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One Way to Venice

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One Way to Venice

  One Way To Venice

  Jane Aiken Hodge

  Copyright © 1975 by Jane Aiken Hodge

  Jane Aiken Hodge has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

  First published in Great Britain 1975 by Hodder and Stoughton Limited.

  This edition published 2014 by Endeavour Press.

  Table of Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Extract from Runaway Bride by Jane Aiken Hodge

  Chapter One

  THE FOURTH letter arrived on a fine, March morning, and Julia’s hand shook as she tore it open. She had expected it, but not so soon. The gaps between them had been narrowing, since the first one had come in January. She did not need to refer back to them. Each message was etched hard on her brain. “He’s called Dominic,” the first had read, in anonymous capital letters. “Like to see him?” asked the next, mocking. “We might arrange it,” said the third. And now? The words blurred for a moment before her eyes, then steadied. “Is your passport up to date?” Nothing more. The paper, standard, like that of the others. The address in capitals like the message. Fingerprints? Ridiculous. This was not the kind of thing about which one went to the police, and they, whoever they were, must know it as well as she did.

  She was going to be late to the office. Never mind. She drank cold coffee without tasting it and crossed the flat’s big living room to the file where she kept her papers. She knew perfectly well that her passport was good for another year, but somehow that commanding question must be obeyed. She checked. She was right. How could they know that she had checked? But in this mad world in which she found herself, anything seemed possible.

  Her bus was held up in the traffic and she was very late indeed. “Sir Charles has been asking for you, Mrs. Rivers,” said his secretary with just a hint of malicious pleasure. Secretaries cannot be expected to like long established personal assistants who lunch habitually with the boss. Julia smiled a little grimly as she gathered up notebook and pen. If Miss Mitford only knew...

  Sir Charles had known her too long and too well to be deceived by her attempt at a brisk apology. “You’re in trouble again,” he said, and then, aware of how she had winced at the phrase. “Sorry!”

  “No need.” She had known she would have to tell him sooner or later, and, now, sooner seemed best. He listened impassively, then asked the inevitable question. “You believe them?”

  “Yes. I don’t know why.”

  “You’re not a fool. And it started a few months after you had given up looking for the child?”

  “Yes. Which could mean anything.”

  “Or nothing. But of course you will have to give it a try. You’ve not considered the police?”

  “No.” In their most secret work, he and she had their own views of the police, shared with no one.

  “Right, then.” He summed up. “You’re not well. Which is true enough, you’ve been looking like hell. You’re going to take a holiday just as soon as I can spare you. Which will be when you get your instructions. Soon, would you think?”

  “Yes. It’s speeded up. I don’t know how to thank you.”

  “Then don’t try. Just come back as soon as you can. You know I can’t do without you. Besides, it’s my fault, in a way. I should never have let you send him for adoption in the first place. You were in no state to decide.”

  “Oh, God!” She swallowed a knot of tears. “If only—”

  “No use,” he said. “Let’s get some work done. But, remember, anything I can do...”

  She managed a smile for him. “You’ve done so much already. Where in the world would I have been without you?”

  “Not back in that Glasgow slum, Julia. Never think that. You’d have got away somehow, that’s for sure. If I hadn’t spotted that brain of yours, someone else would have. It was just my good luck that you turned up at my office door.”

  “And mine. I’ll never be through thanking you. You’ve been more than a father to me.”

  “Nonsense.” He sounded almost angry, rugged white eyebrows drawing together over the surprisingly young face.” And now, if you’re going off at any moment, we’d really better get to work.”

  That night was full of ghosts. The old, familiar haunts of childhood: the revenants from the Glasgow slums, children no older than herself, who had lurked, hostile, on street corners, to plague her because she was different. Nameless, faceless, they had come south with her, when she had escaped at seventeen and found Sir Charles, and a career. Only in the first, incredibly happy Paris days of marriage with Breckon had she been free of them. Afterwards, she was to wonder whether they had been revenants or prophets; not memories of Glasgow, but omens for the future: the attacker in the swamp, the hand that set the torch to the guest wing. All nameless, faceless figures. But not, please God, not Breckon.

  The photograph came two days later. She felt at once that the familiar envelope held something different, harder, cardboard. The boy’s face was just slightly out of focus, as if the picture had been taken with a telephoto lense and very much enlarged. Water in the foreground. Black lines, on either side of the boy’s head, must be bars. A railing of some kind? A prison? No—there were trees behind the bars. An orphanage? Horrible. She reached, rather blindly, for her magnifying glass and looked squarely at her child. For he was hers. Of that, for good or ill, there was not a shadow of doubt. He was holding on to the bars with his good left hand, the useless right one lay limp and unmistakable along the bars. Unmistakable, but also unmistakably better. Years of surgery, the doctors had said. Impossible for someone in her position. Even Sir Charles, to whom, inevitably, she had turned, had been firm to the point of ruthlessness. “For the child’s sake,” had been the chorus, and, suffering the double depression of childbirth and divorce, she had yielded, cried once more over the poor little helpless arm, signed the necessary papers, and collapsed.

  She picked up the photograph with a shaking hand and carried it over to the window. “Dominic.” It was a good name, the kind she and Breckon might have chosen. Surely, then, good people? Ridiculous. He had Breckon’s high thoughtful forehead and fair hair. No telling about the eyes. No telling, either, whether he looked happy or wretched. And not much she could deduce about the blurred background, behind those sinister railings.

  “Yes. Like you both.” Sir Charles studied the picture carefully, then turned with distaste to the four messages. “Unpleasant people. They enjoy torturing you.”

  “I thought that. As if they hated me.”

  “Does anyone?”

  “Not that I know of.” Not here, at any rate, not now. What had she left for anyone to hate?

  She was up early next morning, waiting for the mail. But when it came, there was no horrible, familiar envelope. Acid with disappointment, she sorted quickly through the pile of letters. A bill, a circular, an appeal for money, and—a fat manila envelope stamped “Acme Travel Agency.” Another advertisement? Opened, it revealed a dark green folder, neatly labeled: “Mrs. Rivers. One-way to Venice and hotel bookings.” And there, incredibly, it all was. A ticket, through from Victoria to Venice, by way of Basle and Milan. Reserved seats, Victoria to Folkestone, March 30, and Milan to Venice, March 31. A couchette reservation for the night. And an agency voucher for a single room, half board, at the Hotel Da Rimini, Venice, for the week beginning March 31.

  And today was the twenty-e
ighth. Her hands shook so much that she misdialed the first time. Trying again, she got through to Acme Travel Agency at the number listed on their folder. The girl who answered was puzzled but polite. Mrs. Rivers was not happy about her bookings? But she had confirmed them herself; two days ago, when she called in, and paid cash for them.

  Impossible, somehow, to ask, “What did I look like?”

  “But you should have,” said Sir Charles.

  “I know. I’m a fool. But I’m also sure it would have got me nowhere.”

  “Probably. You’ll go?”

  “Of course.”

  “Well, be careful. I should miss you. And”—he held up a hand—”for God’s sake don’t start thanking me again.”

  Three days are either too long or too short a time to plan a journey. Besides, what luggage does one need to search for a child in an unknown city? She hoped, in vain, for another letter, looked up the Hotel Da Rimini and found it listed as second-class; threw some clothes into the smallest of her trousseau suitcases, and was ready two days too soon. On Sir Charles’ advice, she spent them studying the large-scale map of Venice he had got for her, daunted by its maze of canal and alleyway. But surely, having led her so far, her unknown ‘enemies—why was she so sure they were enemies?—would not abandon her now. Unless it was all some horrible, some fantastic practical joke.

  If so, an expensive one, she thought, settling into her reserve seat on the three-thirty boat train from Victoria. She had arrived early on purpose, so as to be able to study her fellow travelers as they arrived. It was undeniably disconcerting to think that “they” knew exactly where she was at this moment, while she still knew nothing about them. But Sir Charles had scouted her suggestion that they might get in touch with her on the journey. If she was lucky, he thought, she would find further instructions waiting for her at the hotel. But, on their past form, they were more likely to keep her in suspense for a few days. “In which case,” he had said, “go sightseeing, for God’s sake. Get yourself some sunshine and a bit of colour. And learn your way round.”

  Her place was in a long, open carriage with tables between the seats. She had somehow expected a closed carriage for eight only, and soon gave up any serious attempt at studying the people who were now pouring on board, wandering up and down, awkward with luggage, looking for their reserved seats in the fully booked carriage. Two middle-aged women settled with sighs of relief in the aisle seats beside Julia. Their neat, small cases went easily into the rack.

  “A nonsmoker, thank goodness,” said one.

  “Yes, but hot.” From looks and voices, they were sisters. “Would you mind?” The speaker stood up and pushed open the small window beside Julia. “Just till we start?”

  “Of course not.” Julia was reading one of their labels, upside down, above her. The words “Brown” and “Venice” leapt out at her. It meant nothing. Half the people on the train were very likely going through to Venice.

  At the far end of the carriage, a girl’s voice rose, sudden and hysterical, over the general murmur. “You know I have to smoke. I bet you did it on purpose.” A man’s voice said something pacificatory but audible. “Second-class all the way.” The angry voice rose a note higher. Heads were turning all along the carriage, but the girl, standing up and reaching an enormous leather case down from the rack, took no notice. Julia could see her now: a very expensive blonde in a fur cape. Further down the train, doors were beginning to slam. “Don’t just stand there,” screamed the blonde. “Can’t you at least help me with this thing?”

  “But honey...” He kept his voice low, despite the infection of hers, and caught the heavy case just before it hit his next-door neighbour in the head. Putting it down in the aisle, he tried again. “Think of Dubrovnik in the spring.” His accent was unusual. Australian, of course.

  “Rain all the time.” She picked up the case. “And me stuck in your pokey little pub over the marketplace, while you go out looking for ‘views.’ No, thanks. Little Pamela’s seen the light at last.” She put down the case again. “There’s your bloody five-pound ring. Keep it for the next fool.” Through the embarrassed British silence that had fallen on the carriage, Julia heard a whistle blow. The girl kicked her case savagely down the aisle and threw open the door at the far end of the carriage, the young man following. There was an angry shout from outside. The young man tried to hold her back as the train began to move, but she threw out the case and half fell after it. Julia, watching, appalled, saw her trip over the case and fall spread-eagled on the platform. “My God!” The woman sitting opposite had stood up and was peering out and backwards as the train gathered speed. “I’m afraid she’s really hurt herself, poor thing.”

  “Silly young fool,” said her companion. And then, to Julia: “Do you know if that seat’s taken?” No one had arrived to claim the corner seat.

  “Not that I know of. Someone must have missed the train.” One of “them”—the enemy? One knot, perhaps, unravelling in the web she felt around her? And yet, she wanted them to get in touch. What other hope had she of finding Dominic? And how unbearable, now that dead hope had been revived, the imagination of failure. Absorbed in gloomy thought, she hardly noticed the little bustle as the two women got themselves settled, side by side now, in the seat opposite, and started chatting happily about their plans for Venice. St. Mark’s...the Rialto...time for Torcello?...Murano glass for Cousin Betty...Julia closed her eyes, and, dreamlessly, slept.

  When she woke, they were running smoothly through hopfields, ready strung for spring. The two women opposite were talking about the girl who had jumped off the train. “Might have been killed,” said one.

  “Or killed a porter, opening the door like that.” They plunged contentedly into a well-tried discussion of the sins of the younger generation, with special reference to nephews and nieces of their own. An occasional, would-be conspiratorial glance tried to include Julia in the conversation. Did she really look so old? Twenty-eight, she thought angrily, is not exactly senility. But then, she knew well enough that the long, lonely years had left their mark.

  The train was running past houses now; the carriage stirred to life; in five minutes they would be in Folkestone. She pulled out the mirror Sir Charles had given her and did a minimum, impatient job on face and hair. Item: two eyes, brown; two lips, indifferent red. The features that had once made her beautiful, at least in Breckon’s eyes, were all still there. It was just that they did not, somehow, compose themselves any more. It was years, she thought, since anyone had whistled at her in the street.

  But at least she could take care of herself. Evading the Miss Browns, she got quickly on to the ferry, found a chair in the bar, and a double gin and tonic. She might be beyond wolf-whistles but she could still catch a busy bartender’s eye. Warmed by this thought, and the gin, she went up and prowled about the deck, almost enjoying fitful sunshine, wind in her face, and the last views of England. If she found Dominic, there might be some point to her life after all. Strange how real he had become, now that he had a face and a name. She would not imagine not finding him.

  At Calais, it was raining. The drink that had cheered now left her cold, low, and hungry. When had she last eaten or slept properly? And, after all, this wild-goose chase would most likely lead only to new despair, more of it, she knew, than she could face. Well, it would be hard on Sir Charles, but no one else would miss her. She thought of the blond girl, risking her life jumping off the train. Odd that in all the desperate days since her divorce and Dominic’s birth she had never considered taking her own life. How could she? She had had a duty to Dominic, the child she had let go. But now, if she failed to find him, or—a thought that had haunted her since she saw the picture and learned his name—found him in better hands than hers...Well, she still had the pills she had refused to take after her breakdown.

  She walked through the green customs channel and emerged into steady drizzle to see two trains waiting on parallel tracks. Hers, the one that avoided Paris, was on the far s
ide and her hair was wet when she got across to it. It was wetter still by the time she had established that there was no restaurant car, and, worse still, that the carriage in which her couchette was booked did not exist. The couchette attendant, shown her reservations, merely shrugged his shoulders and washed his hands of them, and her, in cockney French. It was past seven. She was hungry, she was tired, she was cold. She lost her temper and told him what she thought of him in French as fluent as and more grammatical than his own. An instinct for languages had been another of her qualifications for the job with Sir Charles.

  Her French slang won her a modicum of sympathy from the attendant, but that was all. The train was fully booked. She would be lucky to find a seat for the night. As for a berth...He shrugged again, abandoning her to her fate, then, as an afterthought, suggested that she might just possibly find a free berth in the wagon-lits carriage at the back of the train. But she had better hurry, he told her, maddeningly, as the train moved off.

  Impossible to hurry down the crowded corridors, where some people seemed to be resigned to standing all night, while others, more fortunate, were looking out of windows while their berths were made up. The refreshments trolley, with its soft drinks, sad sandwiches and milling queue was a more serious obstacle, and by the time she got to the wagon-lits carriage the train was well out into darkening countryside, running fast. Here, all was quiet, doors closed, no one in sight but the attendant, sitting on his stool at the far end. Approached, with the most delicate hint of a bribe, he shook his head regretfully. Here, too, everything was fully booked. He regretted infinitely...

  He really did, Julia thought. The surface that Sir Charles had made her construct for herself did have this effect on people. She looked, and knew it, like money, good family, and the best of taste. She felt like death. Infuriatingly, tears began to flood down her cheeks.

  “Oh, madame.” In the face of the ultimate female weapon, the man withdrew into his cabin to consult his papers. Emerging, “There is one possibility,” he said. “A gentleman whose companion missed the train in London. If he could be persuaded? And if madame did not mind sharing?”

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