The trip into Wales was direct and uneventful. By the time the train was crossing the Menai Strait, the storm had slipped over into southeastern England. In the night, she had missed the Snowdonia mountains but the view afforded that morning of the Anglesey coastline, as they crossed the Britannia Bridge, was glorious. Far to the east was Beaumaris with its ancient castle; just to the west of the rushing train was the Menai Bridge, once the greatest suspension bridge in the world, surrounded by its township. Farther on, in the western reaches of the strait, a lone sailing vessel was venturing into its tumultuous currents.
She reached Dulas on the northeastern coast of Anglesey as the sun reached its zenith. Four kilometers west of Dulas and four south of Parys Mountain placed the Hallowstone estate within walking distance of Llyn Alaw. As Bernice made a mental note to explore that great lake at her first opportunity of leisure, the two weeks of ship and train and chaise became too much for her. The smell of the wind and the green beckoning depth of the countryside made her stop the coach driver. After giving him instructions for delivering her luggage, she continued the rest of the way on foot.
Her walk soon brought her to the outskirts of the vast property of her benefactor, marked only by a cluster of little cottages, lime-washed huts of stone and thatch. A brisk shower, sweeping from the west along the landscape, led Bernice to seek shelter at the doorway of one of them. And within moments, the poor woman within had welcomed her into her home.
The experience instantly brought memories of her first weeks in Africa, as the woman made use of every English word in her vocabulary, not only to ensure the comfort of her guest, but to extol the beauties of her land. When the weather cleared again, one of her boys insisted in showing her the way. And so they spent the next hour weaving through the fields toward the manor of Lord Hallowstone. Every brook had to be crossed across a precise path of stones, every strawberry patch had to be sampled, and every butterfly had to be rerouted in the proper direction. Through it all, the boy carried on a continuous conversation in his native Welsh while Bernice answered every question in Dutch, both pretending to understand each other perfectly.
Finally they emerged on the other side of a duck pond from the imposing buildings. It was late afternoon. Bernice rewarded the boy’s attentions with a shilling, and she was rewarded in turn by his beaming smile.
There was a moment of nervousness as Bernice took in the magnificence of the architecture and the careful arrangement of the seat of the estate. It was a moment of self-conscious doubt that she instantly dismissed as vanity. She had met nobility before, in her own family.
A stone-paved path, that split into twin circles, led to a pair of stone stairs that flanked the elevated front landing of the main house. Far to the left, the south side of the buildings was bustling with activity, as workmen unloaded carts from the fields and servants carried their loads into the house. She took the right side, ascended the stairs, and paused for a breath and to admire the stone lions at the top.
There, a uniformed servant about to enter the front door reacted with surprise at her appearance. With a couple of discreet glances he double-checked the pavement in front of the house. Indeed he had not seen a carriage approach. Bernice stepped forwards and introduced herself.
“Of course, Dr. Vedeen, your things were delivered earlier.” With a bow the man led her through the front door, whispered a quick word to a passing maid, and delivered her to a sun-filled waiting room. Before she had a chance to absorb the details of her environment, an older gentleman led her down a long corridor to another room, also on the west side of the mansion, its twin massive oak doors announcing its exorbitant expanse. The man walked with the bearing of a soldier, the slight stiffness in his gait led Bernice to guess him to be in his early seventies.
As she waited outside the room, she observed. The wall immediately to the right of the door, and the north wall beside it, were covered with books from floor to ceiling. The wall in front of the door stretched leftwards the full length of the room, framed from waist height to the ceiling in windows of irregular design. Their intricately carved open metal frames evoked the feeling of a forest in early spring, as seen from underneath the naked canopies. The western sky with its majestic clouds, filled with pockets of ominous gray, whispery white, and silver fringes had full command of that room. The draperies that could have quenched the beauty of that view were trapped at either end of the room by thick golden ropes.
Bernice heard her name announced, stepped forward, and turned to face the far end of the room. The Spaniard was in the act of slipping on a coat and stepping away from a large table covered in documents.
“Ah, doctor, at last! It is a distinct pleasure to see you again.”
As the doctor’s consciousness reconstructed the fragments of the servant’s words she had missed, the answer to the mystery became clear. “Lord Hallowstone?” She was caught in mid curtsey. The Spaniard was before her in moments, and interrupted her motion by taking her hand in his and bowing down. She had forgotten the imposing bearing of the man. The shirt he had been wearing at the table could not hide his musculature. The wide blue coat dissimulated it under its folds only until one realized the depth of that chest. It was like standing next to a living mountain.
Their eyes met for a moment of silence and he broke it with a smile. His ash brown moustache, lighter than the thick curls on his head, was gone; but his face had not changed. “It is good to see you. There will be ample time to explain all after you have rested. Worthington will –”
The voice behind him cleared its throat again and its owner circled around the table. Bernice had noticed someone else standing by the table with him. As she stepped back, a tall slender woman in a broche’d scarlet dress drew closer. Her eyes and hair shone with the darkness of onyx, and her delicate lips glistened like red rubies against an ivory complexion. She started to say something but instead she turned to face the Spaniard and asked her question with her eyes.
“Forgive me. Bernice, Dr. Vedeen, this is Lady Masveh… an associate, of a friend of mine.”
“Enchanted.” The woman’s smile was intensely beautiful. “Lord Hallowstone has spoken so highly of you.” With the grace of a dancer the woman dropped her slate grey cloak on a nearby chair, and shook her shoulder-length curls into place, so that their ripples framed perfectly-shaped cheekbones. With matching smoothness she finished stepping forward and wrapped her gloved arms around Bernice’s right arm, and led her to the table. “You must of course tell me all about him.” There was an airy quality to her voice. “For instance, is he always this stubborn?”
A large map of South America covered the whole table, its corners held down by the weight of four pairs of books. The color of the parchment, the wear on its edges, and annotations all along its rim indicated its age and its heavy use. The borders of several of the countries had been redrawn with brush and red ink. Instruments for measuring distance on its surface lay strewn about. The obvious area of concern was Brazil. A dozen hat pins outlined a 1,000 kilometer stretch of the Amazon river. The lady let go of Bernice’s arm and motioned at the map. “My people are very thorough. The indigenous tribes are no longer there, unavailable for questioning. Whatever dwelt under those waters is long gone.” She looked up into the Spaniard’s eyes as she finished, “or was never there.”
Santiago met the challenge of her gaze as he replied, “Rabelaire certainly believed there was something there.” And then he continued to Bernice. “I don’t like loose ends.”
“The piraiba,” Bernice turned to the woman, “you have been looking for the piraiba.”
“A hundred thousand square kilometers of water-covered land takes time to survey.”
Bernice wondered at the size of the woman’s expedition and the resources that had financed it.
“To no avail,” Lady Masveh continued, her dark eyes playing over the Spaniard’s face. “But I have told him, more than once, not to believe everything he hears. He already knows not to believe everything he sees.”
There was again a moment of unspoken communication between their eyes, and then Santiago addressed Bernice again. “We differ in our interpretation of the facts. What do you say, doctor, is it possible that there is an unseen hand, as it were behind the scenes, steering the affairs of mankind?”
Bernice’s expression and shrug of her shoulders presaged her matter-of-fact reply: “Of course, it is called Providence.”
Lady Masveh chuckled at the effect Bernice’s answer had on Santiago’s face. Santiago dismissed her reaction with a sharpening of his eyes and then he explained himself more fully.
“My dear doctor, the kinds of affairs I had in mind are a bit more bloodthirsty than even the Deity of your Old Testament would condone.”
Bernice took that challenge without pausing for a second thought. “Are we talking about the God of Abraham who gave the Amorites over four hundred years to repent of their child sacrifices to Molech before bringing their guilt down on their heads? Or the God of Joseph and Moses who raised a Pharaoh in Egypt to glorify His name, as Saint Paul declares? You realize, of course, that that Pharaoh would indeed have glorified Jehovah’s name by repenting of his murder of innocent babes, and letting the Hebrews go. But, you know the story. He chose to glorify the Name by being recorded in history as the man who by stubbornness almost destroyed his whole kingdom.”
The Spaniard took a step back, both to control his reaction, and regard this wonder of a woman: standing in perfect poise, hands clasped, head high, gaze serene, and spirit indomitable as ever. His eyes returned again to her freckled face and the waves of her red hair pulled back into a bun, for a moment he felt his heart starting to beat in defiance of his forced composure. “I spoke carelessly, doctor. I meant no offence.”
The French would say touche’, Lady Masveh commented drily.
“Lady Masveh,” Santiago’s eyes shifted from Bernice to fix on the woman, “had determined to leave before nightfall.”
The woman smiled with her dark eyes. “Ah, Campeador, that was before I knew there was to be entertainment tonight.” She asserted her defiance by drawing close to Bernice. “Do you play the piano forte, doctor?” At Bernice’s affirmative she smiled broadly, the delight revealing two rows of perfect teeth. For the briefest of seconds Bernice felt there was something unusual about that smile, her eyes drawn momentarily to the woman’s front teeth, but the feeling of normalcy returned immediately. “I am sure it will be wonderful,” Lady Masveh finished as she wrapped her arm around Bernice’s and started lading her out of the room. Once beyond earshot of the Spaniard she whispered. “I owe you thanks, doctor. I had not heard from our friend in almost seven years. I know it was your acquaintance that changed that.”
Bernice found the evening conversation over supper stimulating beyond her expectations. The Spaniard’s grasp of international affairs was deep and far ranging, his assessment of the players of the world’s stage unique in its breadth. He measured them not only by their public decisions but also by the psychological and cultural undercurrents that shaped those decisions. The correctness of his perceptions in the case of Holland and Denmark proved to Bernice beyond all doubt that he was a natural born statesman.
Lady Masveh was singularly interested in Bernice’s observations on African wild life. By her questions, and reactions to Bernice’s answers, she could tell the lady was a student of Nature herself. It was obviously that skill that had qualified her for the Spaniard’s mission in Brazil. That explained some things but the sporadic twinge of strangeness that the woman elicited in Bernice never went away. Oddly, the moments that that feeling was enhanced coincided with those moments when Bernice would turn her face toward the Spaniard, placing the woman just beyond her peripheral vision.
Throughout that supper, Santiago kept the conversation flowing easily, with an attentive but casual demeanor. Soon Bernice realized it was a bit too casual. In the background, the Spaniard was intently observing every interchange between the two women. When that realization hit her, the Spaniard half-winked with his eyes, at once taking her into his confidence and asking her, with a brief pursing of his lips, to continue and observe.
With the same kind of almost imperceptible signs to his servants, he kept Lady Masveh’s cup and plate full. By the time he allowed the cook to approach with the cart of desserts, Lady Masveh had consumed four servings of roasted venison and enough wine to render a sailor insensible. There was no visible effect on the mysterious woman. Bernice read Santiago’s subtle expression as a combination of wonder and delight. On her part she could only address that scene with puzzlement and reserve.