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Authors: Nancy Buckingham

The silver castle

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THE SILVER CASTLE

 

Nancy Buckingham

 

Chapter One

 

At Piccadilly Circus I looked down from the top deck of my bus at the crowds thronging the pavement. Half London had found an excuse to be out in the sunshine, delighting in the summer warmth of this golden April day. Every face was smiling, it seemed, but mine. Slumped in my seat, I grew gloomier with every jerky stop and start as we edged through the traffic.

I had been stricken with a bad attack of last-minute nerves. So much depended on my agent’s reaction this morning. Colin had persuaded the Farleigh Press to let me tackle the illustrations for the first of their prestigious new series of classics for children. If my efforts forLorna Doonewere thought good enough there could be a whole string of well-paid commissions ahead.

Not bad going for a girl of twenty-two, only eighteen months out of art school. But wasn’t it just a bit too good to be true, I wondered. Wasn’t I expecting too much, too soon?

The bells of St. Clements in the Strand, jubilantly pealing “Oranges and Lemons,” put a stop to my dark forebodings by reminding me where I was. Tucking my black portfolio under one arm, I got off the bus at the next stop and dived into the labyrinth of twisting alleyways and history-steeped courtyards that lie to the north of Fleet Street. I found the familiar Jacobean staircase beneath a dim archway and ran up the two echoing flights to Colin’s office.

“Gail! Nice to see you,” he greeted me, when his elderly secretary announced my arrival. “Come on in and show me what you’ve brought.”

He had those dark, attractive good looks that many women found irresistible, a fact which Colin used to full advantage in both personal and professional relationships—and too often blurred the dividing line. Which was why, I suspected, he and his wife had been living apart these last few months.

My nervous fingers were all thumbs, so Colin took the portfolio from me and pulled the tapes. He pushed aside some papers on his desk and spread out my drawings. His inspection lasted for ninety seconds of agonising silence till my impatience spilled over.

“What do you think? Are they okay?”

“I like, I like. But you don’t need me to tell you they’re damn good, Gail.”

“I do. I’ve never felt so short on confidence in my whole life. But you’ve boosted my morale no end.”

He glanced at me sidelong, amused. “Then I’ll do it some more. Cross my heart, I can’t think of anyone else who could have handled thisLorna Doonejob better, more sensitively.”

“Oh, Colin, you are a darling.”

When I’d squeezed out all the praise I was going to get from Colin, we talked about another job he’d lined up for me, a montage of sinister faces for a paperback cover. He was suggesting that we have lunch together when he suddenly broke off and fished a copy ofThe Timesfrom a drawer of his desk.

“By the way, I spotted your name in here this morning.”

“My name? How come?”

He handed me the newspaper, folded to an inside page. “Sherbrooke isn’t such a common surname, and since there’s an art connection I wondered if it might possibly be some relative of yours.”

Mystified, I glanced at the paragraph Colin indicated. It was a short piece about an oil painting that had been sold at Waterman’s the day before ... a Swiss mountain landscape by Benedict Sherbrooke. My attention riveted, I raced on down the column. This was the first time, it said, that a painting by this artist had come under the hammer, and at only £2050 it was modest enough by today’s standards. The point of interest lay in the fact that only recently, in February, Benedict Sherbrooke had committed suicide near his home in Switzerland. Little was known about him except that some twenty years ago he had suddenly abandoned his career as a designer for a Macclesfield textile firm and gone abroad to devote his life to painting. Ironically, recognition had come just too late for him to know of it.

“Gail, you’ve gone as pale as a ghost,” said Colin, frowning. “Is something wrong?”

My hands were shaking and I couldn’t still them. “Benedict Sherbrooke ... was my father.”

“Good God. But didn’t you tell me once that your father died when you were tiny?”

“I know, and that’s what I’ve always believed. But everything fits ... the name, his being an artist, and the fact that he came from Macclesfield. It says he left there twenty years ago—just about the time I thought he’d died.”

Was it really possible ... that all these years my father had been alive, without my knowing it? In those first bewildered moments I wasn’t sure that I wanted it to be true.

What did I really know about him? My brain felt hopelessly fogged as I tried to recall what my mother had told me as a child. It seemed amazing now that I’d not asked more questions while I still had the opportunity. Perhaps, though, it was a mark of Lionel Wade’s success with his small stepdaughter that I’d always accepted my mother’s second husband, incuriously, as “Daddy.” He and Mother had been ideally suited to one another, and their happiness was the safe, sustaining background to my childhood.

Thinking back, I couldn’t recall ever being told in so many words that my real father was dead. But my mother must have intentionally given me that impression, surely? Now it was too late for asking questions. Mother had succumbed to an undiagnosed heart condition when I was fourteen, and three years ago I’d lost Lionel, too. I’d been fond of my stepfather, who had seen me through the remainder of my school days with commendable patience, and given me his blessing once I’d convinced him that a career in art was the one and only thing I was interested in.

Colin had said something, but I was too lost in my kaleidoscopic to catch it.

“Sorry, what was that?”

“I asked what you’re going to do, Gail. It’s just occurred to me that as his daughter you should be entitled to a share of his estate. There may be some unsold paintings knocking around which could fetch quite a tidy bit.”

“Oh, Colin, how can you be so mercenary?”

“Sorry, what was that?”

I’m being practical,” he rebuked me. “Wouldn’t you want to claim them, if they’re legally yours?”

“Yes, I suppose so. But to keep, not to sell—if there are any.”

“Well, then ...”

I ran my fingertips around the beaded edge of Colin’s desk, considering.

“How can I find out more about my father?” I asked. “Perhaps I could get in touch with the person who put that painting into the sale at Waterman’s. He—or she—might have known him.”

“Look, I know a chap who works onThe Times.I’ll give him a ring and get an intro to whoever wrote that paragraph. He might know a bit more than they printed.”

But Colin’s friend wasn’t in his office, so we had to leave it for the time being.

“Now, about lunch, Gail?”

I shook my head “No, I don’t feel in the mood any more.”

“Okay, I won’t press you,” he said. “Go home and eat, then get stuck into some work. That’s the best thing to take your mind off all this.”

I knew it was sound advice but on my way to the Underground, cutting through Middle Temple, I was overwhelmed by a sudden rush of tears. I stopped in Fountain Court and sat on one of the quiet benches in the sun, trying to gather myself together. I watched the frail jet of water, silvered by sunlight, pattering serenely into its circular pool; watched fat grey pigeons strutting beneath the plane trees in their greedy search for food. From an arched doorway opposite, a barrister in flowing wig and gown emerged with his brief clutched to his breast, en route to the law courts in the Strand. To me at that moment he seemed to represent all that was safe and solid and wise, the epitome of a father figure. I had never missed my father before, while I believed he had died in my infancy. But now that I knew I could have known him all these years ... that my knowing him might even perhaps have prevented that dreadful act of suicide, his loss seemed a tragedy beyond bearing. I felt alone and defenceless, and I wanted to weep my heart out in grief.

The journey home seemed endless. When I reached my studio (one of a ramshackle cluster of mews flats where the landlord claimed a Chelsea rent for what the post office insisted was a Fulham address) I sat around drinking coffee and waiting for Colin’s call, quite unable to settle to any work. Through the thin partition wall I could hear the intermittent tap of hammer on chisel as my Swedish neighbour, Leif Carlsson, sculpted away at one of his massive blocks of stone.

It was past seven when Colin finally phoned.

“Sorry to have been so long, Gail, but these journalists keep such odd hours. I haven’t been able to find out much, I’m afraid, but ...”

“What did he tell you?” I asked eagerly.

“Mighty little we didn’t know already. Look, how about me coming to collect you for dinner somewhere, and I’ll explain.”

“Can’t you tell me now?”

“It’ll keep another fifteen minutes. I’ll be straight round.” He hung up before I could argue about it.

I was ready and waiting when I heard Colin’s car, and I ran out to join him. But, maddeningly, he still wouldn’t tell me anything until we’d arrived at a little Italian restaurant in the King’s Road.

“Well?” I demanded impatiently.

“Like I said, there’s not a lot to tell. It seems that the man who originally bought the painting from your father had left it to his housekeeper.The Times’reporter, Bill Summers, had a word with her at the saleroom yesterday because he’d noticed the name Benedict Sherbrooke on the catalogue, and he remembered a short news agency item coming through a few weeks back about a painter by that name committing suicide. It emerged that her employer had bought the painting for a song two or three years ago when he was on holiday in Switzerland. The artist, he told her, was a strange sort of chap who had chucked his job in England way back, and for years now had been living alone in a small chalet on a hillside, turning out paintings he couldn’t sell. And that, Gail, is all.”

The wine waiter had come up, and Colin asked me what I’d like to drink.

“Oh anything. This place where my father lived ... did you find out where it was?”

Colin ordered two vodka and tonics, then said, “I gather it was somewhere near a village called Rietswil, which lies on the southern shore of Lake Zurich. I suggest that you write to the mayor or whoever, and ask him what he can tell you about Benedict Sherbrooke.”

But I’d reached a decision. “I shall go to Switzerland myself. I’ll find out more that way.”

“You can’t go skipping off now,” he objected. I’ve got a pile of work lined up for you.”

“I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on work,” I said flatly.

The drinks came, and Colin sipped his with a thoughtful expression.

“Tell you what, Gail,” he said after a moment. “I’ll come with you. I could do with a break, and you’ll need some moral support.”

“No.”

“You don’t have to be so emphatic about it, love. Why not, for God’s sake?”

“I’m sorry, Colin, but... well, I’d rather be on my own.”

He slid his hand over mine where it lay on the table, and stroked my wrist with his thumb.

“Come on, say yes,” he coaxed. “We’d have a great time together, Gail darling.”

But when I refused again he took it with a philosophical grin. “Ah well ... some other time, if I’m lucky. Meanwhile, how are you off for money?”

“Not too flush,” I admitted.

“I’ll see what I can rustle up for you. Farleigh Press will have to pay on the nail for those illustrations ... that’ll help. And I’ll see if there’s anything else outstanding for you on the books.”

“Oh, Colin, you are nice to me,” I said gratefully.

“Yes, aren’t I? And I’m none too sure that you deserve it.”

 

Chapter Two

 

Just three days after finding out about my father, I took the Swissair early afternoon flight to Zurich.

I had decided it would be sensible to make myself independent of bus and train schedules. So at Kloten airport, as soon as I was through the formalities, I headed for a car hire office and was given my first taste of Swiss efficiency. Within a very short time I was driving away in a cherry-red baby Fiat.

Never having driven on the right of the road before, I felt more than a little timid as I joined the stream of traffic, and steady rain and misting windows didn’t help. In London I’d bought a map of the district and sorted out my route. All quite straightforward, I reminded myself, a clear road into the city, across the bridge that spans the river where it joins Zurichsee, and then hug the lake shore till I reached my destination. What could be simpler?

It was the one-way system that proved my downfall. The first twinge of unease came the moment I found myself turning into a narrow crooked street of shops and offices,   but it wasn’t until, almost at the far end, I was suddenly confronted by the blunt nose of a delivery truck, that I knew I had blundered badly. The driver, a man with huge shoulders and a droopy moustache, leaned out of his cab and he didn’t seem in a friendly mood. His gestures, verging on the obscene, indicated that it was I who must go back, not he.

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