Table of Contents Title Page Dedication Praise CHAPTER 1 - SEPTEMBER 1919 CHAPTER 2 - OCTOBER 1919 CHAPTER 3 CHAPTER 4 CHAPTER 5 CHAPTER 6 CHAPTER 7 CHAPTER 8 CHAPTER 9 CHAPTER 10 CHAPTER 11 CHAPTER 12 CHAPTER 13 CHAPTER 14 CHAPTER 15 CHAPTER 16 CHAPTER 17 CHAPTER 18 CHAPTER 19 CHAPTER 20 CHAPTER 21 CHAPTER 22 CHAPTER 23 CHAPTER 24 CHAPTER 25 CHAPTER 26 CHAPTER 27 CHAPTER 28 CHAPTER 29 A FEARSOME DOUBT About the Author ALSO BY CHARLES TODD Copyright Page
For Elayne K. McCullough—
For whom traveling the world was a joyous adventure And whose friendship was a treasured gift. And for Bill and her family, who brought her so much happiness.Bon voyage . . .
Praise for the novels of Charles Todd WATCHERS OF TIME “A COMPELLING MYSTERY RICH WITH DEPTH AND SHADING.”
The Washington Post Book World— ? “A SPOT-ON RECREATION OF THE 1919 PERIOD, SOME WILY USE OF THE TITANIC TRAGEDY AND VILLAGERS’
XENOPHOBIA, AND THE MOST PERSISTENT PLAGUING BY A GHOST SINCE MACBETH. TODD FANS WILL QUEUE UP
FOR THIS ONE.” —Kirkus Reviews ? “COMPELLING . . . PSYCHOLOGICALLY ASTUTE.” —Publishers Weekly ? “POIGNANTLY MOVING AND SUSPENSEFUL . . . THIS IS A SERIES THAT ONLY GROWS STRONGER AS IT GOES
ALONG.” —Romantic Times ? LEGACY OF THE DEAD “ELOQUENT . . . RICH.” —The New York Times Book Review ? “TIGHTLY WORKED, POIGNANT . . . A MOST MOVING STORY.” — Booknews from The Poisoned Pen ? “A RICH, COMPLEX NOVEL INTELLIGENTLY WRITTEN AND VERY AFFECTING.” —The Purloined Letter ? “IMMENSELY INTRIGUING . . . A FINE, UNIQUE, AND MOVING MYSTERY.” —Booklist ? “POWERFUL.” —Kirkus Reviews ? “SUPERB . . . CLAIM[S] OUR INTEREST AND HOLD[S] US FAST UNTIL THE LAST CHILLING PAGE.” —Romantic Times ? “READERS WILL CONTINUE TO BE CAPTIVATED BY TODD’S PORTRAIT OF THE DANGEROUSLY UNRAVELING
DETECTIVE, AND HIS EQUALLY INCISIVE EVOCATION OF THE GRIEVING POSTWAR WORLD.” —Publishers Weekly ? “MUCH MORE THAN YOUR AVERAGE ENGLISH COUNTRY HOUSE MYSTERY.” —Mystery Lovers Bookshop News ?
A TEST OF WILLS
Notable Book of the YearNew York Times A
“TODD GIVES US A SUPERB CHARACTERIZATION OF A MAN WHOSE WOUNDS HAVE MADE HIM INTO A STRANGERIN HIS OWN LAND, AND A DISTURBING PORTRAIT OF A COUNTRY INTOLERANT OF ALL STRANGERS.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“TODD DEPICTS THE OUTER AND INNER WORLDS OF HIS CHARACTERS WITH AUTHORITY AND SYMPATHY AS HECLOSES IN ON HIS SURPRISING —AND CONVINCING—CONCLUSION.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“THE EMOTIONAL AND PHYSICAL CARNAGE IN WORLD WAR I IS USED TO REMARKABLE EFFECT.”
SEARCH THE DARK
“TODD WORKS . . . VOLATILE ELEMENTS INTO A REMARKABLE VILLAGE MYSTERY . . . DRIVEN BYCHARACTERS OF GREAT PSYCHOLOGICAL COMPLEXITY.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“TODD’S IAN RUTLEDGE MYSTERIES ARE AMONG THE MOST INTELLIGENT AND AFFECTING BEING WRITTENTHESE DAYS.”
—The Washington Post Book World
WINGS OF FIRE
“[TODD WRAPS] HIS CHALLENGING PLOT, COMPLEX CHARACTERS, AND SUBTLE PSYCHOLOGICAL INSIGHTS INTHICK LAYERS OF ATMOSPHERE.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A STRONG MYSTERY, FILLED WITH FINE CHARACTERIZATIONS [AND] A SUPERB EYE FOR CORNWALL . . .WISE AND WILY.”
—The Boston Globe
DR. STEPHENSON TURNED AWAY FROM THE bed where the dying man lay breathing so lightly theblanket over his thin chest barely stirred. His bony, restless fingers plucking at the edge ofthe wool were the only signs of life and awareness. Twice the young woman sitting on the bedbeside him had tried to still them, covering them with her own, but her father’s hand pickedup the silent tattoo again, like a drummer remembering his place, as soon as she released it.He had already frayed an inch of the binding. She gave up and sat back, sighing.
His face was grooved by illness, and a stubble of beard emphasized the lines, like a roughlandscape of suffering below the sun-weathered skin of forehead and nose. Shaggy gray eyebrowshung heavily over the sunken lids. Age weighed him down, but there was a certain strength thereas well, as if life had made him fight for all he had, and he had not forgotten the battles.
Catching the eyes of the man’s sons, who were standing on the far side of the bed, faces inshadows cast by the scarf draped over the lamp’s shade, the doctor nodded toward the windowacross the room, out of earshot of the patient. The young woman looked up as they moved away,but stayed where she was. She didn’t want to hear what was being whispered.
Another gust of wind swept the front of the house, and rain was driven heavily against thepanes, rattling them. The storm had stalled, as they sometimes did here along the coast,reluctant to move inland and lose itself in the hilly terrain there. For three hours or more ithad hovered over the village, flailing everyone and everything out in the open.
The older of the two brothers bent his head to catch the words as Stephenson said softly,“He’s moving comfortably and peacefully toward the end. There’s nothing more I can do. Buthe might wish to have Mr. Sims here? And I should think your sister would be comforted aswell.”
Mr. Sims was the Vicar.
The younger brother answered, “Yes. I’ll go for him, then.” He went quietly across the roomto the door. The scarf that shaded the lamp by the bed riffled as he passed, and the lightflashed once across his face. There were wet trails of tears on his cheeks.
His sister reached out and briefly took his rough hand.
The other brother sighed. “He’s had a long life, Pa has. But not that long. Sixty-four. We’dthought he’d be with us another five, ten years. His own father lived to just past eighty. AndUncle Tad’s young for seventy-six.” He shook his head.
“Your uncle Thadeus has the constitution of an ox,” Stephenson agreed. “He may well outliveyour grandfather’s years. But your father’s heart has given out, and his body must follow.”He studied the grieving man’s face, noting the deep lines of worry and sleeplessness. HettyBaldwin, his housekeeper’s daughter, was getting a good man in Martin Baker, the doctor toldhimself. Much like Herbert in character—God-fearing, with strong ties to his family and afierce sense of duty. It was a sound match. “Everything happens in God’s own time, you know.Even this. And it’s a kindness that he won’t linger.” He spoke the words as comfort, thennodded toward the bed. “See if you can persuade Elly to rest a little. She’s hardly stirredfrom his side since yesterday morning. We’ll call her if there’s any—urgency. She will onlywear herself into collapse, driving herself like this.”
“I’ve tried, to no avail.” Martin turned toward the window, lifting the curtain and pullingaside the shade a little to look out. Rain ran down the glass in rivulets, pushed against thehouse by the wind. A filthy night, he thought. A fitting night for death to come. . . . Hedropped the shade back in place and said to Dr. Stephenson, “There’s naught to be done tomake it easier on her?”
“I’ll leave something. A sleeping draught. Give it to Elly in a glass of water, when yourfather is gone. And, Martin—see that Dick doesn’t insist on being one of the pallbearers.
That shoulder of his is not fully healed, and the socket will never be as strong as it was.He’s not out of the woods yet. He could still lose the arm if he’s not careful. The armysurgeons can’t work miracles without a little help!”
“Good man!” A clap on Martin’s shoulder for comfort, and then Stephenson walked back to thebed. He reached down and touched Elly’s hands, folded tightly in her lap. They were cold,shaking. “Your father is comfortable. He would want you to be the same. Let Martin fetch you ashawl, at least.”
She nodded, unable to reply. The gray head on the pillow moved, first to the right, then towardthe left. Herbert Baker’s eyes opened, and focused on his daughter’s face. He said in agravelly voice, “I want a priest.”
The doctor leaned down and replied reassuringly, “Yes, Dick has just gone to fetch Mr. Sims.”
“I want a priest!” the old man repeated querulously.
“He’s coming, Papa!” Elly said, fighting her tears. “Can you hear me? He’ll be here quitesoon—”
“Priest,” her father demanded. “Not Vicar.”
“Herbert,” the doctor said soothingly, “let me lift you while Elly gives you a littlewater—”
The dark, pleading eyes shifted to the doctor’s face. “I want a priest,” the dying man saidvery clearly this time, refusing to be distracted.
The bedroom door opened and Dick was ushering in the Vicar. “I met him on his way here,” hetold them. “Coming to see if we had need of him.”
Mr. Sims was taller than Dick, thinner, and not much older. “I’ve been sitting with Mrs.Quarles, and thought it best to call on you before going home,” the Vicar explained. HerbertBaker had taken all day to die. Most of the town knew the end was near, a matter of hours atbest. Sims had stopped in twice before.
Sims reached out to touch Elly’s arm, saying easily, “Ellen, do you think you could find acup of tea for us? We could use the warmth on such a wet night.”
She flushed shyly. “Tea? Oh—yes. I’ve just to put the kettle on.”
Smoothing the blanket over her father, she got up, leaving the room with reluctance. Sims tookthe place on the bed that she’d vacated and squarely met the intent eyes of the old man.“You’ve had a good life, Herbert Baker. You were married to a fine woman—a caring wife and adevoted mother. Both your sons survived the War, and have work. Elly is a lovely girl. God hasbeen kind to you.”
“Thank’ee, Vicar, and I’ll have you say a prayer for me after the priest goes!”
The Vicar looked up at Martin, then said, “Dr. Stephenson?”
“He’s been asking for a priest. Just now, before you came in. I don’t know why—”
Dick said, “Father James is the only priest in Osterley. He’s a Catholic—”
“That’s right—he’s the one!” Herbert Baker said with more will than strength. Something inthe depths of his eyes flared with hope.
Martin said, “If that’s what he wants, humor him, then. Dick, go and see if Father James willcome here.” His brother hesitated, glancing uneasily at the Vicar, as if he’d just been askedto commit heresy. But Mr. Sims nodded encouragement, and Dick went out the door.
Martin said, “You’ll stay?” to Sims.
From the bed came the single word “Stay.” The lined face was exhausted, as if speaking was agreater effort than he could manage.
Sims replied, “I’ll go to the kitchen, then. From the look of her, Ellen is more in need ofthat tea than I am!” Rising from the bed, he added gently, “I’ll be within call, Herbert.
Never fear.” His smile was reassuring.
Herbert nodded; his eyes closed. The wind had dropped again and on the roof overhead the rainseemed to fall softly now, with a summer patter.
Dr. Stephenson said quietly to Sims, “He’s sound enough in his mind. But dying men often havewhims like this. Best to humor him!”
“Yes. I knew a wounded man in the War who wanted to be buried with his little dog. Only hedidn’t have a dog. But when they came to bury him, his arms were folded across his chest as ifhe’d held one as he died. Strange comfort, but who are we to question?”
The Vicar went out the door, shutting it quietly behind him. There were voices on the stairs.Sims speaking to Ellen. And then they went down again together.
The room was silent. Martin watched his father for a time, and then said anxiously toStephenson, “It’ll be an easy passing?”
“As easy as any. His heart will stop. And his breathing will follow. He will be asleep longbefore that. I didn’t expect him to wake at all. I thought he’d reached the last stage.”
Herbert, roused by their voices, said, “Is the priest here, then?”
“Not yet, Papa,” Martin answered, lowering himself to sit on the bed. “Dick’s gone to fetchhim.” He gripped his father’s hands, unable to say anything, a plain man with few graces. Butthe warmth of his fingers seemed to give a measure of peace to his dying father. Martin clearedhis throat hoarsely, warmed in his turn.
The silence lengthened. After nearly a quarter of an hour, Dick came in, bringing a short andbalding man of middle age in his wake. Father James greeted Stephenson with a nod and came toshake Martin’s outstretched hand. His fingers were cold from the night air. “I understandyour father has been asking for a priest,” he said, his face showing only concern.
why, Father—”“I don’t know
“Nor does it matter. I’ll speak to him, then, shall I?” It was a question asked gracefully,setting Martin at his ease. The priest turned quietly to bend over the bed. After a moment hesaid, “Mr. Baker? Herbert? It’s Father James. What can I do to help you?”
Baker opened his eyes, seemed to have difficulty focusing them, then blinked as he looked up atthe white clerical collar, clearly visible against the black cloth. “Father James, is it?”
“Yes.” As a thin, trembling hand came out from under the blanket, Father James reached for itand the claw seemed to lock onto his.
“Send them away!” Herbert Baker said. “Just you and me.”
Father James glanced across at the anxious faces of Baker’s two sons and then at Dr.Stephenson. The three men nodded briefly, walked to the door, and went out, their shoes loud onthe wide boards of the passage, then moving together down the stairs.
Father James, waiting until they were well out of earshot, looked around to collect someimpression of this man lying in the bed waiting for death to come. He knew who the Bakers were,but had seldom exchanged more than a word or two with any of them.
It was a big room set under the eaves, with simple but sturdy furnishings, and a worn carpet onthe floor. Someone had painted watercolors of the sea and framed them for hanging. Anamateur’s hand, the sunrises and ships vigorous, but showing an untrained eye. The family hadtaken pride in them, to frame them. The single window faced the street, the shade pulledagainst the night and the curtains drawn across it.
So many houses in the town had this same air of working-class austerity, Father James foundhimself thinking. Osterley’s years of prosperity lay in the past—well before Herbert Baker’stime. No one starved, but people here worked hard for their bread.
As the priest turned back to the bed, he saw the woman’s photograph on the table beside it.The soft whisper of the rain faded, then revived as a squall, the wind sending a gust of draftsinto the house and making the lamp dance to its fitful tune. Baker’s wife? She had died before
the War, as he recalled, and this must have been taken some ten years before that. Thedaughter—Ellen?—looked much like her. The same dark hair and sweet face, staring at thecamera with trusting and expectant eyes.
He sat down carefully on the bed’s edge, where Ellen and the Vicar had sat before him, andsaid in the voice that was his greatest gift as a priest, deep and steadfast, “I’m here. Weare alone in the sight of God. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, tell mehow I may serve you?”
Nearly half an hour later, Father James walked down the stairs of the Baker house, and foundthe family, the doctor, and the Vicar waiting for him in the small, very Victorian parlor. Teahad been brought and poured, but the cups were still more than half full, sitting forgotten.Wind rattled the shutters, a theatrical announcement of his appearance, like a drumroll.
Every face had turned toward the priest, all eyes pinning him in the doorway, concern mixedwith weariness and not a little curiosity in their expressions. Father James cleared his throatand said into the expectant silence, “Your father is resting quietly now. He has asked me toreassure you that he wishes to be buried in accordance with his own beliefs, with Mr. Simsofficiating. I have served him by giving him a little comfort. If he should require me again,you’ve only to let me know. And now, if you’ll forgive me, I must go. It is late—”
He was offered refreshment, he was offered the gratitude of the grieving family. Prevailed uponby Mr. Sims, he sat and drank a cup of lukewarm tea, out of kindness. Dr. Stephenson, watchinghim, was struck by the tension around his eyes, putting it down to the awkwardness of being inan unfamiliar household among strangers not of his faith. The two of them, doctor and priest,had shared many long watches together over the years, and Stephenson had always found him astrong and dependable ally in the business of offering peace to the dying and solace to thesurvivors. Even so, the face of death was never commonplace. One learned to accept, that wasall.
Father James behaved with sympathetic courtesy toward Herbert Baker’s children, that deepvoice bringing a measure of comfort to Ellen, as it had to her father. Dick and Martin, bothslack-faced with exhaustion, appeared to find a renewal of strength in his assurance thatHerbert Baker had made his peace with his God and had not changed his faith. Simple men, theycouldn’t fathom their father’s odd behavior, and were half embarrassed by it. Father James,understanding that, said only, “Your father was not frivolous. At the end, we are all in needof God’s grace, like a child before his father. I’m some years older than the Vicar. Perhapsto a man of Herbert Baker’s age, it mattered.” He smiled across the tea table at Sims.
The Vicar looked up. Tansy, the liver-and-white spaniel sitting by his chair, patiently waitedfor Sims’s fingers to resume scratching behind the curly ears. He said, almost diffidently,“In the War it was the same. They were so young, most of them. But old in experience that Icouldn’t match. I sent more than a few of them along to the Methodist chaplain, who was closerto their fathers’ age than I was. That seemed to be the best thing to do for them.” Then heturned the conversation, adding to Father James, “You must be thanking God that this weatherheld until after your Autumn Fete at St. Anne’s. It was a blessing. . . .”
Ellen said, “Martin went with Hetty to the bazaar. He brought me a brush for Tansy, and a newlead.” A smile lit her pale face, and then faltered. “Papa was well enough to go last year.”
“So he was,” the Vicar answered, returning her smile. “He has been a rock of strength eachspring at Holy Trinity, too. I always took pleasure in working with him.”
As soon as it was decently possible, Father James rose and took his leave. Martin Bakerescorted him to the door and thanked him again. The priest stepped out into the night. The rainhad dropped off once more, and there was only the wind to keep him company on his long walkhome.
Dr. Stephenson, climbing the stairs once more, found that the priest was right: Herbert Bakerseemed to be resting quietly, slowly losing his grip on life.