The Walnut Tree

The Walnut Tree by Charles Todd Read Free Book Online Page A

Book: The Walnut Tree by Charles Todd Read Free Book Online
Authors: Charles Todd
gratitude and that of my family for seeing me safely to the trains?”
    He smiled, nodded to me, and was gone. I was certain he’d forgot me before he’d walked twenty yards, for his notebook was out and he was busy studying it, dodging the wounded, the relief columns, and the refugees with the ease of long practice. Quite a comedown for Lady Elspeth Douglas, I thought wryly, who was accustomed to young men clamoring for the next dance or begging to take me in to supper.
    And then he was lost to sight as we turned toward Rouen. I stowed away my pass very carefully and settled down for the journey. The driver was taciturn, a small dark Welshman, polite enough but not very happy to have a passenger. I could smell fresh baked bread, an onion, and what I thought were sausages, very likely his lunch, from just behind my seat.
    I hadn’t eaten since I left Paris. How long ago was that? But even as my stomach twisted in pangs of hunger, I couldn’t ask my companion if I could share his meal. Who knew when he would get another? There were refugees along the road here, faces drawn and weary, shops closed and shuttered in the villages, farm gates barred, everyone holding on to what he had, for fear there would be no more.
    Some miles out of Rouen, my driver reached over into the back and pulled out a small canvas holdall.
    I still had my tin cup in my pocket, and I hoped he had wine or tea or even the strong French coffee as well.
    To my surprise, he offered to share with me, but I took only enough of the bread and sausage to keep me from feeling faint, and a little of the tea. He ate hungrily, and I knew I’d done the right thing.
    It was late afternoon before we reached Rouen, famous for its cathedral, its long history, Joan of Arc, and its very popular racecourse, closed now for the duration. Riders and punters all gone off to war.
    We made our way to the port, the line of lorries echoing loudly in the narrow streets of the town, causing those walking along to stop and stare at us. Two nuns made the sign of the cross, and a little girl, clinging to her mother’s skirts, began to cry. How long before they were inured to war, and took no notice of British lorries?
    The officer in charge of the port, we were told, had come down with an attack of malaria. No one had taken his place, and there was chaos everywhere I looked.
    My Welsh driver looked at me, said, “This is the port,” and handed me my orders. “You’ll have to fend for yourself, lass, and if you get into any trouble, don’t look to me.” It was said with more kindliness than it sounded.
    â€œI want nothing more than to sail for England. As soon as may be. The Major is not alone in wanting me out of France.”
    He looked around him. “They’re saying in London the war will be over by Christmas.” He shrugged. “I’m not sure I believe them, standing here.”
    For the commercial port had become an armed camp, and it was taking on an air of permanence even as we watched, or so it seemed to me.
    He turned and went to join the other lorry drivers waiting for instructions.
    I had learned much since I left Paris.
    I walked smartly down to the port, found a man to carry my valise, and after a few well-placed bribes, I found myself on board the Leviathan, given the third officer’s cramped cabin. And as the ship plowed through the darkness, down the Seine and out into the rougher waters of the Channel, I set about making myself presentable for my arrival in England. I’d been right to bring as little as possible from Paris. Whatever would I have done with a trunk? I wondered wryly. Though wrinkled, the clothing in my valise was clean, fresh enough, and quite suitable for landing in Portsmouth. That was all that mattered.
    It was a measure of how tired I was that I hadn’t noticed that the painting was missing from my valise. I was just putting up my hair when it occurred to me. I turned and

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