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Authors: Mary Stewart

Nine Coaches Waiting

Nine Coaches Waiting
Mary Stewart

A strange terror coiled in the shadows behind the brooding elegance of the huge chateau. It lay there like some dark and twisted thing – waiting, watching, ready to strike. Was it only chance encounter than had brought Linda Martin to Chateau Valmy? Or was it something planned? The lovely young English governess did not know. She only knew something was wrong and that she was afraid. Now she could not even trust the man she loved. For Raoul Valmy was one of them – linked by blood and name to the dark secrets of the Valmy past.

"A wonderful hue and cry story… a Mona Lisa tale that beckons you on while suspense builds up." – Boston Herald

Mary Stewart

 

Nine Coaches Waiting
© 1958
FIRST AND SECOND COACHES
Chapter 1

0, think upon the pleasures of the palace!

Secured ease and state! The stirring meats

Ready to move out of the dishes, that e'en now

Quicken when they are eaten…

Banquets abroad by torchlight! music! sports!

Nine coaches waiting-hurry-hurry-hurry-

Ay, to the devil…

TOURNEUR:
The Revenger's Tragedy
.

 

I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.

We reached Paris just as the light was fading. It had been a soft, grey March day, with the smell of spring in the air. The wet tarmac glistened underfoot; over the airfield the sky looked very high, rinsed by the afternoon's rain to a pale clear blue. Little trails of soft cloud drifted in the wet wind, and a late sunbeam touched them with a fleeting underglow. Away beyond the airport buildings the telegraph-wires swooped gleaming above the road where passing vehicles showed lights already.

Some of the baggage was out on the tarmac. I could see my own shabby case wedged between a brand new Revrobe and something huge and extravagant in cream-coloured hide. Mine had been a good case once, good solid leather stamped deeply with Daddy's initials now half hidden under the new label smeared by London 's rain. Miss L. Martin, Paris. Symbolic, I thought, with an amusement that twisted a bit awry somewhere inside me. Miss L. Martin, Paris, trudging along the tarmac between a stout man in impeccable city clothes and a beautiful American girl with a blond mink coat slung carelessly over a suit that announced discreetly that she had been to Paris before, and recently. I myself must have just that drab, seen-better-days shabbiness that Daddy's old case had dumped there among the sleek cabin-class luggage.

But I was here, home after nine years. Nine years. More than a third of my lifetime. So long a time that now, pausing in the crush beside the Customs barrier, I felt as strange as I suppose anybody must feel on their first visit abroad. I found I even had to make a conscious effort to adjust my ears to the flood of French chatter going on around me. I even found myself as all about me uttered little cries of recognition, excitement and pleasure, and were claimed by waiting friends and relations, scanning the crowd of alien faces for one that I knew. Which was absurd. Who would there be to meet me? Madame de Valmy herself? I smiled at the thought. It was very good of Madame de Valmy to have provided me with the money for a taxi into Paris. She was hardly likely to do much more for the hired help. And that was what I was. I had better start remembering it, as from now.

The
douanier,
chalk in hand, was pausing over my shabby case. As I stepped forward to claim it an airport official, hurrying past, bumped against me, sending my handbag flying to the floor.


Mille pardons, mademoiselle. Excusez-moi."

"Ce n'est rien, monsieur."

"Je vous ai fait mal?"

"Pas du tout. Ce n'est rien
.

"Permettez-moi, mademoiselle. Votre sac.

"Merci, monsieur. Non, je vous assure, il n'y a pas de mal
…"
And to my repeated assurances that nothing was lost and that I was not irretrievably damaged, he at length took himself off.

I stared after him for a moment, thoughtfully. The trivial little incident had shown me that, after all, that nine-years' gap had not been so very long. Ear and brain had readjusted themselves now with a click that could be felt.

And I must not let it happen. It was another thing I must remember. I was English. English. Madame de Valmy had made it very clear that she wanted an English girl, and I hadn't seen any harm in letting her assume that my knowledge of France and things French was on a par with that of the average English girl who'd done French at school. She had made rather a lot of it, really… though probably, I thought, I’d been so anxious to get the job that I'd exaggerated the importance of the thing out of all measure. After all, it could hardly matter to Madame de Valmy whether I was English, French or even Hottentot, as long as I did the job properly and didn't lapse into French when I was supposed to be talking English to young Philippe. And I could hardly be said to have deceived her, because in fact I
was
English; Daddy had been English and Maman at least a quarter so… and even to me those early years were faded and remote, the years when Maman and I lived out at Passy with Grand'mère, and the Boche was in Paris, and Daddy was away somewhere unspecified but highly dangerous and we never allowed ourselves to speak or even think in English… even for me those years had sunk well back into the past, so far back that now they seemed hardly to belong to me at all. Infinitely more real were the last nine years in England-seven of them spent at the orphanage in Camden Town, and the last two in a qualified independence-a travesty of freedom-as general help and dogsbody at a small prep, school for boys in Kent. Those endless green-linoleumed corridors, the sausage on Mondays and Thursdays, the piles of dirty sheets to count, and the smell of chalk and carbolic soap in the classroom where I had taught elementary French… these were a very much more present memory than the lovely old house at Passy or even the top flat in the Rue du Printemps, where we had gone after the war was over and Daddy came home…

The
douanier
said wearily:
"Vous n'avez rien à declarer?"

I started and turned. I said firmly, in English: "Nothing to declare. No, none of those things. Nothing at all…

There were taxis waiting outside. To the driver I said: "Hotel Crillon, please," and derived my third twinge of amusement from the slight air of surprise with which he received the august address. Then he heaved the old brown case in beside me; the car door slammed, the gears raced, and we were off.

 

If there had been any strangeness left in me, it would have vanished now. The taxi swung round into the main road with a screech of brakes, skidded as a matter of course on the wet tarmac, and roared towards Paris. I sat back in the familiar reek of Gauloises, disintegrating leather, and stale exhaust, and the old world closed round me in a cloud of forgotten impressions which seemed in a moment to blot out the last nine years as if they had never been. The taxi was Pandora's box, and I had not only lifted the lid, I was inside it. Those sweet, those stinging memories…things I had never before noticed, never missed, until now I saw them unchanged
,
part and parcel of that life that stopped nine years ago…

The driver had been reading a newspaper; it was thrust into a compartment beside the dash. I could see the familiar black blurred print, and the corner of an out-of-focus picture. A bus approached, its direction-board already lit: senlis. I saw the crowd of girls and workmen standing on the rear platform, crushed together and lurching with the movement against rails and rope. And now the ugly suburbs were dosing in; tail houses with wrought-iron balconies and slatted shutters; hoardings with their peeling posters, Bonbel, Sunil, Ancre Pils; shabby little tabacs with their lights reflected orange and gold in the damp pavements; in a café-bar, bright light on rows of glittering bottles and a huddle of metal tables behind steamy glass; Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet… and there ahead of us, down the long straight stretch of the Route de Flandre, Paris was lighting up.

My eyelids stung suddenly, and I shut my eyes and leaned back against the shabby upholstery. But still through the open window Paris met me, assailed, bombarded me. The smell of coffee, cats, drains, wine and wet air… the hoarse voices shouting
France-Soir, Paris-Presse.
.. someone selling lottery tickets… the police-whistles… the scream of brakes. Something was missing, I thought vaguely, something had changed… but it was only when the taxi swerved violently and I opened my eyes to see it miss a pack of cyclists by inches that I realised what it was. He wasn't using his horn; the incessant blare of Paris was gone. I found myself looking about me all at once as if I were a stranger and this were a new town and a new experience.

Something inside me welcomed the change. Quite deliberately I turned my thoughts away from the easy path they were treading, and made myself think about the future. I was back in France; that much of the dream of the past nine years had come true. However prosaic or even dreary my new job might be, at least I had come back to the country I had persisted in regarding as my home. If I had deceived Madame de Valmy, I had done so under a pressure that was to me a necessity. Well, here I was. This was France. The lighted suburbs that were swimming past me were those of my home. Not very long now and we would be in the heart of Paris, thrusting our way down the confusion of the Rue Royale to shoot out into the great glittering spaces of Concorde, where the windows of the CrilIon look out through the still-bare chestnut branches towards the Seine. Then tomorrow we would set off again, deeper into France, across her pastures and vineyards and hills and high alps till we reached the Château Valmy, perched above its forests by the little village of Soubirous in High Savoy… I could see it in my mind's eye now, as I had pictured it a hundred times since the journey started -the fairy-tale castle of a dream, something remote and romantic and impossible-a sort of Walt Disney advertisement for Gibbs Dentifrice. Of course it wouldn't be like that, but all the same..,. The taxi checked, then ground to a reluctant halt behind a stationary bus. I clutched my handbag tightly on my knee and leaned forward, staring out of the window. Now that I was here, even this tiny delay became suddenly intolerable. The bus moved a yard or so and pulled to the right. The taxi shot past with three centimetres to spare, did a quick in-and-out between two terrified pedestrians, and tore on its way.
Hurry…

Suddenly, unbidden, verses were spinning in my brain.

Nine coaches waiting-hurry-hurry-hurry
-
But here, surely, the quotation was desperately inappropriate? What was it, anyhow? I racked my brain, remembering… Something about
the pleasures of the palace, securèd ease and state… banquets abroad by torchlight! music! sports! nine coaches waiting-hurry-hurry-hurry…
some tempter's list of pleasures, it had been, designed to lure a lonely young female to a luxurious doom; yes, that was it, Vendice enticing the pure and idiotic Castiza to the Duke's bed…
(
Ay, to the devil)
… I grinned to myself as I placed it. Inappropriate, certainly. This particular young female was heading, I hoped, neither to luxury nor the devil, but merely to a new setting for the same old job she’d abandoned in England. Miss Linda Martin, nursery-governess to Philippe, Comte de Valmy, aged nine.

In a few minutes now I would be there. Madame de Valmy, silver and elegant and so upright in her chair that you thought a draught would sway her-Madame de Valmy would receive me. I abandoned fairy-tales, dragged a mirror from my bag, and began to tidy my hair, making myself recall, as if it were a lesson, what I could remember of my new employers.

Madame de Valmy, when I had talked to her in London, had not told me a great deal about the family I was to serve, but I had gathered the essentials of what seemed to have been a fairly complicated story. The old Comte de Valmy, Philippe's grandfather, had been enormously wealthy, and on his death the property had been divided between his three sons, the new Comte Étienne, Léon, and Hippolyte. To Étienne went the bulk of the fortune, the Château Valmy, and the Paris house; to Léon among other things, a lovely little estate in Provence called Bellevigne, and to Hippolyte a large property on the edge of Lac Léman, a few kilometres below the Valmy estate. At the time of the old Comte's death the eldest son, Étienne, had not been married, and had been thankful when his brother Léon offered to stay on at Valmy and run the estate for him. Étienne preferred Paris, so to Paris he went, while Léon stayed on at Valmy and managed it, running his own Midi property from a distance. The younger brother, Hippolyte, who was (I gathered) an archaeologist of some standing, lived quietly at his house in Thonon-les-Bains, in between bouts of travelling and "digging" abroad. So things had gone on for some years. Then, long after anyone had ceased to expect him to do so, Étienne had married, and within a couple of years Philippe had been born. The family had stayed on in Paris until, last year
,
when Philippe was almost nine years old, tragedy had struck at him even as it had struck at me. His parents had been killed together in an air crash on their way back from a holiday in Italy, and Philippe had left Paris to live with his uncle Hippolyte in Thonon. Hippolyte was still unmarried, "but," said Madame de Valmy to me, poised in that silver elegance of hers beside a Regency mirror in her sitting- room at Claridge's, "but the child had seen a lot of him, and is very fond of him. Hippolyte-my brother-in-law-wouldn't hear of his coming to us at Valmy, even though, officially, Valmy is Philippe's home…” She smiled then, that remote sweet smile of hers that was about as cosy as an April moon, so that I thought I saw Hippolyte's point. I couldn't exactly picture the exquisite Héloïse in a romp with a nine-year-old boy. Philippe was certainly better off at the Villa Mireille with Uncle Hippolyte. Even an archaeologist, I thought, must be more approachable than Madame de Valmy. At least he would share the normal small boy's passion for grubbing in the mud.

But an archaeologist must occasionally grub to order. Philippe had been only a few months at the Villa Mireille when Monsieur Hippolyte had to fulfil an engagement which took him to Greece and Asia Minor for some months. The Villa Mireille was perforce shut up, and Philippe went up to Valmy to stay with his other aunt and uncle for the duration of Hippolyte's tour. And his Paris-bred Nanny, restless enough in the little town of Thonon, had struck at the prospect of perhaps half a year's sojourn in the remote Savoyard valley, and had removed herself with tears and reproaches, back to Paris…

So here was I. And it was curious that, in spite of the familiarity with which Paris invaded me, I didn't yet feel at home. I was a stranger, a foreigner, going to a strange house and a strange job. Perhaps loneliness was nothing to do with place or circumstance; perhaps it was in you, yourself. Perhaps, wherever you were, you took your little circle of loneliness with you…

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