General Fiction posted July 10, 2019 Chapters:  ...72 73 -74- 75... 

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Chapter 74: The contents of the letter.

A chapter in the book The French Letter


by tfawcus

The author has placed a warning on this post for language.
The author has placed a warning on this post for sexual content.

Charles and Helen return to Paris after their visit to England. They are now tidying up loose ends before their assignment in Pakistan.
Closing paragraphs of Chapter 73...

"Here, you had better read it." There was something in the grudging way he said it that made me realise the poor man was quite possibly illiterate.

Helen slid my envelope from the folder, carefully unfolded the letter, and was about to start reading when there was a scream from the other side of the room. Kayla was sitting bolt upright and gibbering with terror.

Chapter 74
It was Alain who reached her first. He put his arms around her in a gesture of tenderness that took me by surprise. It was something I would not have given the curmudgeonly old fellow credit for, but it confirmed in my mind that his feelings were both real and intense.

"It's all right, baby. It's all right." He pulled her head towards his chest. "Just a nightmare. Calm down." He rocked gently to soothe her and stroked her hair. "There's no need to worry. You're safe now." Slowly, her shakes subsided.

"They're so real. You don't understand. They're after me and there's nowhere to escape."

Helen did her best to reassure Kayla. "I have those nightmares, too. The cold-blooded murderers who tore our parents apart with their relentless hail of bullets..."

"Not just them, but the fiends who dragged André away kicking and screaming. Bellini's thugs, too. Whichever way I turn, they're out to kill me."

"Nonsense." Something of Alain's gruffness returned to his voice. "No-one's out to kill you. The demons are only in your mind. You're safe here with me, I promise."

I knew, of course, that he was wrong. The demons were all too real: ISIS, the drug lords and the anti-terrorist squad. Each one was a potential danger to her, but, in a way, he was also right. Perhaps the greatest danger she faced was internal. If anyone could save her from that, it was Alain.

I drew Helen across to the other side of the room, leaving the two of them alone. "We have to find a way to make him accept payment," I whispered, "so that he can remain here as long as is necessary for her to dry out."

"No, I shall need to stay to help her."

"I'm not sure that's true. Underneath all of that bluster, Alain has great compassion and the strength to see her through."

"Are you suggesting I don't?"

"Not at all. What I'm suggesting is that we would be better employed putting some of the real-life demons to rest while Alain deals with the internal ones."

"What are you two whispering about?" The belligerence had returned. I could see we were going to have our work cut out.

"We were saying how caring you are with my sister. You have a magical touch."

"Hmph! Magic doesn't come into it. Just plain common-sense."

Helen continued to stroke his ego. "Common-sense and compassion, I think. You're a very special man."

I imagine that, if he'd been a cat, he would have purred but all he could manage was another grudging 'hmph', though this one had a more conciliatory tone.

Eventually, with Alain's support, Kayla settled back into an uneasy half-sleep. He spread an extra blanket over her shivering body, tucking it in around the edges before coming back to join us.

"Do you still want me to read the letter?" Helen's question was tentative. We both expected he would demand it back and return it to the Gladstone bag.

"Read it if you like," he said, "but I can tell you all you need to know. You think demons are a modern invention? The author of that pack of lies was the greatest demon of them all."

Helen took the letter up and started reading:

13th February 1899
My dear Mademoiselle Gaudin,
I trust you will excuse the liberty I take in writing these few lines to you, hoping to find you in good health, as indeed am I, despite the chills of winter.
You will no doubt be surprised to receive a letter from one who is almost a total stranger to you, but I suspect you will pardon me for my boldness.

This is the first opportunity I have had of writing to you since you were gracious enough, on the recommendation of your sister, to sit for my esteemed friend, Monsieur Lautrec. Let me tell you, he sung your praises! He was entranced by your fine features, charming personality, and the luxuriant beauty of your golden hair. Aurora personified! Indeed, having seen the portrait for myself last evening, I hope you will not think it too forward of me to say that I, too, am now a captive to your charms.

"Captive to her charms! Pah! What the randy old bastard really means is he thinks she'll be a good fuck."

"Yes, I think we know what he means. There's no need to spell it out."

Alain glared at me, clearly not in the least bit concerned about offending Helen's sensibilities. She ignored his profanity and continued:

Not to beat about the bush, I have a proposition to put forward. As you may know, your older sister, Carmen, honours me by residing in my lodgings in Montmartre where, when not engaged as an artist's model, she takes in gentlemen's laundry. I propose, with the blessing of your guardians of course, that you consider joining her. She would, I am sure, be glad of your help and companionship, for she has mentioned on several occasions how much she misses her dear little sister, Suzanne.

"Residing in my lodgings," Alain spluttered. "The nerve of the man. A lousy garret infested with rats and cockroaches." I looked at him scathingly and nodded to Helen to carry on.

In addition, should you be desirous of it, I have the utmost confidence in being able to secure further employment for you, both with Monsieur Lautrec and others of his ilk. I should perhaps also mention that I have several good friends of quality who frequent the neighbourhood. I am in no doubt that, should you be willing, they would be eager to make your acquaintance and bestow their favours upon you.

This time I feared that Alain might have an apoplectic fit. I tried to forestall his comment by saying, "Yes, I think we all know what that means."

"A colonel? A gentleman? The man's no more than a common pimp." He spat the words out, wiping the saliva from his lips as he finished speaking.

"There's not much more to come," Helen said, "but it may be the most important part of all." She paused to make sure that she had our undivided attention.

Let me conclude by saying I have persuaded my friend, Toulouse, to part with your portrait for a small consideration. In anticipation of your favourable response, I should like to make you a gift of it. Why, I ask myself, would I require the imitation of your beauty when blessed with the daily reality of it in the flesh, as 'twere?

I am, Mademoiselle, Your Humble Servant,
Neville Arnoux
Lieutenant Colonel

"What's so damned important about that?"

"That, my dear fellow, will be the first and most critical step in due diligence."

"Due what?"

"In order to sell the painting, an auction house has to establish its rightful owner. This proves that your grandmother was given the painting. In the absence of any contrary proof, it is reasonable to assume that it has passed down through the family to you and your sister."

"Yes, but he never gave it to her. He conned my grandmother into a life of sin and squalor. He promised her the world and gave her syphilis. But that was later, after he had fathered her child."

"You mean your mother?" Helen gasped. "Are you saying that Neville Arnoux was Estelle's father?"

"No, I'm saying that he was the devil incarnate. A monster. Years later, he set her up in a blue light brothel on the Western Front, one of those posh ones for officers only. One night he barged in with a group of drunken friends, pinned her down and raped her for their amusement. The bastard wasn't even wearing une capote Anglaise." When he saw my puzzled expression, he added, " ... what you English call
a French letter. My mother was conceived in the trenches in front of a cheering audience of officers and gentlemen. You call that man my grandfather? I don't think so."

"Nonetheless," I said, changing the subject, "he gave her the painting. No matter what he might or might not have done later, this proves it was hers. It also establishes the provenance of the work."

"What does that mean?"

"It means it is worth a small fortune."

We sat watching as Alain processed the information. His eyes narrowed. "But you would need to take the letter. How can I trust you?"

Without thinking, I said, "I give you my word as an officer and a gentleman."

Alain looked at me in amazement and then he started laughing. He laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks. He laughed until his sides ached. "Oh my, that's a good one! You toffs are all the same, aren't you? Do you think I was born yesterday?"

Helen reached over and passed him a tissue. "Would you trust me then?"

He wiped his eyes and blew his nose, making a noise like a foghorn. "Yes, my dear, I will trust the letter to you."

"In that case, I shall have to give you a small deposit against the final sale. An act of good faith. Would a thousand euros be acceptable?"

A vacuous grin spread across Alain's face as she added, rather unnecessarily in my opinion, "In my country, we seal such deals with a kiss."


List of characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
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.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
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.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles. Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network
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