt, put on a yellow dress, combed her hair and hurried downstairs.
âA dress?' said her mother.
âOh, well, you know,' said Kate, with a fifteen-year-old's natural ambiguity.
âWhere are you going so soon?'
âI thought â well, to see the SeÃ±ora,' said Kate, raven-haired, blue-eyed and pretty. Romantically disposed, she could wander
dreamy-eyed while others rushed into life's pursuits.
âYou spent most of your time last year with her.'
âStrange girl,' smiled her father.
âAnd the year before,' said her mother. They came to the villa for a month each year, renting it from mid-July to mid-August. There was no beach. There was only sun, peace and a restful inclination to do nothing.
Kate smiled a little shyly and sidled out. It was hot. The light breeze fanned her face with heat. But, young and alive, she ran on quick feet down the path and over a hard little track that wound through scrub. Reaching the white-walled villa, festooned with hibiscus, she found the SeÃ±ora sitting at a table on the tiled patio that overlooked the garden. A blue umbrella shaded her aged body from the fierce sun.
âSeÃ±ora?' said Kate. That was what she always called her dear and treasured friend, even if she wasn't Spanish.
The lady looked up. She was very old, white of hair and slender of figure. But her eyes were still quite magnificent, a clear, unveined grey, and no deep lines furrowed her face. The fragility of age was apparent, but not its
wrinkles or its bent back. Her eyes regarded Kate out of a mind full of dreams.
âThey've all gone, all my loved ones,' she said in English.
âSeÃ±ora?' said Kate, puzzled. The SeÃ±ora had a son and daughter, and grandchildren, and although one family lived in England and the other in America, they would all come to visit her before the end of August and stay for some weeks as they always did.
The lady came to her feet. She rose slowly but with grace, as if she had been born in the Court of St James or another. Her white dress was a lightness around her slender, fragile body, and she was upright, not stooping, and to Kate quite beautiful. Kate had spent tranquil hours with her since the age of eleven. They had an affinity, these two, the very old and the very young.
The dreams slipped, the lady's eyes opened and she smiled in pleasure and affection.
âWhy, it's Kate. You've come again. Has another year gone? Another one? Yes, but how good to see you, sweet child. Your letters are precious, but not more than you are.' She kissed the girl on the cheek, and Kate hugged her.
âSeÃ±ora, oh, I came as soon as we arrived, to see how you were.'
âWell, I'm old, Kate, that is all.' The lady's smile was warm. Kate in her bright yellow dress was a reminder of her own sweet youth of long ago. âHow pretty you're getting. How very pretty.'
âYou look super,' said Kate. She had put a dress on because she knew the SeÃ±ora did not consider girls in jeans to be at all acceptable.
âI am super?' The lady smiled. âBut I'm so old, Kate. I will tell you. I'm almost a hundred.'
Kate, staggered, gasped, âYou're not, you can't be.'
The lady laughed softly.
âWell, I'm eighty-three. That's near to a hundred, isn't it?'
âEighty-three?' Kate calculated. âSeÃ±ora, you were actually born when Queen Victoria was still alive?'
âYes, when Queen Victoria was still in command of almost every royal family in Europe, and I, old as I am, was only a contemporary of her great-granddaughters. You'll stay a little while, my sweet?'
âOh, I should like to.'
âThen let us have lemonade.' The lady picked up a little silver bell from the table and rang it. âMaria? Maria?'
Maria, her servant, appeared. She was a middle-aged Formenteran.
âLemonade, please. You see, Maria? Kate is here again.'
âI see, I see,' said Maria, and smiled at Kate. She brought the lemonade in a jug covered with a white napkin. Ice tinkled as she filled two glasses, and the lemon slices spilled and splashed. It was always the same, always made from fresh lemons, always cool and delicious, with a little bite to it. The lady served no other drink to young people.
She sat and talked with Kate. Kate was quick and energetic in her speech, the lady mellowly articulate, and each was receptive to the other. The bees buzzed on gossamer wings, the sun cast heated light, and the colours of the garden danced before the eye. Kate was fascinated by the graceful woman she had met five years ago, on her family's first visit to the adjoining villa. The SeÃ±ora often told stories of her youth, of her years as a girl, and Kate sometimes wondered what stories there were concerning all the other years.
The lady became quiet. It was age, of course, which often transported her from the present to the past. Her eyes were full of dreams, her
face serene. There was always serenity about her, as if the magic of life was a beatitude. This year, thought Kate, the serenity was more finely drawn.
The SeÃ±ora broke her temporary silence to ask Kate about her schooling. Kate told her of the struggles and problems she had with subjects like science and mathematics.
âScience, child? Mathematics?' The lady sighed. âWhat is the world doing to girls these days? Has it forgotten that girls grow into women, and that women relate to compassion and caring, not to infernal things? Science and mathematics are the essence of the infernal. Everything one reads or listens to these days tells one so.'
Quite earnestly, Kate said, âThen I shall do my best, SeÃ±ora, to give them up.'
The lady smiled and shook her head.
âNo, no, Kate. I shouldn't say such things. It's your world you have to live in, not mine, and if your world is in desperate need of women scientists and women mathematicians, then you must continue to struggle with the subjects.'
âDo you think so, SeÃ±ora?' said Kate, who would have been quite happy to have had nothing to do with them at all.
Again the lady smiled, and again the grey eyes dreamed.
âSuch a world, such an unhappy world,' she murmured. âI know Edward would have said it was no better than a factory, into which every woman, as well as every man, was being pushed.'
âWho was Edward?' asked Kate.
âEdward?' said the lady, as if it had been Kate who had plucked the name out of the day. She looked at the girl, at her dark hair, her blue eyes and her vivid youth, and because Kate was so remindful of another the dreams returned to possess her. âThey are all gone, my loved ones, all gone, Celeste.'
Kate's susceptible heart missed a beat.
âSeÃ±ora, I'm Kate. Who is Celeste?'
The lady came to.
âShe's gone, my sweet, but you are so like her.'
âOh, I think you've a story to tell,' said Kate.
âStories are like life, Kate, always to do with the past.' The lady put a hand under Kate's chin and lifted her face. The fine grey eyes searched the unclouded blue. âLife is always a memory of moments just gone and years long past. Cling to each moment, if you can, for each is so precious, yet so fleeting. Only love defies
time. Time robs us of all else, of all whom we cherish, but it can't rob us of love. God gives it, and it is His greatest gift to people. But so many people, so many, never understand it. Be sweet, my child, as Celeste was, and then you'll come to know that love means giving, not receiving.'
âTell me about her, SeÃ±ora.'
âAbout Celeste? But then there was also Edward, you see. I could only tell you part of the story. The rest only they could tell. And they are gone, Kate, all of them, all whom I loved so much.'
âOh, tell me, SeÃ±ora, tell me your part.'
Fragile old age took on the serenity of treasured dreams.
The small hotel, painted white, gleamed in the warm October sunshine. Half a mile from the little village of La Roche, it fronted the winding coastal road and its sign said it was the HÃ´tel de Corniche. It could not, of course, be compared with the grand establishments of Nice and Cannes, but set in an environment of peace and tranquillity, with a breathtaking view of the blue sea, it had its own appeal.
Unlike other small hotels, it remained open all the year round, which said much for its desirability. Madame Heloise Michel, the owner, valued the patronage of guests who provided her with an income during the out-of-season months and enabled her to keep a few of her staff at work. Times were hard in 1928. One heard that exiled Grand Dukes in Nice had to sell their valuables to pay their hotel bills, or did not pay them at all, creating
embarrassment for managements instinctively disinclined to throw the exalted into the street.
A pre-war Bentley, approaching the HÃ´tel de Corniche from the west, rounded one of the thousands of bends at a moment when some idiot leapt into the road from the right-hand verge. It was an idiot of the male gender, a man clad in a blue flannel shirt and blue serge trousers. The driver, handling the car carefully, was able to stop in good time. The man flashed a startled glance, showing a ruddy face and a dark, untidy moustache. He did not, however, apologize for his suicidal stupidity, but ran across the road and disappeared into the shrubs and trees of the ascending terrain. The sound of a rifle shot followed him. It was, to the driver of the car, unmistakably a rifle shot. He had experienced a surfeit of rifle fire during the war. He stood up in the car and looked around. He saw no one. He heard no one. Silence prevailed. The sky was clear, the afternoon warm and bright. The South of France lay in quietness under its October sun.