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Herakleion, Crete. March 1928
Miss Talbot! Wait!"
Laetitia Talbot staggered on. She didn't glance back to discover who was calling her name. An abrupt turn of the head would have aggravated the seasickness that racked her; would have made her lose her balance on the slippery deck—might even have provoked a further stomach-wrenching attack of the unproductive retching that had tormented her for a good six hours.
There filtered, through her discomfort, the puzzling thought that she knew no one on the ferry. The only man on the boat who was aware of her existence was the Greek captain and he was unlikely to be chasing after a passenger, fully occupied as he was at the controls in this unexpected squall.
She corrected herself: mad March gale. She corrected herself again: fully blown Greek storm, stirred up personally by Poseidon with his disgusting seaweed-dripping trident. So who would be calling out her name with such confidence? Perhaps she'd failed to notice an acquaintance in her circuits of the deck? She winced at the thought of holding up her end of the conversation that might ensue if she turned around: ". . . Three summers ago . . . at Binkie's coming-out do . . . surely you remember?
You've been in Athens? But why? What on earth can you have been doing there, Letty?"
"Laetitia Talbot?" The English voice came again. Less peremptory. More uncertain. But closer.
Letty sighed and stood still, grasping the metal strut of a lifeboat housing and waited for her pursuer to draw level. A moment later a hand grasped her firmly by her free arm and tucked it under his own. This would have been an unforgivably intimate gesture under normal circumstances, and Letty would have shrugged it off with a sharp comment, but normality, she'd discovered, was suspended on ferryboats. She found she was glad of the unexpected support, and the touch of the rough Scottish tweed jacket was reassuring.
The stranger held out the book she'd carried up on deck with her that morning in a futile attempt at distraction from the horrors of the sea-crossing to Crete.
"You dropped this in a puddle," he said, eyes narrowed against the wind, white teeth gleaming in a friendly grin. Good lord! The man appeared to be relishing the storm. His wet hair was plastered to his skull and seawater dripped from his nose, chin, and eyebrows, but no adverse weather conditions, Letty decided, could detract from the nobility of this young man's jutting features.
She focused woozily on her battered copy of Persuasion.
"I do apologise," she managed to reply politely through gritted teeth, "but I don't believe I know you?"
"You're quite right. We've never met," he admitted cheerfully.
"Then how . . .?"
"I opened your book and read the name on the front page. So—unless you've stolen this, you are the Laetitia Talbot who received it as a prize in the . . . what did it say? . . ." He flicked the volume open and read in a magisterial tone: "Good Conduct Award—Most Improved Pupil, at the Cambridge Academy for Girls in 1919. 'Improved,' eh? One is bound to speculate as to the less-than-perfect state of affairs that preceded the improvement. So, Miss Talbot, you must forgive me for saying—I feel I know who you are!"
He pressed on before she could protest: "A Sprightly Girl but a Romantic who has matured sufficiently to become an ardent reader of the divine Jane's ripest work—I'm judging by the general dog-eared condition of the book. A volume now rendered quite unreadable by Cretan seawater. I'm hoping you'll reject it with a gesture and say I may keep it. I've never actually read Persuasion, and I hear such good things . . ."
Amused by the teasing formality and enchanted by the striking good looks, Letty smiled for the first time in a very long day. "You may keep it . . . Mr. . . . er . . . Look—shall we consider ourselves introduced by the agency of the prescient Miss Austen?"
"Splendid! I think she'd be amused. And that's the way I shall tell it if anyone asks. My name's Charles St. George Russell. My father is Theodore Russell. At present resident in Herakleion."
He enjoyed her surprise at his announcement and the recognition of his name. "Yes, Laetitia, that Russell. And I'm guessing you are the Miss Talbot who is to be our guest at the Villa Europa . . . if we ever make it into port . . ."
"Gosh! How do you do? You'll have to excuse my trembling—I've never met a saint before."
"Friends just call me George," he answered easily. "I was born on the twenty-third of April so—naturally—named after the patron saint of Cretan shepherds. But we weren't expecting you until next week, Miss Talbot, surely? Do I have that wrong? Look here—I'm about to have a most spectacular motorcar unloaded. It's had quite a journey from Paris via Marseille and Athens, and when we arrive I shall have to spend a good hour or so shouting at crane operators while they swing her onto the dock in a net. You're welcome to wait for me while I do this and, assuming I can start her, I'll be delighted to run you up to the villa in splendour and state."
He considered her bedraggled state for a moment, then: "Look here—common sense and courtesy urge me to recommend you turn down my harebrained suggestion and allow me to put you in a taxi.
The city does now boast a taxi."
Letty quickly weighed her options. "I'd be delighted to accept your offer of a lift. In fact, I'll stand by with a screwdriver while you get your motorcar started. I've quite a useful pair of hands," she said, extending them for inspection, wet and shaking with cold. "Oh, dear! Not impressive! I couldn't do up my shoelaces with these! The weather was so clear in Athens—hot, sunny, calm . . . I couldn't wait to get to Crete! I telegraphed your father with my change of plans and took the first ferry of the sailing season. I think even careful old Jason might have thought it safe to venture forth in the last week of March, with or without his Argonauts. And, quite obviously, you didn't mind risking the wrath of Poseidon, Mr. Russell . . . George."
"Nothing is ever predictable in this part of the world, you'll find. I take it this is the first time you've ventured out onto the Aegean, Laetitia? Yes? Well, the first thing you must know is that those coloured postcards you buy in Athens are quite misleading. It's not always an improbably blue sky over a calm, turquoise, mermaid-infested sea. . . ."
She had noticed George Russell earlier. Several times from embarkation onwards her gaze had been drawn to him. A good head taller than herself, he had—remarkably—the same colouring as her own: light complexion darkened by a Mediterranean sun, grey eyes, and fair hair worn rather long. Earlier she had even toyed with the idea of standing close to him at the rail in the distant hope that someone would take them for brother and sister, and a laughing introduction might well have ensued. A friendship could have blossomed under the Greek sun, gazing out over the wine-dark sea, she had thought whimsically.
She had not for once followed her impulses, however, contenting herself instead with admiring him from a distance, embarrassed to meet his eye, edging around him with the odd sideways glance she might have cast at the statue of the naked sea god she'd covertly admired in the Athens museum. And now, thanks to a discarded book, here she was, arm in arm and chatting comfortably with this heroic figure. She wished she could have cut a better dash herself. In her getup, consisting of dripping canvas motoring coat thrown on over shirt and trousers, she surely presented a far from glamorous image. She was conscious of her squelching tennis shoes and, crowning all, the damp fastenings of her brother's old leather flying helmet dangling with inelegant insouciance, dripping water down her neck.
George Russell must have caught her thought or perhaps a betraying twitch of her hand towards the helmet. "It's very becoming!" he assured her. "I took you for a Sylkie—shining round head and enormous eyes . . . you look quite like a wet seal."
"But it was the bristly moustache that really impressed you?"
They laughed together and she allowed him to draw her forward to the prow of the boat. There he braced himself, nose to the wind, looking out eagerly towards the island as they cut their way through the still turbulent waves.
"Ah! The wind's gone about . . . we won't have a problem getting into port," he said. "And here you are, Laetitia—your home for the next season."
Letty stared, speechless, struck dumb by the wild beauty of the scene, wishing she could paint. It would take a Turner, she decided, to record on canvas the unearthly quality of the slanting light piercing through the storm clouds now fleeing, ragged, before the wind; to choose just the colours to conjure up the intermingling of sea, sky, and spray: Tyrian purple, jade, steel grey, and flashing silver. In the far distance, beyond the huddle of the Venetian harbour, adding the element of earth to the kaleidoscope, sprawled a range of mountains, their summits, still snow-covered, catching the sun and lighting up white as swans' wings.
They gazed on in companionable silence, not even attempting by an exclamation to comment on the lavish display. When Laetitia found her voice, she was mortified to hear the flat, Baedeker tone of her comment: "We're much closer than I had expected," she said. "I can make out Herakleion clearly now."
"Herakleion? Ah, yes. Forgive me. I always think of it by its old name. Candia."
Laetitia felt herself corrected and, in a strange way, excluded from his communion with the old seaport. "You'll find the town very foreign," he went on. "By that I mean—very un-Greek. It carries the stamp of centuries of conquerors—Venetian . . . Turkish . . . There's the fortress guarding the harbour entrance. The ferry must go a little farther beyond the harbour—it's too small to take larger vessels. And those high arched structures just beyond the inner docks, do you see them? . . . The Venetian arsenal. The boatyards."
She looked and admired the cluster of white, red-roofed houses crammed in picturesque disorder within the fortifications. But her eye was drawn beyond, caught by a shape looming between the town and a farther, higher mountain range. "George—tell me—what is that hill—mountain?—the one with the extraordinary shape over there?" She pointed.
"Ah! That's Mount Juktas. The mountain sacred to the king of the gods, to Zeus. He was born here on Crete, you know. In a cave on Mount Dicte. I must take you to call on him. Can you ride a donkey?"
Letty smiled to hear him speak so familiarly about the deity who was clearly on his calling list, a valued acquaintance.
"Now keep your eyes fixed on old Juktas," he continued. "I want you to turn your head slightly sideways, Laetitia . . . No, like this . . ." He put a gentle hand under her chin. "Look again at the shape of the mountain and tell me what you see. Here comes the sun, on cue! It's beautifully backlit! You must see it!"
Letty gasped. "Yes, I do! I can see a silhouette. The outline of a man . . . or is he a god? Look—he's lying down . . . his head's over there." She laughed in delight. "He has a jutting beard . . . like an Achaean warrior!"
George Russell smiled and nodded. "And, of course, as you've guessed—that's Zeus himself. Laid out on a marble slab, perhaps? Dead, at any rate. It's said his tomb lies somewhere at the foot of the mountain."
"His tomb? George, what are you saying? Zeus is an immortal god and the gods don't die!"
"If they can be born, they can surely die?" He shivered and put up the collar of his jacket. "It's a beautiful but blood-soaked soil you're about to step onto, Laetitia Talbot. On Crete, even the gods may die."
The light was beginning to fail and oil lamps were being lit in the houses as they threaded their way, headlights blazing, horn honking, scattering alarmed men and beasts off the road before them.
"They haven't seen a Bugatti two-seater sports-tourer before, I'd guess," Letty shouted over the motor's roar. "Not sure I have myself, I now confess. Certainly never ridden in one."
"Really? But you seemed to know your way about the engine!"
"I think they're all pretty much alike. Carburettors all seem to flood in the same way. I say, the next bit looks rather narrow . . . are you sure about this?"
"I know these alleyways to the inch. Built with enough room for two laden mules to pass each other. I chose the smallest, toughest car I could find. We should scrape through. Curses! That wasn't there last time! Excuse me a moment."
Leaving the car idling, George Russell climbed out and in fluent Greek apologised to the wizened lady whose display of oranges he had knocked over, gathering them back up into a pile and passing her a coin or two. He paused to exchange news with her, said something that made her roll about in a fit of giggling, then dallied longer to pay court to her ginger cat when it came to twine about his ankles. Through her impatience to be off, Letty noticed that the woman, clothed from head to foot in black, smiled at him as though he'd done her a great kindness, and when Letty turned her head as they started up again, it was to see her, still beaming, making a blessing sign after George's retreating back.
"Here you are, Laetitia," he said, tossing a large orange onto her lap. "Your first! The orange and lemon harvest has just started."
"I've never seen one with its leaves on, freshly tugged from the tree!" she exclaimed, delighted with the simple gift. She dug her fingernails into the rough skin and inhaled the scented oils that burst from it. "Delicious! I shall have it for breakfast."
"Breakfast! I don't know what you've become accustomed to in Athens but don't expect the typical British spread, will you? My father takes quite a pride in living a Cretan life. He keeps a Cretan cook, too. Breakfasts tend to be a bit sketchy at the Villa Europa. It'll be homemade yogurt, delicious bread, fruit, of course, and I can promise that the coffee will be good. That's one habit Father won't give up easily. Only a few more yards to go. It's the rather grand house on the corner."