THE overnight journey from Paris had been unusually wearisome. An exasperating delay at the junction of Port Bou on the Spanish frontier had made them forty minutes late and, because of a dilatory porter, they had missed the forenoon connection at Barcelona. Now, towards five o'clock in the afternoon, as they bounced and rattled to their destination on the light railway of the Costa Brava, they were tired and travel-stained. The shortcomings of men, or of machines, always irked the Consul and his mood was not propitious. Seated erect in his corner he frowned with concern at his little son, who, bundled up on the wooden seat opposite in the long, littered coach redolent of dust, garlic and stale country odours, had been stealing glances of affectionate timidity towards him. And for the third time in the past hour, he inquired:
"You are all right, Nicholas?”
"Quite all right, Father.”
The curvetting engine, in final indignity, threw them round a vertiginous curve and, with a shrill whistle, drew into the deserted station of San Jorge. Leaving the rug and the two valises, the Consul took Nicholas’s hand and stepped to the platform, a deserted strip inch- deep in red dust, fringed by a string of palmettos so ravaged by the wind they drooped like spavined horses. At first, with a darkening of his brow, he thought they had not been met; then his eye cleared. A young man in a neat linen suit rather shrunk by washing, a bow tie and yellow straw hat, stood at the entrance beside a gray automobile with a miniature American flag on the radiator cap and, at the sight of the two passengers, hurried nervously forward, followed by the driver.
“Mr. Harrington Brande? Very happy to see you, sir. We missed you on the morning train. I'm Alvin Decker, from the office." He turned to the chauffeur, a dark, thickly built Spaniard wearing a black alpaca jacket, denim trousers and sharp-pointed tan shoes. "Will you get the luggage, please, Garcia?"
The open car, Brande noted with some alleviation of his irritation, was a respectable Pierce-Arrow, with well-polished brass, pipe-clayed tires, and freshly laundered white covers on the upholstery. While the bags were being brought he stood aside, a tall, heavy figure, with a slight, distinguished stoop, his long sallow face, deeply furrowed at the nostrils, wearing that air of non-committal dignity which he reserved for his subordinates.
“I do hope you’ll be comfortable at the residence, sir," Alvin was saying. "Mr. Tenney took his servants with him. But I’ve done my best to engage a good couple. Garcia, the chauffeur-butler," — he lowered his voice — "has exceptional testimonials . . . and Magda- lena, his wife, is an excellent cook.”
Harrington Brande inclined his head.
“Are we ready?”
“Yes, indeed, sir,” Alvin exclaimed, rather breathlessly.
They got into the car. As they drove off, the new Consul let his gaze roam over the town, still clasping protectively, under cover of the rug, the thin damp fingers of his son.
It was not, perhaps, he reflected, with a gleam of hope, so detestable a place as he had feared. The air was pure; the curving water front, along which they glided in the fading February sunshine, had a fringe of clean sand; and between the electric-light standards the esplanade was planted, though somewhat raggedly, with flowering acacias. In the Plaza a fountain played amongst the scarlet blossoms of poinciana shrubs, the peeling gilt of a bandstand glittered beyond the black figures of old men reading La Gazeta, an antique bus discharged its passengers, a pleasant sense of life prevailed. Across from the inevitable pink stucco church with twin cupolas like upturned breasts, its central belfry set with coloured tiles and surmounted by a tarnished cross, there were one or two moderate shops, a café, El Chantaco, with a blue-striped awning, which seemed tolerable; and further down the Calle, beside the harbour, a solid commercial block in which, Decker now murmured, was situated the office of the Consulate.
But no… near at hand, he could not but observe that the docks, upon which his work must largely centre, bore a listless and dejected aspect — they looked half dead, in fact ; he guessed that nothing much would stir there but a sluggish trade in hides, fertilizer, cork bark, olive oil, and Tarragona vinegar. Only two fishing scows lay at the jetty, and a rusted coastal steamer from which, aided by three donkeys and a primitive pulley, some sailors were languidly discharging barrels. And again the old wave of bitterness swept over him, fixing his expression with a kind of brooding heaviness. Why, oh why, at the age of forty-five, after fifteen years of sedulous devotion to duty in Europe, was he sent to such a dead end — a man of his talent and personality, who had long ago earned the right, if only through seniority, to one of the high positions of the service, in Paris, Rome or London? After these last eighteen months, bogged amidst the Normandy marshes at Arville, he had hoped that his next move would bring him his due reward. And then… San Jorge… worse still, the realization that Tenney, his predecessor here, and his junior by three years, had been promoted first consul under Leighton Bailey at Madrid.
“Look, Father, isn’t that pretty?”
They had left the town, had climbed a steep winding sandy lane between rows of silvery eucalyptus trees, and Nicholas, aroused and interested, was pointing shyly to the view now visible from the summit. A great sweep of Mediterranean sea lay beneath, with a slender lighthouse creamed by white surf upon the rocky promontory of the bay. Further to the North tremendous mountains unveiled their outlines dimly through the blue haze. The air had a fresh tang of salt and aromatic herbs. And just ahead, on the edge of a barranco smothered in pearly cistus petals, almost screened from the lane by a high mimosa hedge, stood a rambling, red- tiled villa with the name CASA BREZA in faded letters upon the pillared entrance.
“You like it?” Alvin Decker turned towards the boy and from his tone, expectant and a little anxious, Nicholas became aware that this was his new home. He had known many changes in his brief nine years and so had lost something of his capacity to be surprised. Yet this strange old house, with its deserted air and magnificent seclusion, gave promise of unusual attractions. The Consul seemed of similar opinion, for as they ran with a crunching of wheels into the gravel driveway and got out of the car, his sharp appraising glance was gradually mellowed by approval. Built of the local yellow sandstone, faded now to a delicate amber, the villa was in Moorish style, with a spacious arched portico, and a flat, overhanging roof tiled in a shade of weathered cinnabar. The upstairs windows opened upon a wide balcony, profusely overgrown with wistaria and tangled vines, with lilac and the flaming shoots of biscutella. To the left a cobbled yard, green with moss, gave access to the stables, and other outbuildings. The garden lay beyond.
"It's old, of course, " Alvin remarked, excusingly, watching his chief's face. "And a little out of repair. Also there's no electricity, only gas. But Mr. Tenney always felt he was lucky to have it. There are really no proper living quarters near the office, and we have a long lease here . . . furnished …”
“Yes,” said the Consul, shortly.
Bracing his shoulders, he strode up the shallow steps of the portico towards the open doorway, where a stout middle-aged woman in a respectable black dress, whom Decker introduced as Magdalena, stood waiting to receive them with a smile. Inside, the tessellated hall was cool and lofty, the dining-room on one hand, the salon, with double doors, upon the other, both apartments furnished in rococo style. A wide staircase in dark walnut spiraled upwards from the rear and, despite his fatigue, the Consul, as one who knew his duty and his rights, ascended heavily, to make an inspection of the upper rooms. There were many more than he and his little son, and perhaps an occasional guest, could utilize, but this was not displeasing to a man whose tastes were cast in a large and superior mould. He liked the sense of space, the inlaid chests and credenzas, the tapestried gilt chairs, tasselled bellpulls and faded velvet curtains; even the slightly musty odour which pervaded the long corridors fell agreeably upon his nostrils. When his heavy baggage arrived there would be ample room for his books and porcelain, his remarkable collection, gathered in many places over the years, of antique weapons.
When he returned to the vestibule it was evident that he was satisfied and Alvin's brown eyes glistened with relief.
“I trust everything’s in order, sir. There’s not been much time since Mr. Tenney left. I’ve done my best.”