Our episode this week features a labyrinth, yet another symbol of the puzzle that is the Voynich manuscript. But the labyrinth also offers Lynn some clues to another perplexing puzzle: what sort of a man is Theophilus Clarence West?
The Voynich Affair: Chapter 8
After dinner, she was surprised when M. Mazarin approached her and asked if she would like to examine his labyrinth. “I would be delighted,” she said, and accompanied him out to the east side of the house. “I can see the labyrinth from the window of my room, and I’m interested to know more. Is there a key to the solution?”
Mazarin gave her a strange look, and then replied, “Mais oui, it is simple. One must always choose to turn to the right.” They entered the tall yew hedges and took a right turn, and then another, and another. Lynn was glad that Mazarin had revealed the key; she would have been quite bewildered otherwise. There was a tall stand rather like a lifeguard’s stand on one side of the labyrinth; she supposed that this was for issuing instructions to hopelessly confused walkers trapped in the maze. Mazarin asked her opinion of the food and accommodations, and she heaped them with praise, discreetly avoiding mention of her lampless bedchamber. At last they reached the center of the labyrinth, where an inviting bench was placed before a statue of Cupid and Psyche.
“This is beautiful,” she said. “Thank you for bringing me here.”
“Madame Melton,” he said, “you are a charming woman. I regret the necessity, but I must ask you to tell me why you possess a key to my book-case, and where you obtained it.” His voice had a rather unpleasant tone.
“I… I don’t have any such key in my possession,” she said truthfully. “Would you mind explaining why you believe that I do?”
He took her by the upper arm. His grip was painfully tight. “Do not pretend with me, Madame. My brother George spoke to me this morning. He saw you with the key. You are here to attempt a theft, is it not so? But I will prevent this. Give me the key.”
“But… I don’t have it,” she said, alarmed and angry at the way he was treating her. It was on the tip of her tongue to say that it was West, not she, who had the key, but something stopped her.
Mazarin’s face hardened. He felt in his pocket and drew out a small but sharp knife, which he flicked open with one hand. He pulled her close, so close that she could smell the garlic and wine from dinner on his breath, and placed the tip of the knife against the hollow at the upper edge of her breastbone. “You will do as I ask,” he stated. Lynn felt a hysterical urge to laugh. What was it about the Voynich manuscript that turned men into such beasts? At the same time, she hesitated over the best way to respond. Should she tell him about West? Or try to fight her way free? What if he cuts my throat?
“Take your hands off her,” came a quiet voice from behind them. It was West’s voice, and Lynn felt an overpowering sense of relief at the sound.
“This is not your affair,” said Mazarin. “Go back to the house, monsieur.”
“Oh, but it is very much my affair,” said West, and then musingly, “I have a knife too, Mazarin. A bigger one than yours. Shall I show you?” He laughed contemptuously. “I trained as a surgeon. I know just where to cut your face so that you’ll have a drooping eyelid for the rest of your days.” Mazarin appeared unmoved.
“Or perhaps I ought to take a simpler approach,” continued West, “and slice off the end of your nose.”
“You would not dare to assault me. You would go to prison.” Mazarin kept his grip on Lynn, not moving the knife from her neck.
“Perhaps. But I’d be released soon enough, whereas you would still be a man without a nose.” West then switched to French, speaking low and rapidly. Lynn recalled what he’d said on the plane about his French mother: the language must have been his cradle tongue. Her own French was of the reading-knowledge variety, and she had trouble following the conversation, though she made out the words ma femme and épouser. Mazarin suddenly let go of her arm as though he was holding a hot coal, and removed the knife. The look in his eyes was malevolent, but he reluctantly said, “Votre pardon, Madame.” Then he walked past her without another word, turning left at the opening to the maze.
She faced West. “Thank you,” she whispered. Adrenalin was coursing through her system, and her legs were shaking. She must have swayed slightly, because he strode forward and took her into his arms, pressing her to his chest. The circle of his embrace felt like the safest place in the world. She simply stood and let him hold her while the thudding of her heart slowly began to subside. He smelled good, like soap and bay rum aftershave.
West was wearing a suit and tie, as usual, and after a few minutes he took a small flask from his pocket and offered her a swig. She laughed and drew a wavering breath as she accepted the flask. It tasted of Scotch. “Knives and first-rate liquor. What else have you got hidden away in that suit?”
He chuckled. “I’m not even going to answer that. It would be far too easy.”
“Wait a minute,” she said, remembering the French conversation. “What did you tell Mazarin? It sounded like you said we were married.”
“I told him that you were my fiancée,” he replied with a firm nod. “The French take marriage very seriously.”
“They do? I thought they were famous for having affairs.”
“Yes, they can be rather casual about marital fidelity, but social standing, family loyalty and property are matters of great weight. It was the quickest way to convince him that his actions were very much my business.”
“You mean, that he shouldn’t touch me because I already belonged to you?” She rolled her eyes.
“Yes.” He held her gaze, his look serious. “He believes that he’s a homeowner protecting his property from a thief, but I asked him to consider what a French court would think of a man who attacked a defenseless woman, a guest in his home. Especially if her outraged fiancé found them together in a garden labyrinth. He quickly grasped that any… violent reaction on the fiancé’s part would be viewed with a tolerant eye.”
“Yes, I suppose that makes sense,” she said slowly. “But what happens when he finds out that we—” she was suddenly cut off as he clamped a hand over her mouth, shaking his head and jerking it toward the hedge closest to them. Apparently he thought someone might be listening.
West put his mouth close to the side of her head and asked softly, “Did you tell him that the… object was mine?” She could feel the warmth of his breath stealing into her ear. It sent a dart of pleasure through her, and she shifted her stance uneasily.
“No.” Is that why he followed us to the labyrinth? To find out whether Mazarin knows about him?
Moving back slightly, he raised an eyebrow. “I’m in your debt, then. We should both leave the chateau as soon as possible. I would drive us to Rouen tonight, but I’ve loaned Troisgros my car. He had a toothache and had to go into town to see a dentist. He’ll be back tomorrow morning.”
She hated to appear pushy, but she was anxious to put as much distance between herself and Mazarin as she could. “Why does Troisgros have to spend the night in Rouen?”
West looked a little uncomfortable. “He had… another transaction to conduct.”
Lynn felt a wave of disgust. Troisgros, apparently, was taking the opportunity of the symposium to visit a prostitute. She imagined a wife and children sitting at home, unaware of this duplicity. “Are you telling me that you loaned Troisgros your car so he could… so he could fornicate?”
He held her gaze levelly. “You’re very judgmental for someone who knows absolutely nothing about the situation.”
He sighed. “Troisgros served in Afghanistan,” he said, his voice sounding harsh. “You can’t tell from his gait, which is quite symmetrical, but he’s an amputee and uses a prosthesis. He also has some serious scarring. A roadside bomb. He’s too ashamed to ask a woman on a date. He hasn’t held a woman in his arms for three years.”
That silenced her. She knew, a little, what it was to feel disfigured. She looked away, trying to blink back the tears that were starting to form in her eyes.
He seemed not to notice. “In any case,” he said, “I don’t trust Mazarin not to come after you again. We’ll leave tomorrow. Until then, I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
“Yes, I’d appreciate it if you walk me back to my room.”
He laughed. “You’re not thinking clearly, Professor. If I could get into your room, don’t you think Mazarin could?”
“I’ll lock the window and put a chair under the door.”
“Your window doesn’t have a lock,” he said, keeping his eyes on hers. She felt her face flushing at the reminder of his intimate familiarity with her bedchamber.
“What are you suggesting? That I stay in your room?” she asked incredulously.
“That is exactly what I’m suggesting. Unless you’d rather take your chances with Mazarin and his brother? Mazarin’s still quite suspicious of my story, you know. After all, you and I haven’t been sitting together at meals. But he didn’t want to risk it.” West started into the maze. She followed, thinking that there must be some other alternative. Perhaps she could come up with an excuse to stay with Alessandra in her room? But what?
“Don’t worry,” he said impatiently, as if reading her thoughts. “I won’t touch you. I give you my word of honor.”
“Do you have any honor?” Again, he seemed stung by her words, clamping his jaw tightly as he strode through the maze, but he ignored the question.
“We’ll stop at your room to collect your belongings, and we’ll go straight to my room from there. The house has a side door that’s kept unlocked until eleven p.m. I think we’ll just make the curfew.”
She packed her clothes in the dim light while West stood guard just inside the door, and then he conducted her up another flight of stairs to his room, which was larger and more luxuriously appointed than hers. It had electric outlets, she saw, a private bath… and a queen sized bed.
West noticed the direction of her gaze and said rather acidly, “If you think I’m going to sleep on the floor, think again. But you can get under the covers, if you like, and I’ll stay on top.”
“Perhaps I’ll sleep on the floor.”
He shrugged. “Suit yourself. But that would be stupid, and you’d have a very sore back come the morning.” His lips quirked in a little smile. “Besides, it won’t be the first time you’ve slept by my side.” She felt a flash of anger at his rudeness, and yet… Has he thought about that night as much as I have?
Reluctantly, she scanned the contents of her suitcase for something suitable to wear to bed. This is an absurd situation. Finally she decided on the same cotton nightgown she’d worn the night before. It was nothing he hadn’t already seen, she thought philosophically. She emerged from the bathroom with her arms crossed over her breasts, and slid under the covers on the left side of the bed, furthest from the door. West was wearing pajama bottoms and nothing else. She had a good view of his broad chest, sprinkled with dark hairs, before he stepped into the bathroom and shut the door. She heard him running water and brushing his teeth vigorously. A few minutes later, he came out and pulled on a white undershirt, then turned off the lights and settled himself on the bed next to her. His substantial weight made the bedframe creak.
In the dark, she said softly, “So if we leave tomorrow morning, won’t that spoil your plans?”
“What plans?” said West. His voice felt very near.
“Aren’t you… aren’t you planning to steal Mazarin’s Voynich pages?”
He chuckled. “Whatever gave you that idea, Professor Melton?”
“The key. It’s a duplicate key for the case that holds Mazarin’s book.”
“I know you think I’m an utter reprobate, Professor, but I am no thief… at least not that kind of thief.” He spoke the word “thief” with a certain emphasis. After a moment he continued, “My goal was to photograph the pages, not to remove them. I did so this morning, while the rest of you were at breakfast, and before Mazarin made his dramatic announcement. So you see, Professor, I already have everything I came here to obtain.”
She turned his words over in her mind. “Your window of opportunity was this morning? Before Mazarin returned the case to his safe?”
“That’s right. Now you understand why I was upset when you took the key. I needed it back before eight a.m. this morning.”
“But how did you know the pages existed in the first place?”
“It’s a long story. I’ve known about Mazarin since I was a child. But as to his announcement of his plan to engage a scholar and publish, the rumors were flying well before he sent the invitations for the symposium. There are… inner circles in Voynich scholarship.”
Apparently she was not among the elite of Voynich studies, as she’d never heard a whisper about Mazarin’s secret. But West, it appeared, had a much longer history with the Voynich document than she.
Suddenly he turned and leaned over her, bracing himself by putting an arm across her and planting his hand on the bed to her left. He didn’t touch her, but she felt the heat of his body as he loomed over her. It was so dark that she could barely see his face. “I’m sorry about what I did, Lynn. But you were about to ruin plans set in motion a very long time ago. I’ve been waiting for Mazarin’s invitation for a decade.”
A warm wave of emotion flowed over her at his use of her first name. His face was close to hers, and it occurred to her that he might kiss her. “I don’t understand.”
“I know. Go to sleep now.” He retreated to his side of the bed.
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss
Notes: I used some classic romantic plot devices here. One of my goals was to demonstrate West’s physicality. Without drawing any rigid conclusions about gender relations in the modern world, I think there’s something deep-rooted, even biological, in the female appreciation for a man who is willing to get physical if the need arises. After all, we spent millennia in a state of dependence on males for physical protection, often from other males. Collectively speaking, we women have paid a heavy price for that protection. Yet our fascination with the alpha male continues, in fantasy at any rate. In the modern world, his attractions can fade rather quickly.
My inspiration for West in this chapter was James Langton in the TV series Above Suspicion, a similarly irascible alpha-male type. I even cribbed a line from one of Lynda LaPlante’s books about Langton and Travis. If you’re a fan, you may recognize it.
Sometimes life imitates art in unexpected ways. Two years after I wrote this, a tumor was removed from my upper arm, leaving me with a sizable divot and a very prominent scar. Now I understood Lynn’s situation in a way I hadn’t before. This story was always my favorite of the short stories I have penned, but that development gave it extra meaning.