91. Isle Marbeau

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I wanted to step back, run away, anything, but Mr Ambrose's hand closed around my arm like a vice, holding me in place.

"Don't move!" His voice was barely audible. "We're wearing our uniforms. He might take us for one of theirs!"

Slowly, the man started forward again. His eyes travelled from me to Mr Ambrose, and back again. Finally, he bowed.

Bowed? To us?

"Bonjour, Messieurs," he proclaimed. "Puis-je vous offrir un verre de limonade glacée?"

I swallowed, convulsively.

"What is he saying?" I whispered. "Is he telling us that we are going to get shot?"

"No. He is asking whether we want a glass of iced lemonade."

"What?" I stared in the man, at a loss. Only now did I notice that he was wearing a white waiter's jacket. "What does he mean?"

"He means to offer us a drink," Mr Ambrose told me coolly, as if he had expected all along to be greeted in Lord Dalgliesh's secret abode of evil by waiters wielding glasses of lemonade. He turned to the man in the white jacket. "Non, merci. Je suis assez frais comme ça."

This, whatever it meant, didn't seem to deter the fellow. He smiled a broad smile under his pointy moustache and gave another bow. "Une tasse de café, peut-être? Ou un repas léger? Messieurs, vous avez l'air un peu pâle."

"Non. Mais pourriez-vous nous indiquer le bâtiment principal? Il semblerait que nous avons perdu notre chemin."

The waiter beamed, and bowed once more. "Bien sûr, Monsieur. Suivez-moi, s'il vous plaît."

And he marched off.

"What did you say to him?" I demanded.

"I asked him to direct us to the main building." Mr Ambrose set off after the waiter with long, determined strides that didn't give a hint of his having been cooped up in a wooden crate for most of the night. I hobbled after him, cursing my burning and itching muscles.

"The main building to what?"

"I have no idea, Mr Linton. I've never been here, remember?"

"But that means this fellow could be leading us right into Lord Dalgliesh's headquarters!"

"I doubt that will happen. Not unless Lord Dalgliesh has started using French waiters to guard his perimeter, which I consider a remote possibility."

We followed the mysterious waiter along a path thickly lined with ferns, trees and other flora, down a gently sloping hill. The trees were of a rugged beauty – maltreated so hard by the ceaseless wind blowing in from the sea that they were almost bent double, but still stubbornly standing. They were grouped so closely that we could not see anything on either side of the path for some time. Yet suddenly, the flora retreated, and I looked on a sight such as I had never seen before. A horror beyond all the horrors I could have imagined seeing in this stronghold of evil. A terrified gasp escaped my mouth.

"That... can't be!" I whispered.

Mr Ambrose looked on the spectacle for a moment, then nodded gravely. "Yes. Here, in foreign countries, such practices are not considered... reproachable."

"But... they are doing it together! Everyone, in plain sight of each other."

"Yes. As I said, you are in England no longer, Mr Linton."

Wide-eyed, I gazed down onto the beach in front of us, where multitudes of people were laughing, running about, and swimming in the water. People of both sexes! Very well I remembered the bathing places in England, where, when women wanted to bathe, they did it in the confines of a bathing machine – a marvellous contraption in the form of a horse-drawn carriage without a bottom which was pulled into the sea and protected you from all prying eyes. Here, in the country of baguettes and revolutions, women seemed to have no inhibitions about letting the men see them in their swimwear. Moreover, unlike in England, this swimwear did not consist of several heavy, knee-length gowns and a giant hat, under which the woman could hardly be detected. Not only were the feet, calves and knees – yes, knees! – of every female on the beach clearly visible, so was pretty much everything else up to an area which in England, ladies wouldn't even have thought of, much less dared to mention!

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