Pitt stared at the Home Office minister with disbelief. They were standing in a quiet, sunlit room in Whitehall, the traffic outside inaudible.
“A Spanish saint?” he said, struggling to keep his voice more or less level.
“She’s not Spanish, she’s English,” Sir Walter replied patiently. “She merely lives in Spain. Toledo, I’m told. She is here to visit her family.”
“And what is this to do with Special Branch, sir?” Pitt asked. Special Branch had been created initially to deal with the Irish Problem, and now in the spring of 1898, its remit had broadened greatly to address anything that was considered to be a threat to the security of the nation.
All Europe was in turmoil as the century drew toward its close. Unrest was escalating and becoming more open. Anarchist bombings occurred in one place or another every few weeks. In France the Dreyfus affair was raging on toward a climax no one could predict. There were even rumors that the government might fall.
Addressing the threat of assassination to a dignitary visiting England was among the duties of Special Branch—but seeing to the needs of a touring nun, or whatever she was, was certainly not. Pitt opened his mouth to point this out, but Sir Walter spoke first.
“There have been letters containing threats against her life,” Sir Walter said, his face completely expressionless. “Her opinions have caused some concern and . . . anger. Unfortunately she has been rather too free in expressing them.”
“It’s a police problem,” Pitt said tersely. “I doubt anyone here will care enough to argue with her, let alone cause a nuisance. But if they do, then the local police can take care of it.”
Sir Walter sighed, as if this was a tedious argument. “Pitt, this is not a suggestion. You may think that many people are apathetic as to the exact details of religious doctrine, and only deeply committed Christians will argue with her—and even if they do, you trust that they at least know how to behave within the law.” He raised white eyebrows. “If so, you are a fool. Some men will argue more passionately about religion than anything else on earth. To many, religion represents order, sanity, the inevitable victory of good over evil. It confirms to them their place in creation.” He smiled bleakly. “Somewhere near the top. The appearance of modesty forbids the very top. Something has to be held back for God.” His smile faded and his eyes were grim. “But say something to threaten that place near the top, and you threaten everything.”
He shook his head. “For God’s sake, man, look at how religion has torn us apart throughout history. Start with the Crusades, and the Inquisition in Spain, the persecution of the Cathars and Waldenses in the rest of Europe, the massacres of the Huguenots in France. We’ve burned both Catholics and Protestants ourselves. You think it couldn’t happen again? If Dreyfus were not a Jew, do you think this whole monstrous affair would ever have started, never mind reached this proportion?”
Pitt drew breath to argue, and found the words frozen on his tongue.
It was barely the end of April. Earlier in the month President McKinley had asked the U.S. Congress for a declaration of war against Spain. Cuba had been seeking independence from Spain for many years, and the United States had begun to intervene in the dispute, seeing an opportunity to gain power and position. When the battleship USS Maine had been mysteriously blown up in Havana harbor, the powerful U.S. press openly blamed Spain. On 21 April Congress had ordered a naval blockade of all Cuban harbors, demanding that Spain surrender control of Cuba. On 25 April, four days ago, America had declared war. It was the first time they had done such a thing in their brief, idealistic existence. They had focused on internal expansion, had settled the land, built, explored and developed industry. Now suddenly the country was increasing the size of its armies and its navy and looking for possessions overseas, as far away as Hawaii and the Philippines.
This new desire for outward expansion could grow to involve other naval powers, even Britain, if America chose to make it so. If anything went wrong with this Spanish woman’s visit, it could easily be misconstrued by Spain. A chilling thought given the state of affairs across Europe. President Carnot of France had been assassinated four years ago. Last year it had been Prime Minister Cánovas del Castillo in Spain, where the violence had reached new abominations.
“She is bringing half a dozen or so of her . . . acolytes,” Sir Walter went on, as if he had not noticed Pitt’s absence of attention.
“God only knows what sort of people they are, but we don’t want any of them killed on our soil. I’m sure you understand the embarrassment that would be to Her Majesty’s Government. Especially in light of our history with Spain. We don’t want to give them any excuses for war with us as well.” He looked at Pitt carefully, as if possibly he had overestimated him and would be obliged to reconsider his opinion.
“Yes, sir,” Pitt replied. “Of course I understand. Is it even remotely likely that she would be attacked here?” He asked the question not in a spirit of incredulity, but hoping for some assurance that it was not so.
Sir Walter’s expression eased a little, the deep lines about his mouth less severe. “Probably not,” he replied with the ghost of a smile. “But apparently this woman’s English family do not approve of her at all. She left in the first place over some quarrel of principle, so I hear. Families can be the devil!” There was some sympathy in his voice.
Pitt made a last effort to avoid the task. “I would point out that domestic violence is also police work, sir, not Special Branch’s. We have a big case of industrial sabotage at the moment that looks as if it is foreign inspired. It’s getting worse and has to be stopped.”
Sir Walter’s eyes were bright and sharp. “I am well aware of Special Branch’s concerns. I will remind you that it is the effect on the nation that determines whose problem it is, Pitt, and you know that as well as I do. If you didn’t, believe me, you would not be long in your position.”
Pitt cleared his throat, and spoke quietly.
“Do we know the nature of this quarrel within the woman’s family, sir?”
Sir Walter gave a slight shrug. If he noticed the change in Pitt’s tone, he was sophisticated enough not to show it.
“The usual sort of thing with willful daughters, I believe,” he replied, the smile back on his face. “She declined to marry the young man of excellent breeding and fortune, and tedious habits, whom they had selected for her.”
Pitt remembered that Sir Walter had three daughters.
“And ran off to Spain and married some Spanish man of unknown character and probably unknown ancestry, at least to Sofia’s parents,” Sir Walter added. “I imagine it was embarrassing to them.”
“How long ago was this?” Pitt asked, keeping his face as expressionless as he could. His own daughter, Jemima, was fast approaching marriageable age. He didn’t like to think about it.
“Oh, it has been some time,” Sir Walter replied ruefully. “I think it is her religious views that have now compounded the problem. It wouldn’t matter so much if she kept them to herself. But she has formed something of a sect. Has her acolytes, as I mentioned.”
“Roman Catholic?” Pitt imagined a cult to do with the Virgin Mary, perhaps, causing old persecutions to be remembered.
“Apparently not.” Sir Walter lifted one elegant shoulder. “It hardly matters. Just see that no one attacks her while she is in England. The sooner she leaves the better, but alive and well, if you please.”
Pitt straightened to attention. “Yes, sir.”
“Sofia Delacruz?” Charlotte said with a sudden sharpening of interest. She and Pitt were sitting by a low fire in the parlor, the curtains drawn across the French windows onto the garden. Almost all the light was gone from the cool spring sky and there was a definite chill in the air. Sixteen-year-old Jemima and thirteen-year-old Daniel were both upstairs in their rooms. Jemima would be daydreaming, or writing letters to her friends. Daniel would be deep in the adventures of the latest Boy’s Own Paper.
Pitt leaned forward and put another log on the fire. It gave less heat than coal, but he liked the smell of the apple wood.
“Have you heard of her?” he asked with surprise.
Charlotte smiled slightly self-consciously. “Yes, a bit.”
He remembered Sir Walter’s reference to a scandal in the past; he knew how Charlotte loathed gossip, even when it was the lifeblood of investigation. She listened to it, but with guilt, and a thread of fear. She had seen too many of its victims firsthand to take pleasure in it.
“What did you hear?” he said gravely. “She may be in danger. I need to know.”
Charlotte did not argue, which in itself was indicative of a different kind of interest. He detected concern in her eyes. She put down the sewing she had been doing.
“You are going to protect her?” she asked curiously.
“I’ve assigned Brundage to it,” he replied.
“Not Stoker?” She was puzzled.
“Stoker’s quite senior now,” he pointed out. He did not want to be sharp and set a division between them. This quiet evening alone with her was the best part of his day. Its peace mattered intensely to him. “He has other responsibilities. Brundage is a good man.”
“I’ve heard Sofia’s ideas are pretty radical.” She was gazing at him steadily.
“I don’t know,” she admitted, pushing the sewing away entirely and leaning forward a little. “Perhaps I’ll go and listen to what she has to say when she arrives. She has to have more fire than our local minister.” Charlotte went to church on most Sundays because she took the children. It was a natural part of belonging to the community and of being accepted. It was also the best place for Jemima and Daniel to meet other youths whose families Charlotte knew in a somewhat substantial way.
More often than not, Pitt discovered some pressing duty elsewhere on Sundays.
Pitt nodded agreement, but he was far more conscious of a sharp memory stirring in his mind. His mother had taken him to the parish church on the edge of the estate every Sunday of his childhood. He could still picture the shafts of colored light slanting downward from the stained-glass windows; smell the stone and faint odor of dust. There were shuffles of movement, a creaking of stays, and the dry riffle of pages being turned. Very seldom had he actually listened to the sermons. Some of the stories from the Old Testament were good, but they were isolated, forming no consistent history of God and man. To him the Bible seemed to be more a series of errors and corrections, well-earned disasters and then heroic rescues. A lot of the rest of it was lists of names, or wonderfully poetic prophecies of desolation to come.
Had he believed any of it? And even if he had, did it matter? If he were honest, the stories from his borrowed copies of The Boy’s Own Paper had stirred his heart far more, with their tales of adventure, of heroes any boy would want to copy. He smiled now with quiet pleasure; he felt a sense of identity with his son when he saw Daniel reading. The magazine now had a new name, the stories had different settings, but the spirit was the same.
So what was it that still clung to him so sharply about those old memories of church? The companionship of his mother, the rare sense of peace within her when she was there, as if she were at last safe, loved and completely unafraid? He had thought at the time that her faith was simple and certain. While he was glad for her, because he knew it comforted some of her fears that he could not, he had no desire to be the same way. It was a subject they had never spoken about, out of choice on both of their parts.
He wondered now if perhaps it had not been nearly as easy for her to keep faith as he had supposed, that she had led him to think it was because it took a certain burden from him. It was one area in which he could be a child. She had allowed him that, as she had so many other things of which he had been unaware at the time. She had died without ever telling him she was ill. She had sent him away so he would not notice, not suffer with her.
Charlotte was watching him, waiting. Was she aware of the thoughts inside him?
“You truly want to go and listen to her?” Pitt said, breaking the silence at last.
“Yes,” she said immediately. “As I said, I’ve heard she is outrageous, even blasphemous in her ideas. I’d love to know what they are.”
He realized how little he and Charlotte had ever spoken of their beliefs when it came to matters of religion. And yet he knew everything else about her. He knew what hurt her, made her angry, and made her laugh or cry, who she liked and what she thought of them, and what she thought of herself. Often he would read her emotions by her expression. At other times it was in far smaller things: a sudden silence, an unexplained kindness, the letting slip an old grudge someone else could have held on to, and through these small actions he knew she had understood a shadow, or a pain.
“Does it matter to you?” he asked. “If she is blasphemous.”
She looked at him with surprise. At first he thought it was because he had asked. Then he realized that she was surprised to not have a ready answer.
“I have no idea,” she confessed. “Perhaps that is why I want to go. I’m not sure I even know what blasphemy is. Cursing, or the desecration of a shrine, I understand. But what is an idea that is blasphemous?”
“Darwin’s On the Origin of Species,” he answered immediately. “The suggestion that we evolved from something lesser rather than descended from something greater. It threatens our entire concept of ourselves.” He smiled ruefully.
“Well, if that is what she has come to talk about, she is a little late to cause trouble with it,” Charlotte said drily. “We’ve been fighting about that one already for the last thirty some years! It isn’t even interesting anymore.”
“So you’re not coming, then?” He tried to keep his face straight, as if he were not deliberately teasing her.
“Of course I’m coming!” she said instantly, then realized what he was doing and smiled. “I’ve never seen a woman blasphemer. Do you suppose there will be a riot?”
He did not satisfy her by answering.
Sofia Delacruz’s meeting was to be held in a very large local hall facing a square. Pitt went early in the evening in order to check what precautions had been taken against any protest becoming violent. He also wished to speak to Brundage and hear his opinions of Sofia and, perhaps even more importantly, her followers.
It was a typical April day, sunshine one moment and spatters of rain the next. The new leaves were glistening pale on the branches and there were swathes of yellow daffodils on the grass of the square.
Pitt walked past them, taking a moment of pleasure at the sight, and then up the wide steps and through the double doors to the hall where the meeting was to be held. He noted that there were already several local police around, although there was still an hour before the meeting was due to begin. He asked for Brundage, and was directed to one of the dressing rooms at the back, just beyond the stage. It was bare except for a couple of chairs, a mirror, and a number of hooks on the wall.
Brundage was a large young man, almost Pitt’s own height, but more broadly built. His brown hair flopped forward over his brow and he brushed it back automatically as he straightened up from reaching across to a collection of printed papers advertising the event. He had unusual features, blunt and yet in no way coarse.
“Sir,” he said politely on recognizing Pitt.
“Evening, Brundage,” Pitt acknowledged, glancing around the room, noting the windows and the second door. “Tell me what you’ve found so far.”
Brundage rolled his eyes very slightly. “Wish I could say it was what I expected, sir. The hall is secure enough, and the local police are prepared for a big crowd. Probably more people curious than looking for any trouble, but it only takes a few to make it turn nasty.”
“What is here that you did not expect?” Pitt asked a little skeptically.
Brundage shrugged. “Someone I can’t dismiss as a harmless lunatic I suppose,” he answered with a degree of self-deprecation. “I thought her followers would be the usual collection of idealists, dependents and hangers-on. And of course those who want to take her place. I’m not wrong about that. Although they are more intense than I expected.”
“A threat to her?” Pitt asked quickly.
“I hope not.” He met Pitt’s eyes. “But it is not impossible.”
“Who are they? Names. Do we know any of them?”
“They’re all with her full time. They don’t do anything else. They’ve given their lives to this. The most important, certainly in his own estimation, is Melville Smith,” Brundage began. “He is the only one who’s English. In his fifties. Ambitious, but denies it. Seems loyal, but I think to the ideas rather than to her. Ramon Aguilar, on the other hand, is about fifteen years younger than Smith, and he’s loyal to Sofia over all else. He’s Spanish, very soft spoken, gentle.” Brundage smiled. “Sings to himself while he’s walking around. The three women who came with her are all harder to read. Cleo Robles is small and pretty, about twenty-five; English mother and Spanish father. I’m guessing there is some tragedy in her background . . .” He left the words unfinished, as he was uncertain what to add.
Pitt formed the instant opinion that Brundage had liked her.
“Elfrida Fonsecca is quiet, watchful,” Brundage continued. “Heavier, but in a comfortable sort of way. Womanly, if you know what I mean? And she has a lovely skin, not a mark on it.”
Pitt nodded. “Do you know anything about her?”
“She seems devout, withdrawn,” Brundage answered with a small shake of his head. “I can’t get any history from her. But she bites her nails. Something bothers her.”
“Go on,” Pitt told him.
“Henrietta Navarro is older. I think she was in some kind of religious order before she joined Sofia. She refuses to speak of it, and I can’t press her without causing real anger. I tried, and Sofia herself told me in no uncertain words to leave the subject alone.”
Pitt heard a new note in Brundage’s voice, something he had not ever heard before in the year and a half he had known the man. It spoke of a certain awe.
“And Sofia herself?” Pitt asked.
Pitt waited. Honesty was more important than speed.
“I don’t know,” Brundage said eventually. “I can tell you about the others. They’re not all that different from many I’ve known.” He regarded Pitt earnestly. “But she is. I can’t even tell you if I think the threats against her are real. I also can’t tell you if she thinks they are, or if she believes some kind of holy angel is going to protect her, so they don’t matter.”
Pitt stared at him. “Is there anything useful you can tell me?” he said with an effort at courtesy. Brundage probably did not want this task any more than he did himself. There were other, genuine and important cases to work on, specifically the industrial sabotage one he had mentioned to Sir Walter, which was growing more serious with time.
Brundage shifted his weight.
“Ramon Aguilar is loyal. If there’s going to be an attack from inside it’ll be Melville Smith.”
They could hear the sound of movement back and forth along the passage, footsteps, quiet voices.
“Relationships among the followers?” Pitt asked.
Brundage pursed his lips. “Pretty strong dislike between the two men. They think it’s concealed, but it isn’t. The two older women are distant with each other, but polite. Henrietta Navarro seems to be closer to Smith in attitude. And there’s another woman who sweeps and cleans in the yard at Angel Court, where they are staying. But she’s new, apparently, only just joined them, and doesn’t talk to anyone.”
“Then let’s see if Sofia Delacruz will speak with me now,” Pitt replied. “I suppose she’s preparing to give her sermon, or whatever it is.”
Brundage looked relieved. He straightened up and went out the door without any further comment.
It was less than five minutes later that the door opened again. Pitt swung around expecting to see Brundage returning with the message that Delacruz was too busy to see him, because she was praying or studying, or whatever she did to prepare herself. Instead he saw a slender woman of more than average height. Dark hair was drawn back from the most remarkable face he could ever recall seeing. His first thought was that she was not beautiful. She was too fierce, her slate-blue eyes too deeply set. Then he realized as she walked toward him that indeed she was beautiful, in a way that was both savage and tender. There was a burning intelligence in her—and something in her expression that might have been amusement.
“I am Sofia Delacruz,” she said quietly. “I understand you are Commander Pitt of Special Branch.”
Pitt inclined his head. “Yes, ma’am. I hope we can help avoid any unpleasantness occurring for you.”
To his surprise she laughed, a rich, spontaneous sound. “I hope that will not be the case. It will mean I am so bland that no one can find anything to object to. Then I need not have come.”