Read an Extract
The naked female figure danced in timeless sensual abandon, revelling in the provocation of her blatant sexuality. The face of the hapless man watching her was etched with mingled despair and lust as he reached out for her, blind and deaf to the imploring prayers of the holy man who watched the scene unfold from behind a pillar.
It was hard to see the detail clearly in the shadows, and having to crane her neck upwards did not help, but the scene was unmistakeable: and who was at fault, equally plain.
‘Honestly! Men!’ Exasperated, Elinor stepped backwards, furled parasol, rigid sketch book, sharp elbows and sensible boots, every one of them an offensive weapon.
‘Ough!’ The gasp from behind her as she made contact with something solid, large and obviously male, was agonised. ‘I beg your pardon,’ the voice continued on a croak as she swung round, fetching the man an additional thwack with the easel.
‘What for?’ she demanded, startled out of her customary good manners as she turned to face the doubled-up figure of her victim. ‘I struck you sir. I should apologise, not you.’
As he straightened up to a not inconsiderable height, a shaft of sunlight penetrated the cracked glass of the high window, illuminating a head of dark red hair that put her own tawny locks to shame. ‘You were expressing dissatisfaction with the male sex ma’am: I was apologising on behalf of my brothers for whatever sin we are guilty of this time.’ His tone was meek, but she was not deceived: there was strength in the deep voice and a thread of wicked amusement.
Yes, said a voice inside Elinor’s head. Yes. At last. She shook her head, blinking away the sun-dazzle and whatever idiocy her mind was up to, and stepped to one side to see her victim better. He was smiling, a conspiratorial twist of his lips that transformed a strong but not particularly distinguished face into one that was disarmingly attractive. Somehow he had succeeded in charming an answering smile out of her.
She was not, Elinor reminded herself sternly, given to smiling at strange men. It must be part and parcel of hearing things. The voice had gone away now, no doubt it had been some trick of an echo in this cavernous place.
‘I was referring to that capital.’ Hampered by her armful of belongings she dumped them without ceremony on a nearby pew, keeping hold only of the furled parasol, partly as a pointer, partly because of its merits as a sharp implement. All men, her mother was apt to warn her, were Beasts. It was as well not to take risks with chance-met ones, even if they did appear to be polite English gentlemen. She gestured with the parasol towards the richly carved column top, Number 6B in her annotated sketches. ‘It is a Romanesque capital, that is to say –‘
‘It was carved between 1120 and 1150 and is one of a notable series that makes the basilica of Vezelay an outstanding example of religious art of the period,’ he finished for her, sounding like an antiquarian paper on the subject.
‘Of course, I should have realised that if you are visiting the basilica you must understand architecture,’ she apologised, gazing round the wreckage of the once great church. Outside of service times no-one else was going to enter here on a whim. ‘Are you a clergyman sir?’
‘Do I look like one?’ The stranger appeared mildly affronted by the suggestion.
‘Er... no.’ And he did not, although why that should be, Elinor had no idea. Many men of the cloth must have red hair. Some must also possess smiles that invited you to smile right back at a shared, and slightly irreverent, joke. And, without doubt, tall and athletic figures graced pulpits up and down the land.
‘Thank goodness for that.’ She noticed that he offered no explanation of himself in response to her question. ‘So,’ he tipped back his head, fisting his hands, one of which held his tall hat, on his hips to balance himself. ‘What exactly is it about this particular scene that merits your ire, ma’am?’
‘It shows, as usual, a man succumbing to his own base animal instincts and lack of self-control and blaming his subsequent moral downfall upon a woman,’ she said crisply.
‘I must say your eyesight is excellent if you can deduce all that in this light.’
‘I have been studying the capitals for a week now with the aid of an opera glass: one gets one’s eye in.’ Elinor stared round at the nave, littered with crumbling masonry, broken pews and rubbish. ‘I have had to go round at least three times in an attempt to interpret as many as possible when the light is at its best. It is still possible to do that, but unless something is done very soon, I fear they may all fall or be damaged beyond repair or study. See the holes in the roof? The carvings must be exposed to the elements, even in here.’
‘You are a scholar then?’ He was squinting upwards, his eyes fixed on the carved figures, frozen in their eternal masque of temptation and yielding. ‘Researching the iniquities of the medieval male mind perhaps?’
‘My mother is the scholar, I am merely recording the carvings for her detailed study. She is an authority on the early churches of France and England.’ Elinor could have added that the medieval male mind probably differed little from its modern counterpart when it came to moral turpitude, but decided against it. It was not as though she had any experience of turpitude to base the assertion upon.
‘Indeed?’ The man switched his attention from the carving to her face and this time the smile lit up his eyes as well. They were green, she noticed. An unusual clear green, like water over pebbles, not the indeterminate hazel that looked back at her whenever she spared a glance in a glass to check that her bonnet was at least straight and there were no charcoal smudges on her nose. ‘I feel sure I should meet your respected parent. May I call?’
‘You are a scholar too?’ Elinor began to gather up her things, stuffing pencils, charcoal and paints into the battered leather satchel and swinging it over her shoulder. ‘I am joining her now, if you would care to accompany me.’
‘Let’s just say I have an interest in antiquities.’ He removed the easel from her hands, folded its legs up, lashed the straps around it with a competence which suggested he used one himself, and tucked it under his arm. There was a short, brisk struggle for possession of the stool, which he won, and for the parasol which Elinor retained. ‘You are staying in Vezelay?’
‘Yes, we have been here seven days now. We are making our way down through France visiting a number of the finer early cathedrals. Mama intends that we will remain at Vezelay for several weeks yet. Merci monsieur.’ She smiled and nodded to the verger who was wielding a broom and stirring up the gritty dust in the porch. ‘Sweeping seems pointless, he would be better employed on the roof with a tarpaulin.’
She dropped a coin into the outstretched hand of the beggar by the door and headed diagonally across the open space before the basilica, glancing up at her companion as she did so. ‘We have lodgings just down the hill here.’
There was something vaguely familiar about him, although she could not place it. It certainly made him easy to talk to. Normally Miss Ravenhurst would have contented herself with a polite inclination of the head and a murmured Good day when she came across a male countryman to whom she had not been introduced. It would never have occurred to her to invite one back to their lodgings to meet Mama.
Perhaps it was the red hair, somewhat extinguished now as he clapped his hat back on his head. Being one of the red-headed Ravenhursts, she saw a less spectacular version of it every time she looked in the glass. It was generally considered to be a handicap in a lady, although if hers was less a good match for a chestnut horse and more the flame of well-polished mahogany by firelight as his was, she might have felt more reconciled to it. He seemed to have avoided freckles as well, she noticed with envy, but then, his skin was not as fair as hers was.
‘Here we are.’ It was only a few minutes walk down the steep main street, although it always took rather longer to toil back up the slippery cobbles to the basilica. The door was on the latch and she pushed it open, calling ‘Mama? Are you at home? We have a visitor.’
‘In here, Elinor.’ She followed her mother’s voice through into the parlour, leaving her belongings on the hall bench and gesturing to the tall man to put the easel and stool down too. At the sight of him Lady James Ravenhurst rose to her feet from behind the table, its chequered cloth strewn with papers and books.
‘Mama, this gentleman is a scholar of antiquities who wishes to meet –’
‘Theophilus!’ Lady James lifted her quizzing glass to her eye and stared, for once clearly out of countenance.
Elinor stared too. ‘Cousin Theo?’ Her disgraceful and disgraced cousin Theo? Here? ‘I haven’t seen you for years.’
‘Not since I was twelve, fifteen years ago,’ he agreed. ‘You must have been about seven. I wondered if it was you, Cousin Elinor.’
‘The hair I suppose,’ she said, resigned to it being her most memorable feature. ‘I was ten,’ she added, ruthlessly honest. It was nice of him to pretend he thought she was only twenty now, and not an on-the-shelf spinster of almost twenty six.
‘What are you doing here, Theophilus? I understood from your mama that you were undertaking the Grand Tour.’ Lady James gestured impatiently towards the chairs set around the stone hearth. ‘Sit.’
‘I am, you will agree, Aunt Louisa, somewhat old to be undertaking the Tour with a tutor to bear-lead me.’ Theo waited until the two women were seated then took the remaining chair, crossing one long leg over the other and clasping his hands together. He appeared quite tame and domesticated, although a trifle large. If Elinor had imagined a dangerous rakehell, which she had been informed her cousin was, he would not look like this.
‘Mama uses the Tour as code for sent abroad in disgrace,’ he continued. ‘I am earning my living, avoiding English tourists and generally managing to keep my doings from the ears of my sainted Papa.’
‘Your father, even if Bishop of Wessex, may not be a saint,’ his aunt said tartly, ‘but you have certainly tried his patience over the years, Theophilus. Where were you when the Corsican Monster returned from exile last year, might I ask?’
‘Oh, here in France. I became a Swedish merchant for the duration of the troubles. I found it interfered very little with my business.’
Lady James ignored this levity. ‘What sort of trade?’
‘Art and antiquities. I find I have a good eye. I prefer the small and the portable of course.’
‘Why of course?’ Careless of deportment, Elinor twisted round on her seat to face him fully.
‘It is easier to get an emerald necklace or a small enamelled reliquary past a customs post or over a mountain pass than a twelve foot canvas or six foot of marble nude on a plinth.’ The twinkle in his eyes invited her to share in his amusement at the picture he conjured up.
‘You are involved in smuggling?’ his aunt asked sharply.
‘In the aftermath of the late wars there is a great deal of what might be loosely described as art knocking about the Continent, and not all of it has a clear title. Naturally, if it sparkles, then government officials want it.’ Theo shrugged. ‘I prefer to keep it and sell it on myself, or act as an agent for a collector.’
‘And there is a living to be made from it?’ Elinor persisted, ignoring her mother’s look which said quite clearly that ladies did not discuss money, smuggling or trade.
‘So my banker tells me: he appears moderately impressed by my endeavours.’
‘So what are you doing here?’ Lady James demanded. ‘Scavenging?’
Theo winced, but his tone was still amiable as he replied, ‘I believe there is an artefact of interest in the neighbourhood. I am investigating.’
There was more to it than that, Elinor decided with a sudden flash of insight. The smile had gone from his eyes and there was the faintest edge to the deep, lazy voice. The coolness inside her was warming up into something very like curiosity. She felt more alive than she had for months.