A well-earned vacation takes a sharp detour when Sandilands is called to France, where a shell-shocked patient—a tragic casualty of war—is in the throes of a violent nightmare. Trying to determine the mystery man’s identity proves a difficult, internationally delicate task: several families are claiming the unknown soldier as their own.
But it is at a famed château, where the wine flows and disturbing secrets abound, that Sandilands meets a woman who takes his investigation in a chillingly different direction. Strong-willed and alluring Aline Houdart’s husband has been missing and presumed dead for nearly ten years. Her true motives are as elusive as the truth about a long-ago night…when a horrific crime was committed and lives changed forever. Now Sandilands, an ex-soldier himself, a man who has seen his share of bloodshed and sorrow, is waging his own battle for justice. It is a fight for his fallen comrades that will unmask a killer. Or bury the truth forever…
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Champagne, northern France,
Aline Houdart got off her bicycle and stood still, holding tightly to the handlebars. At this moment she needed to have her feet firmly on the ground and she fought down a ridiculous urge to take off her shoes, the better to connect herself to the earth. Surely she was mistaken? The sound she'd heard was a tree crashing to the ground in the forest around her. Or thunder. A snap of her starched headdress in the breeze as she rounded the bend perhaps. The explanations she snatched at were elbowed away by a single word: cannon. But at such close quarters?
Aline thought at once of her parents. They would have been able to identify the make, calibre and direction of fire. Her parents knew all about cannon. In their distant youth they'd been trapped in Paris during the Prussian siege of 1870 and, round a good fire in the wintertime, they still vied with each other to convey the horrors of bombardment by von Moltke's fifty-ton siege gun. Aline tried to recall their lurid accounts of the hellish din with its earth-trembling accompaniment.
The sound came again. She got her bearings and, as she stood with her face to the north, the late afternoon sun over her left shoulder threw a shadow to the east and north in the direction of the blast. She stretched out an arm, extending the line, trying to remember what lay over there. The plain of Champagne, stretching for wide miles around Suippes and over to the bristling fortifications clustering around Verdun. She could deceive herself no longer. This was heavy artillery, but were the guns French or German? Perhaps General Joffre had begun the longed-for offensive to clear von Bülow out of Champagne, but at all events the war was coming closer. No longer static, bogged down in trenches, not even creeping up quietly but advancing openly, snarling, in leaps and bounds. Soon they'd hear its roar in the mountains to the south, one day perhaps in the hills of Provence. And by then her world would have been consumed, this perfect place reduced to rubble.
She'd been lucky in her choice of day last month when she'd ventured north to look at the battlefield. It had been a quiet day at the front. She'd persuaded old Felix to get out the carriage and the one decrepit nag they had left in the stables and drive her up to the very edge of the high country overlooking the plain with Reims at its centre. They'd found up there an ancient chapel which, unscathed so far, appeared to have enjoyed the protective sanctity of an even more ancient Celtic grove and, from its shelter, they'd stared out in silence, too shocked by what they saw to try to share their thoughts. The skylarks and wood doves had been making more of a clamour, she remembered, than the guns that day.
Framed by a canopy of beech leaves, under a hot August sky, the land of Champagne should have stretched out its smooth curves languorously, seductively, as it did in the coloured picture postcards. For nearly two thousand years it had been a bountiful vineyard. Vines planted by Roman soldiers had thrived, the land had prospered.
It had taken less than one year to bring the ordered countryside to this obscene state of devastation.
Arrogant pigs, like all armies, the Romans at least had understood the lands they had conquered; they had trodden lightly and worked hard, leaving behind fertile and civilized provinces. Unlike the present invaders. The chalky lines of their trenches tore hideous scars across the terrain, each countered by an allied trench but all advancing towards the centre where stood, blackened and fire-bombed, roofless, its towers still raising defiant fingers at the enemy, the mighty Gothic cathedral of Reims.
The trenches. Clovis was there. Not riding, lance at the port, across open country towards the enemy but, in this modern war, bogged down, hedged in, crouching in the sketchy protection of one of those scars. She'd blinked and stared at the distant battlefield swimming before her eyes. It was distorted, not by tears, but by a heat haze shimmering over the plain. She made an effort to concentrate her thoughts on her husband, to feel his discomfort. After all these months of battle, his uniform would be quite worn out. Blue captain's jacket and red trousers—it was designed for cavalry officers peacocking about on chargers, a musical-comedy costume unsuitable for men wriggling on belly and elbows through mud and dust. And the steel helmet with horsehair plume dangling down his back—what protection was that Napoleonic flourish against bursting shells and German snipers? In this heat the cuffs of his jacket would be chafing his wrists, his high collar would be too tight, his feet blistered.
His physical state was easily imagined but with his thoughts and emotions it was more difficult to attempt a connection. Did he raise his head and glance behind him to the hills looking towards the home he was fighting for? Were his eyes seeking the familiar outline of the grove on the hill, all unknowing, at that very moment, as she gazed down? What would he be thinking? Aline smiled. A smile soured by a dash of irony. She knew what Clovis would be thinking. He'd be calculating the number of hods per hectare this wonderful summer would produce. If there were only hands available to fetch in the harvest. If there were still grapes to be harvested. He wouldn't know.
The vineyards surrounding Reims had been destroyed in the desperate German push to the south the previous summer. For two agonizing months, von Bulow's troops had swarmed down over the Marne in an impetuous and unscheduled dash, ravaging, destroying, stealing whatever resources they could lay hands on. Aline had fled with her son before the guns sounded, obedient to Clovis's instructions. But their cellar-master and his men had stayed on guard. No command, no plea, no reasoning from Aline had been able to shake these men, elderly but stout-hearted, from their resolve to stay and guard their life's work. A deserted chateau is the first to be pillaged, they'd maintained. The best vintages had been carefully concealed behind hastily erected and plastered walls in the miles of tunnels in the chalk under the vineyard and the bottles immediately on view to a pillaging army were the less-good wines, deceptively relabelled.
And their determination had paid off. Being well beyond the protecting bulwark of the Montagne de Reims and some miles distant from the river crossings, their remote valley and the vignoble had escaped with the lightest of German attention. General Joffre, calculating that the enemy forces were impossibly overstretched, had reversed the retreat of the French from the north and unleashed his Fifth and Ninth Armies against the invaders. With the support of the British Expeditionary Force and the gallant dash of the French cavalry tearing into the gap between the two halves of the German army, the Boche had regretted their incursion and made off back across the Marne to the north again. They had been unequal to the task of hauling spoil from such an awkward piece of country, across a formidable river whose bridges had been blown up by the British, and the compulsion to lay greedy hands on heavy loot was more easily resisted when there were much richer pickings to be had on the accessible plain around Reims.
And now the vendange had come again. The second of the war. The grapes were safely in and how ironic if this year of misery and destruction were to yield a good vintage. Smaller but of a better quality perhaps than the legendary one of 1900? A daydream! Everyone said a war always began with a poor crop and ended with a good one. Nature's way of showing her disapproval of Man's activities, Aline thought, though the villagers said—God's way. Clovis would be concerned that his estate should be running as well as could be without him. He didn't trust her to manage it. At the last moment before leaving for the war, as he'd turned to mount his horse and ride off at the head of his small squadron of cuirassiers, he'd swung on his heel, breastplate glittering, hand negligently on sword-hilt, and called her over to him. The soldier's farewell. She knew what was required of her. Suppressing the tears and tumbling endearments which would have come more naturally to her, she went to him calmly and presented her cheek for a last kiss. He had taken her by the shoulders and murmured: "Copper sulphate, my dear. Absolutely vital that you keep up supplies. Should you encounter difficulties you will have to apply to our cousin Charles."
If Clovis knew that she'd taken four days off and wasted Felix's time driving up on a fruitless expedition to gape at the battlefield where perhaps he might be fighting, he would have called her into his study and wearily delivered a ticking off. Her Parisian ways had lost much of their charm after six years of marriage, she knew that, but she could change. She was determined to change. This war would leave no one as they had been before. And, perhaps, when finally he was allowed to come home on his much overdue leave, he would notice what she'd achieved. He'd notice, approve and love her for it. Perhaps.
On leave. She'd seen him only once since this war broke out and he'd told her firmly not to expect him again until she heard that it was all over. Leave was hardly ever accorded to officers in his position. The thought of seeing him again was as alarming as it was attractive. She feared that the war would have demolished the barriers they had so carefully built between them over the years, leaving them without cover to see each other as they truly were—or had become. Would the lubricants of convention and good manners ease them through the demands of a four-day pass? She was unsure but at their next encounter she was determined she would hold up her head and speak with pride of what she had done.
Every available person, male or female, young or old, living within ten miles of the chateau had been lured by her—Parisian charm had its advantages on occasion—into coming to work on the estate. The oldest recruit, Jean-Paul, rheumatic and toothless at seventy-five, had come out of retirement and found the energy to shuffle every morning along the rows in the vineyard, pruning, training and singing to the vines. The youngest recruit was her own son, five-year-old Georges, who scampered about screaming defiance and throwing stones at the invading birds.
She'd raised a squad of thirty willing but sporadically available workers. The vineyard had even had the good luck to avoid attack by the phylloxera pestilence which had ravaged production on the great estates to the north. Aline paid her workers with the little cash she could lay hands on, with eggs and milk from the home farm and with promises of a share of the wine production. Well—why not? It was better shared out. If they had to leave it in the cellar before fleeing away again there was every chance it would be drunk by a regiment of swaggering Boches bombing and gassing their way south. And she had devised a scheme to outflank the enemy. If they could just be held at bay until the first cold snap of the winter came, stilling the fermentation, she could arrange to have some of the barrels shipped south to a cousin's estate to await maturity in a Provençal haven. A mad notion. She could imagine his wry comment: "Not, perhaps, one of your more considered ideas, Aline." But it was the product of her resolve to preserve a vestige at least of Clovis's world. And evidence of her own achievement. She would have felt defeated if the one gap in the run of vintages for hundreds of years had occurred during her stewardship.
More practical was her plan to find out from Jean-Paul, while he still had the memory, how to take shoots, samples, cuttings—whatever they were—of the strongest and best of their undiseased crop and to make off with them to safety. Aline hadn't discussed these plans with Clovis. She hadn't mentioned them in her letters, fearing she might irritate and distract him from the business of war; anxious also to appear confident and capable. It would be all too easy to make a foolish remark, betraying her ignorance. He had never expected the war to go on for so long or to loom so close. Would he be pleased at her foresight or would he shake his head, pitying her innocence and wild optimism?
A third booming crash had her once again on her bicycle and pedalling fast for the château.
It lay sunning itself in sleepy elegance, ancient and lovely, its two wings extending, she always thought, with their perfect symmetry, to enfold anyone approaching in a welcoming embrace. But it seemed she wasn't the first person to be welcomed down the carriage-drive this morning. A battered old transporter lorry with army markings was sitting, cocking a rusty snook at the white marble sweep of the staircase up to the double front doors which, unusually, were standing slightly open.
And something else was wrong. She looked for Clovis's dog. When she left the château and cycled off to do her weekly stint in the military hospital the greyhound always went on watch, positioning itself with bored resignation to cascade elegantly down the top three steps. But today the familiar form was absent from its post.
Aline's heart began to race as the implications became clear. Of course, he'd been driven home on leave. She slapped away a quick tug of doubt as a more sinister reason for a military presence raised itself: he'd been killed and someone had been sent to report his death. No. That couldn't be. They always sent a telegram or a letter or even the mayor. To announce the death of someone of Clovis's standing the Prefect himself might be paraded. She propped her cycle against the wheel of the lorry and ran up the steps. She called out for the housekeeper before remembering that it was Madame Legrand's afternoon off. The hall was dim and deserted but in a distant back room a door banged and she caught a blast of hearty male laughter. A maid, pink and giggling, hurried shyly towards her, fluttering with the responsibility of taking on the housekeeper's duty.
"Madame! Oh, there you are! We've been looking out for you for ages! They've arrived! A message came to say they were on their way an hour after you'd left. The Captain said not to send after you . . . better to let you go ahead and do your duties. He could wait . . ."