Hertfordshire, November 1605
As soon as the sound of horses reached her ears, Lady Gerard knew her greatest fears had become a reality. She fell against her husband, half-swooning, clutching at his coat with trembling fingers.
Sir Gerard was a man of courage and action. He had planned for this day, though hoping it would never come. It was a vain hope however, and he spared a brief second or two to be thankful that he had not only planned for this event, but had the support of his loyal staff to help him see it through. He shouted for the servants, and even as they came running, he was leading Lady Gerard up the broad staircase, calling for the children to be brought down from the nursery, and giving instructions to each man or maidservant as they appeared.
‘Williams, send a man in first with the children. The nurse shall follow behind, then Greene with Lady Gerard and a lantern. Beyond all else, you must get them away safely as we arranged. You know how I depend upon you both. Maria, help Lady Gerard. Constance, bring candles and her ladyship’s cape.’
The servants, white-lipped and terrified, nevertheless hastened to do his bidding without hesitation. He could smile, even at such a time, that he was so fortunate in his companions.
Through the window they could see the first of the horses entering the long carriage drive. They had a bare minute, no more.
‘My dear!’ Gerard said to his wife, and his voice was sharp only to stir her to action. ‘We cannot delay,’ and by now they had reached the upper hall. ‘There is not a moment to lose.’
‘I will not leave you…’
‘You must.’ Pausing, he took her face in his hands, and kissed her for the last time. Looking into her eyes, he insisted gently, in a half-whisper, ‘You must, Katherine, my love. Think of the children, I beg you.’
There was silence. She nodded, a tear spilling over onto her cheek, and she said, ‘I know.’
‘Mama, what’s…?’ asked their eldest daughter, but was instantly shushed. The panel in the upper hall was opened, and a manservant stepped through, then another immediately thrust the four children, their nurse and a female servant through the gap after them without pausing to light torch or candle. One child whimpered, fearful of the darkness. My little Roland, thought Gerard with a pang.
But here was no more time for partings, and he pushed his wife through the entrance, handing her the precious wooden box. ‘Keep it safe, and may the Holy Mother watch over you all, my love.’
From the downstairs hall came a shout. Gerard quickly closed the panel, the suit of armour was returned to its position, and by the time the soldiers broke down the door and burst into the house, Sir Gerard was sitting calmly at his desk, reading from his prayer-book. He had dismissed those few servants who remained, fervently hoping they would get away to safety; they had been loyal beyond anything he could have asked or hoped. How he prayed they would not pay for that loyalty with their lives as others had elsewhere. As he himself was certain to do. So many things to hope for, he thought, at the very time when hope seemed the least of his commodities.
The charge was read out by the captain even as the soldiers grabbed Sir Gerard by the arms and hauled him to his feet.
‘Where is your family?’ the captain demanded.
‘They are gone to the south coast for their health, we have all suffered so much from the influenza this past spring.’ He got a slap across the face for that, and the men were despatched to search the house.
‘Tear it apart if you have to! These papists have so many secret places in their homes. Rip up the floors, tear down the walls, smash out the stones of the fireplaces!’
Sir Gerard felt no fear for his family. The passage would be found eventually, but the men would never be able to open it. By the time the soldiers had taken an axe to the panel, his family would be long gone, and family, treasures and the precious relic would never be found.
‘You will end your days in the Tower,’ the captain told him with a smirk, ‘and in great agony, I’ve no doubt.’
‘If God wills it,’ Sir Gerard responded with calm. ‘And afterward I shall be received in heaven.’
The captain spat at his feet and turned away. His men searched for the remainder of the day, and even returned the next, but they found neither Lady Gerard, nor her children, nor the famous Gerard relic.
Two weeks later, when the cold blade of the axe was laid upon his neck, Sir Gerard died secure in the knowledge that all was well, and that neither plans nor friends had failed him.
London, February 1934
‘Do sit down, Mr—er—Inspector. How nice to see you again.’
‘Thank you, Miss Manderson. It’s been a couple of weeks since we last met, I’m very glad to see you looking so well recovered.’
‘Would you like some tea? Or perhaps you prefer coffee?’
‘Thank you, a cup of tea would be most welcome.’
Dottie crossed the room to ring the bell. She moved slowly, mainly because part of her was astonished at how she, how both of them, managed to keep up this polite banality, when their last meeting—the one he had referred to—had been so… so… She fought to find the right word. Dramatic was not nearly dramatic enough. It had been chaotic, hellish, like something from a nightmare.
Resuming her seat, she turned a polite smile on him. He seemed to have run out of small-talk. His right knee bounced nervously. He was trying not to stare at her.
The door to the morning room opened and Janet the maid came in almost at a run and bobbed to a halt in front of Dottie. Of course, Janet had probably opened the door to him, and taken his coat and hat. No doubt the tea had already been made downstairs, just waiting for her to ring. Dottie smiled at Janet and said, ‘Please could we have some tea?’
‘Yes’m, right away,’ said Janet, flashing a look and a quick smile at her favourite policeman as she went out. Janet had hopes of a match between Dottie and Inspector William Hardy. Although admittedly she harboured hopes of each and every man who might whisk Dottie away to a life of excitement and adventure, not only because she wanted Dottie to be happily married almost as much as Dottie’s mother did, but also because Dottie had promised that when she did eventually marry, Janet could go with her to her new home. Janet’s main goal in life was to be the housekeeper of a large and beautiful home in what she termed a ‘nice’ part of London. Briefly Dottie wondered whether Janet would insist on looking over any future marriage proposals to ensure the most suitable establishment was chosen for herself, rather than for Dottie. Certainly it was likely be a toss-up to see if it was her mother or their maid who had the final say in whom Dottie accepted.
The door closed softly behind the maid, and Inspector Hardy again tried to bring himself to the point of asking Dottie whatever it was he had come there to ask.
He complimented her for a second time on her healthy appearance, then cast about him for something else to say. Dottie, often the despair of her mother in social situations, simply leaned forward, fixed him with her large, hazel eyes and said, ‘What’s up?’ in the modern style her mother often criticised.
‘Ah, well, I—er…’
‘It’s no good pretending, I know you wouldn’t have called on me unless you simply had to. So, as I said before, what’s up?’
He gave her a grin, cheeky and almost boyish, and just for a few seconds, the grave policeman persona was gone. ‘I might call on you, especially if I thought your mother might be out.’
‘She’s not,’ Dottie said, ‘she’s upstairs bullying my father who is in bed with a cold.’
He looked uncomfortable again. ‘Ah, oh dear, then I’d better…’
‘Be quick? Yes, you better had.’
‘I was going to say, I’d better ask you to give both your parents my best wishes.’
The door opened.
‘Tea,’ said Janet and she set down a tray. She seemed to take an age to pour out a cup of tea for the inspector only, then she performed an odd hybridised bow-curtsey and, cheeks flaming, left the room once more, leaving Dottie to pour her own drink.
‘I’m sorry there’s no cake,’ Dottie said, ‘Mother’s put Father on a diet, which means none of us gets any treats at the moment. Cook’s under strict instructions.’
‘Never mind,’ he said. He clutched his cup and saucer. Perhaps having something to do with his hands gave him courage, for then he said, ‘Do you remember when Archie Dunne died?’
Dottie raised an eyebrow. ‘I’d hardly forget,’ she said, ‘seeing that it was I who found him bleeding to death on the ground. And it was only a couple of months ago.’
‘Ah, oh yes, indeed. Dreadful business.’ He allowed the clock above the fireplace time to loudly tick four times before adding, ‘I have been wondering if he said anything to you that night. Anything that might have slipped your mind?’
‘No,’ Dottie said, and watched him closely. What on earth did he mean?
‘Oh? And you’re quite, quite sure about that?’
‘Quite sure, thank you. If he’d said anything other than just singing those few words from that song, I would have told you.’
‘Well, if you’re sure…’ he repeated doubtfully.
‘I think I would have remembered,’ she replied somewhat waspishly. Then, curiosity getting the better of her, she added, ‘Surely this is all old news? I thought that case was all finished with? Why do you ask?’
He poured himself another cup of tea, stirred in milk and one teaspoon of sugar. Her mother wouldn’t like that, Dottie thought. As far as Mother was concerned, the milk absolutely had to go into the cup before the tea. There was a pause. The clock ticked loudly. She began to think he wasn’t going to reply. He gulped down at least half his tea before finally saying, ‘If I was to say to you ‘the mantle of God’, what would that mean to you?’
She shook her head. ‘I’ve never heard that before. What does it mean?’
‘It doesn’t mean anything to you? You’ve never heard anyone say those words?’
She shook her head again. ‘I told you, no.’ She blushed a little as in her mind’s eye she saw a kind of gigantic shelf over a huge fireplace in Heaven, and a clock and a few photos in silver frames sitting on the shelf. She pushed the image aside and told him firmly, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever heard those words, and I can’t imagine what they might mean.’
He said nothing, but drank the rest of his tea. Two can play at this game, Dottie thought, irritated, and forced herself to hold back any more questions that might be begging to be asked. She sat back in her chair, her arms folded, and regarded him in silence. Silence filled the room. Silence and the ticking of that dratted clock on the mantelpiece, she thought. She looked at his face. She saw now how pale he was, and that great hollows lay beneath his eyes. He looked as if he hadn’t slept for a week. She wanted to reach out to him, comfort him, help him in some way. She poured him another cup of tea, adding milk and sugar as he had done, and passed him the cup and saucer.
‘Tell me about it, if you like,’ she said gently.
He drank his third cup of tea in two huge gulps and set down his cup on the table. He ran a hand over his eyes and forehead as if trying to wake himself up. Dottie wondered what he would do if she were to go over to him and sit on his knee and stroke his tired face. But no doubt, she reminded herself sternly, if I did such a ridiculous thing, that is precisely the moment Mother would walk into the room, and she’d have forty fits and pack me off to a convent. Dottie therefore remained where she was, her hands neatly folded in her lap.
He cleared his throat. He offered her a crooked smile.
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘we’ve got so many cases on at the moment, yet all can I think about is this—this conundrum.’ He sighed, and she waited. In his own time he would tell her, she realised.
‘I don’t know if I’m cut out to be a policeman,’ he said suddenly, and very quietly. She looked at him in astonishment. That was the last thing she had expected to hear. Before she could comment, he continued, ‘I can’t remember the last time I slept for a whole night. We’ve had a suicide, two armed robberies, an attack on a pr—er—on a good-time girl, a domestic battery, a kidnapping, and three break-and-enters in the last two weeks. You’d think that would be enough to keep me busy. But no, all I can think about is this wretched thing.’
He took a small brown envelope from his inside pocket and handed it to her. ‘It’s quite all right, you can open it. Have a look at what’s inside.’
She pulled up the flap, peered inside and saw a tiny scrap of fabric, badly faded, no more than the length of her little finger and only twice or three times the width. There was a line of stitching across one corner. There was also a small piece of paper which had once been folded over and over to create a parcel around the scrap. She smoothed out the paper on her knee. There were words printed in scrawly black ink: ‘The mantle of God.’
She stared at the items, then looked up at him questioningly.
‘The scrap of material was wrapped inside that piece of paper to make a little package as you can see. And this little package was found by the police doctor when he examined the body of Archie Dunne. It was tucked in the inside pocket of his evening coat. Officially it’s been set down by the chief superintendent as ‘of no significant value’ in the investigation. But yet…’ He rubbed his face again, this time with both hands.
‘The mantle of God,’ Dottie repeated, pondering the meaning. ‘Mantle as in a cloak or something? An ancient word for a coat or something similar.’
He nodded. ‘I assume so, but…’
‘Shall I ring for some more tea? Or what about a sandwich? Are you hungry? You look completely…’
‘I’m sorry, I really must be going. Thank you for your time.’
She held out the scrap of fabric and the paper but he shook his head and gestured for her to keep it.
‘Will you do me a huge favour? Will you see if you can find out anything about it? As a mannequin, you must come into contact with dressmakers, costumers, people who might know a bit about dress materials. I really can’t afford to spend the time on something my superiors have already dismissed as of no importance. And at the moment I don’t have any free time or I’d try to do some research myself. It’s just that—it feels significant in some way I can’t understand, or at least, relevant, but I haven’t the proof to justify the manpower or the time…’
He was on his feet, heading for the door, when he recollected his manners and came back. He shook her hand, and then seemingly on impulse, bent to kiss her cheek.
‘Bless you,’ he said, and squeezed her shoulder before leaving.
Dottie sat and gazed into space. She felt on the verge of tears, suddenly, and wanted so much to call him back. The front door banged. She heard the sound of his feet hurrying along the street. The room seemed full and highly charged, yet at the same time, strangely empty.