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Sea of Memories(15)
Author: Fiona Valpy

Marianne shook her head. ‘Caroline, this plan sounds ridiculous. I think your museum Director is being somewhat alarmist. And what could be so precious as to warrant this bizarre subterfuge? There must be hundreds of works of art that need to be kept safe. Are you going to have teams of young people driving each of them around the country one at a time? Because it doesn’t seem a very efficient way of doing it if that is the case.’

‘No, Maman, most of the works that are going to be moved will go a little later, probably in lorries, when the need arises. But just a very few selected pieces are being spirited away now because they are simply too precious to risk losing. I know it sounds a little bizarre, but you have to admit these are bizarre times in which we live!’

Marianne allowed her hand to fall and rest, once again, on the mending basket in her lap. She smiled at last, although with a trace of sadness, Ella thought. ‘Well, who am I to stand in the way of a matter of state importance? Yes, I suppose you must do it. But please drive carefully. And telephone me from the island to let me know you’ve got there safely, will you?’

Caroline flung her arms around her mother and kissed her. ‘Of course! Now come, Ella, I think I can hear Christophe back from work. Let’s go and tell him . . .’

They packed on Sunday evening. ‘Just take a few things, there won’t be much room in the trunk of the car,’ Caroline urged. ‘The package is quite bulky. We won’t need much on the island anyway – Ella, you can borrow some of my summer things, which are already down there.’

Early the next day, before the Monday morning city had begun to awaken fully, Christophe brought the Martets’ car – a gleaming Peugeot, his father’s latest prized possession – around to the front of the house. They stowed their bags in the boot, and then drove carefully through the empty streets to pull up by a side entrance of the Louvre. Caroline hurried in, re-emerging a few minutes later with two men who carried between them a bulky wooden crate. Gingerly, they loaded it into the trunk of the car, rearranging the luggage around it so that it was safely wedged in place. Caroline shook hands with one of the men, listening carefully and nodding as he gave her a few final directions, and then came around to the driver’s door. ‘Sorry, Christophe but, by order of the Director, the museum’s security guard will have to drive. This is Grégoire. You don’t mind, do you? You can sit in the back, with Ella.’

Christophe climbed out and shook the hand of the guard as they exchanged places. Caroline settled herself beside Grégoire and the car pulled slowly away from the kerb and into the streets of Paris once more, heading south and then west out of the city. Christophe leaned forward and tapped his sister on the shoulder. ‘Alright, now you can tell us. What’s in the package?’

Caroline shook her head, glancing at Grégoire whose eyes were fixed on the road ahead as he negotiated the way carefully through the increasingly busy traffic. ‘You don’t need to know that. In fact, it’s far better that you don’t. Sorry,’ she said, looking back over her shoulder with a teasing smile, ‘but you two are just here for camouflage. You don’t have the appropriate security clearance for that sort of classified information!’

‘Oh, come on, Caroline! You can tell us, especially since we’ve so kindly agreed to help you with your top-secret operation.’

She clamped her lips together and shook her head emphatically. ‘Non. It’s more than my job is worth. Now stop asking questions and let Grégoire concentrate on driving. The last thing we want is for someone to crash into us!’

Eventually they left behind the suburbs of Paris and reached the open road towards the Loire.

I am perfectly content, thought Ella, sitting in the back of the car with Christophe at her side and watching the countryside unfurl, as Caroline and Grégoire discussed museum matters in the front. She was looking forward to seeing the Loire Valley, and to delivering the package in the trunk at Chambord which, she hoped, might afford them the opportunity to look round the château. And then, by that evening, they should be on the ferry, crossing to the Île de Ré. She leant her head against the glass of the car window and watched the procession of plane trees file past on the long, straight road, trees planted on the orders of the Emperor Napoleon over a century ago so that their branches would shade his armies as they marched to and from battle. She hoped they would continue to provide their shade for more peaceful travellers, not wanting to contemplate the possibility of any more armies marching through France.

At her side, she sensed Christophe glancing at her every now and then, as though he was committing her profile to memory, watching the alternating sunshine and shade cast shadows across her face, throwing into relief her cheek bones, her lips, her lashes.

Her reverie was interrupted suddenly by a loud clang and a rhythmic banging sound, and the car slowed suddenly, losing power. Grégoire pulled over to the side of the road and they all got out. Opening the bonnet, the guard peered into the engine and swore under his breath. Straightening up, he turned to Caroline. ‘It looks like a problem with the gearbox. What a time to break down!’

‘Oh, mon Dieu!’ Ella heard the panic in Caroline’s voice. ‘What are we to do? If anything happens to the picture . . .’

Grégoire remained calm. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get it fixed.’ He pointed to a milestone at the roadside just ahead of them. ‘It’s only a kilometre to the next village. We’ll ask there, maybe someone will have some tools and be able to help us fix it. I know a little about mechanics myself – my cousin has a garage in Sèvres, and I used to work there before I took up my job at the museum.’ He wiped his hands on his handkerchief. ‘We’ll need to push – Mademoiselle Martet, you can steer. Allons-y.’

As he and Christophe shed their jackets, Ella climbed out of the car.

‘Mademoiselle Lennox, you can stay inside if you wish.’

‘Non, merci. I’ll help push. I may not be all that strong, but at least I won’t be adding to the weight of the car.’

Christophe flashed her a grin of approval before setting his shoulder to the car’s rear flank. Grégoire took up his position on the other side and the car slowly moved back out into the road.

‘It’s a good thing it wasn’t all uphill!’ panted Grégoire as they reached the village and pulled up in front of an auberge, which, apart from a baker’s shop, appeared to be the only commerce that the hamlet had to offer. ‘I’ll go in here and make some enquiries, Mademoiselle Martet, you stay with the car.’

He emerged a few minutes later, accompanied by the innkeeper who carried a toolbox. The two men stooped over the engine and for several minutes muffled thumps, accompanied by the occasional oath, could be heard emanating from beneath the bonnet.

With a shake of his head, Grégoire re-emerged.

‘Well, we’ve located the problem. It’s an issue with the gears, as I thought. A part of the fly-wheel has sheared right off, damaging the mechanism. It’ll need a replacement part. I’ll telephone my cousin, see if by any chance he can get hold of what we need. If so, I can hop on a train back to Paris and come back with it as quickly as possible. Don’t worry, Mademoiselle Martet, all is not lost. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!’

Caroline was pacing up and down the street, distraught. ‘I can’t believe this is happening. Oh, mon Dieu!’

Christophe put a reassuring hand on her arm. ‘Calm down, Caroline. It sounds as if Grégoire has got it all in hand. He seems such a capable type. Don’t worry, he’ll sort out the car. The worst case will be that we only deliver your package to Chambord tomorrow, instead of today, and we miss one day on the Île de Ré. C’est pas grave!’

Eventually, Grégoire returned from phoning and he and Caroline stepped across the road to confer in urgent whispers beside the hedgerow. Finally, she nodded and he headed back into the inn to finalise arrangements.

‘All sorted out now?’ Christophe reached to open the boot and remove the crated package within.

‘No!’ Caroline grabbed his arm.

‘Honestly, why are you so sensitive? It’s not like you. Whatever’s in here must be something very special indeed.’ He stopped short, and then, as an involuntary flash of alarm flickered across Caroline’s face, Christophe seemed to come to a realisation and a slow smile of delight spread over his features.

‘You’re not telling me it’s the . . . ?’

Caroline nodded miserably, a barely perceptible movement, and mouthed, ‘the Mona Lisa’. Ella stepped forward to put an arm around her, the enormity of the situation suddenly overwhelming both girls. Caroline suppressed a sob, and Ella scarcely knew whether to cry herself, or to laugh out loud at their predicament.

Just then, Grégoire re-emerged from the inn, clapping the innkeeper on the back. ‘Right then, it’s all organised. My cousin can lay his hands on the part we need. This kind gentleman is going to give me a lift to the station at Orléans. I’ll be back tomorrow morning with the part – my cousin will drive me down and help fix the car – and then we can continue on our way. Our holiday will only be delayed by half a day.’ He shot a warning look at the three of them, signalling that they should keep up the charade. ‘Christophe, could you help us push the car round to the back of the inn? That way it’ll be off the road for the night.’

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