General Fiction posted February 4, 2019 Chapters:  ...38 39 -40- 41... 

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Chapter 40: Dulce Domum

A chapter in the book The French Letter

The Fallen Angel

by tfawcus

Charles returns to his cottage in Wiltshire, where he takes time out from investigating the story behind the French letter and enjoys a few moments of solitude.
The last paragraphs of Chapter 39...

At the onset of winter, Druid's Wood becomes a different place. The wind howls through the trees at night, and disembodied voices echo with agonised groans. Suddenly and without warning, these sometimes give way to high-pitched screams - enough to freeze the marrow of anyone foolish enough to be caught abroad after dark.

However, at this time of the year, the valley was tranquil enough. In the morning, I would be awakened by a myriad of small birds twittering. Their cheerful orison would greet the dawn as they flitted down from among the golden autumn leaves, swooping hungrily for wayside berries and insects on iridescent wings.

I closed the door, knowing that, for the moment at least, all would be right with my world.

Chapter 40

It has always been my belief that an Englishman's home is his castle, a contention eloquently expressed more than a quarter of a millenium ago by William Pitt, Prime Minister of England. He proclaimed "the poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail - its roof may shake - the wind may blow through it - the storm may enter - the rain may enter - but the King of England cannot enter."

Moonraker Cottage was not frail, nor did it leak. Its walls of Cotswold stone were almost four feet thick at the base. Deep-set leadlight windows were mullioned and framed in stone. A thick straw thatch overshadowed them, giving the appearance of a beetle-browed gentleman, firmly set in his ways. The effect was one of solidity, and the place was in far better repair than most castles of my acquaintance. As for Royal guests, I very much doubted that Prince Charles would be travelling the few miles from Highgrove House this evening to pay me a visit.

As I stepped down into the sitting room, I ducked my head to avoid the lintel. Firewood was neatly stacked on one side of the inglenook, and the other side boasted a seat, just wide enough to sit on. I nestled into the ingle and put a match to the fire, already neatly laid with tinder. I had Mrs. Wilkins to thank for that.

Fire is a primeval element that lies deep in the hearts of men. As the flickering flame caught hold, I felt not only its warmth, but a growing sense of security. Storms could howl down the valley and beat themselves into a frenzy against the windows, but I would be safe. This was not a night for the harsh reality of electric light, nor for curtains to shut out the gentle sway of moonlit trees. I stacked the fire with more wood and reached up to the oak mantelshelf for a candlestick, which I placed in the window. Let wayfarers be aware, the master is home.

I flipped idly through my collection of vinyls until I came to an old recording: Edith Piaf - Her Greatest Hits. Soon the room was filled with the soulful voice of 'the Little Sparrow'. Her tormented vibrato tugged at my heartstrings, as it always does. She was singing La Vie en Rose, one of the greatest love songs of all time. In my mind's eye, I could see her wooing the world on the stage of the Moulin Rouge and receiving rapturous applause.

My thoughts turned to Helen and the way she had captured my heart in those few days of blissful happiness. La Vie en Rose - a life seen through rose-tinted spectacles. I found myself moving in time with the music, imagining her in my arms again. Although no longer young enough to conquer the world, I could at least try to save a hedgehog.

The final track was Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. No, I thought, I have no regrets. "Whether it is the good that has been done to me ...or the bad, it's all the same to me! No, absolutely nothing... No, I regret nothing" ...nothing ...nothing ...nothing ...nothing ...nothing. The rhythmic swish of the needle told me that my song had come to an end.

I went to the window, and peered out through the diamond panes. There was a barn owl poised on the limb of an ash tree at the start of Druids Wood. Moonlight reflected on the ivory heart that surrounded her face. I was spellbound by her beauty. Then, without warning, she swooped. A sharp cry split the night. At that moment, I felt the fear of death. My heartbeat faltered. Seconds later, a shadow slipped by my window as she wafted away, a small tail twitching in the curl of her claws
. Athene's ghost was gone.

The moonlight tempted me to take a short stroll to clear my head before I turned in. I trod with care through the damp leaves glistening on the bridle track. As I neared the old mill a few hundred yards upstream, long stalks of foxglove reached out at me like wraiths from the shadows. A final blood-curdling screech from the barn owl cut through the silent valley. The harsh cry sent a shiver down my spine.

Pausing for a moment to compose myself, I leaned my weight gingerly against the wooden railings above the millpond. Its mirrored surface held the image of the moon; a perfect round. It looked, for all the world, like a wheel of yellow cheese.

I glanced at my watch. Still an hour before closing time, longer if the publican of The Fallen Angel was in the mood. On a whim, I struck out through the woods. The track became little more than a footpath as it crossed Jack Wilkins' field. There was a chill in the air, and his herd was huddled under the Ypres Oak, wisps of their milky breath drifting up through its branches. Perhaps they were huddled for warmth, or perhaps to keep company with Jack's great-uncle Tom, cradled beneath its roots, resting in peace. I shuddered to think of the mouldering uniform of the Wiltshire regiment still clinging to his shattered bones.

It was with these maudlin thoughts in mind that I entered the public bar of The Angel.

"Well, if it isn't the squire of Moonraker Cottage - home again! How good to see you, Charles. So - what'll be your poison, my friend?"

"A pint of the usual thanks, John - and a packet of crisps. I haven't eaten tonight. I'm starving."

"We can't have that now, can we? Let me ask Bess to put a slice of veal and ham pie on a plate for you."

"That's very kind of you. Yes, I'd like that - if it's not too much trouble at this hour."

"No trouble at all, sunshine. No trouble at all."

John disappeared round the back, and I glanced across at the old bloke in the corner, the only other occupant of the bar. He fixed me with his eye in a way that reminded me of The Ancient Mariner.

"Moonraker Cottage, eh? You know the story, I suppose?"

I knew it, of course, but I had a feeling he was going to tell me anyway. "Something to do with Wiltshire men being called Moonrakers, isn't it?"

"That's right, squire. From the days of the old woollen mills, when the county was alive with Dutch and Flemish wool merchants. Foreigners, all of them, and with some very strange ways. Their favourite tipple was Holland Gin. Dreadful stuff, if you ask me. What's wrong with a plain old English pint?" He picked up his empty glass and put it down again wistfully.

"Would you like a refill?"

His face lit up. "Don't mind if I do."  He turned to mine host, who had just returned with my supper. "Half a pint of mild please, John. My friend will pay."

"I hope you're not annoying this gentleman, Gabriel."

"Not at all," I said. "He was about to tell me the Moonraker legend."

John raised his eyebrows and gave me a knowing look. I winked back at him.

"Now, where was I? Ah, yes! Holland Gin. Well, there was a hefty tax on it, see. The smugglers along the south coast were doing a brisk trade, I can tell you. Now it happened one evening that the excisemen were hard on the heels of a band of them. The story has it that they rolled their casks into a pond, sinking them beneath the green cresses and weeds. The excisemen had their suspicions but nothing to go on, so they were forced to leave empty-handed."

Gabriel paused a moment to whet his whistle. "Unfortunately for the smugglers, they stopped a little further up the track, then turned around and came back - and they caught the men red-handed with rakes and pitchforks, trying to retrieve their goods.

"'Ho, now. What have we here?' they said, withdrawing their pistols.

"Making themselves out to be feeble-headed country yokels, the smugglers replied, 'As you can see, officer, we are fishing this great cheese out of the pond. It must have fallen from the cheesemonger's cart this afternoon.'

"'You oafs! What dunderheads! That's not a cheese. It's a reflection of the moon!'"

"Would you believe it?" 
I interrupted, looking from Gabriel to John. "I saw that selfsame cheese in the millpond on my way here this evening!"

"Did you indeed?" Gabriel looked sceptical. "Anyway, the excise men went on their way, laughing amongst themselves at the simple-minded country bumpkins ...and that, my friend, was how the wily Wiltshire men saved their skins, and their casks to boot. They were pleased as Punch to have pulled the wool over the eyes of the excise men. No-one can make a fool out of a trueborn Wiltshire man. To this very day we call ourselves Moonrakers, and are proud of it."

He drained his glass and said, "Well, I'll be off now. It's time for my bed." With that, he picked up his walking stick and put his cloth cap on his head. "Good night, all," he called out cheerfully as he walked out through the door.

"I'd best be getting along, too, John."

"Will you not have one for the road? A Whiskey Mac, perhaps, to keep out the cold? It's on the house. Thank you for humouring the old boy. It was good of you."

"He tells the story well though, doesn't he?"

John gave a wry smile. "He should. He's had enough practice at it!"

We chatted for a while and I was soon caught up with all the local news. Two Whiskey Macs later, I was out in the cold autumn night, and more than a little unsteady on my feet. Clouds had drifted across, obscuring the moon. I stumbled once or twice and nearly fell. When I came to Druids Wood, it had an ominous feel about it. As the wind began to pick up, I fancied I could hear low and anguished moans.

It was with some relief that I regained the safety of my front door. I stepped inside and shot the bolts across, both top and bottom. Having drawn the curtains, I was about to mount the stairs when my iPad chimed like a set of tubular bells. It was Kayla on a FaceTime call. She looked worried.

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Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Sir David Brockenhurst - a chance acquaintance, met at St Pancras Station
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - an unknown quantity at this stage, a dilettante. Owner of an art gallery in Paris.
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