June 8, 1691
11 Sivan of the Hebrew year 5451
Let me begin afresh. Perhaps, this time, to tell the truth. For in the biting hush of ink on paper, where truth ought raise its head and speak without fear, I have long lied.
I have naught to defend my actions. Yet though my heart feels no remorse, my deeds would confess themselves to paper now, as the least of tributes to him whom I once betrayed.
In this silenced house, quill and ink do not resist the press of my hand, and paper does not flinch. Let these pages compass, at last, the truth, though none read them.
She sat at her desk.
It was a fine afternoon, but the cold sunshine beyond her office window oppressed her. In younger days, she might have ventured out, hoping against reason for warmth.
Hope against reason: an opiate she’d long abandoned.
Slowly she sifted the volumes on her desk. A dusty bilingual edition of Usque’s Consolação lay open. She ran the pad of one finger down a page, before carefully shutting the book.
Half past one ?— ?and the American hadn’t so much as telephoned. A lack of professionalism incompatible with a finding of this magnitude. Yet Darcy had said the American was his most talented postgraduate ?— ?and Darcy, perhaps alone among her colleagues, was to be trusted.
“Levy can help with the documents,” Darcy had said over the phone. “Glad to lend him to you for a bit. He’s amusingly ambitious, in the American sort of way. Thinks history can change the world. But even you should be able to tolerate it for three days.”
Recalling, Helen almost chuckled. Even you. Good for Darcy. He, evidently, still thought Helen someone worth standing up to.
Three days, of course, was nowhere near the time required to make a true assessment. But it was something ?— ?far more time, in fact, than Helen had any right to. Only the Eastons’ ignorance of the usual protocols had prevented them from laughing her out of their house when she’d announced that she required further access to the documents. She’d dared ask no more, sitting there at the dark wooden table opposite Ian and Bridgette Easton ?— ?the sun from the windows lying heavily aslant the couple’s manicured hands, the towering mullioned windows casting bars of shadow and diamonds of light?.?.?. and Helen’s own thoughts tumbling from what she’d just glimpsed.
Consultations like yesterday’s weren’t unheard of, of course; people sometimes turned up old papers in their attics or at the bottom of handed-down trunks, and if they didn’t think to call an antiquities council they contacted the university and asked for the history faculty. Yesterday’s caller, though, had asked specifically for Helen Watt. Ian Easton: the name had meant nothing to Helen, though he said he’d been her student once, years ago.
“You see” ?— ?Easton’s manner over the telephone was apologetic ?— ?“my wife inherited a property from her aunt ?— ?a house dating to the late seventeenth century. Our plan all along has been to renovate, then open a gallery in the house. Of course it’s all my wife’s idea ?— ?she’s the one with the aesthetic sense, not me, and she understood right away what could be done by juxtaposing high modern art with those seventeenth-century rooms. Unfortunately, though” ?— ?Easton paused, then continued carefully ?— ?“there have been delays. Two years’ worth, in fact. Consent to renovate a listed building is hard to come by in the best of cases” ?— ?an uncomfortable chuckle as he hastened not to offend ?— ?“not that the local planning authority’s caution is inappropriate, of course. The conservation officers are only doing their job. But, rather inconveniently, it seems my wife’s late aunt spent decades offending members of every historical preservation group in the vicinity. Now that we’ve finally obtained all the requisite permissions, we’ve had an electrician open a space under the old carved staircase to put in wiring. And the fellow quit work after fifteen minutes. Called me over to say he’d found a stash of papers in Arabic and the building ought to be checked for hideaway imams or maybe terrorists, all the same to him, in any case he’d be off to another job till I sorted it. Seems he didn’t notice that the papers he found are dated more than three hundred years ago. I had a look, and I think the lettering might in fact be Hebrew ?— ?there’s something, I think it’s Spanish, addressed to a rabbi. So?.?.?.” Ian Easton’s voice trailed off awkwardly. “So,” he added, “I’m calling.”
Telephone cradled to her cheek, Helen had let the pause lengthen. She considered the file open on her computer, the cursor blinking endlessly as it had the past hour, midway through a paragraph she’d no taste for. She couldn’t remember ever feeling dull about her work. But this was how it was lately: things that had once felt vibrant were draining from her ?— ?and, now and then, other sparks had begun appearing in her mind as though thrown up by hammer blows. Flashes of memory, riveting ?— ?the soft thump of a shed door closing in the desert heat, smells filling her nostrils for a dizzying instant. Sparks extinguishing, thank heaven, before they could catch.
She’d straightened a low stack of books. “Perhaps Monday,” she said.
“Thing is” ?— ?Ian Easton’s voice attained a slightly more anxious pitch ?— ?“I wonder if you might come today. We’ve had quite a time getting this electrician, and we don’t want him to take another job. And the papers seem fragile, I’ve felt I shouldn’t move them.”
In truth, she knew she could afford a few hours. She’d barely progressed in her writing all day, and this paper she was writing was mere cleanup work, something she’d promised herself to finish before retirement. A summation of the sparse facts known about the dispersal of the London Jewish community during the 1665–66 plague ?— ?their imported rabbi fleeing England the moment the pestilence set in; wealthy congregants escaping to the countryside; then little trace of London’s Jews in the city’s records until the community re-formed a few years later under new leadership. She’d not be sorry to leave the work behind for an afternoon.
Still she’d hesitated, interrogating Ian Easton for further details of the history of the house. When at last she acquiesced to his request, it was in a tone certain not to encourage romantic fantasies regarding some collection of old papers under his stair.
A brief drive to Richmond to check out some papers, then. She’d undertaken it with a dim sense that this was something she ought to be doing at this stage: get herself out and about on a clear day, while...