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First Place: A Letter from Jean Fouquet


"A Letter from Jean Fouquet" by E.L. Johnson in First Place. love letter with rose


A Letter From Jean Fouquet

by E.L. Johnson

First Place


London, England, 1923

The Northern Line


A girl had left a book on the train.

Henrietta Harcourt, of the Hertfordshire Harcourts, put down her library book and glanced over. The girl was dressed ordinarily enough and had been unremarkable. But she’d left her book on the seat. If anyone had noticed, they didn’t care.

Henrietta lowered her book and put it in her pocketbook. Her novel, The Hounds of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was gripping, but something made her pause. She looked around. People stood and sat, chatting amongst themselves.

The train rumbled along the tracks underground, and she glanced up. A recorded voice spoke on a loudspeaker, “Camden Town station will be the next stop.”

She rose from her seat.

It was after seven in the evening and not many people were still on the train. A young man sat beside the empty seat with the book on it.

After a few seconds’ indecision, she moved to the center of the aisle and picked up the book. The young man gave her a questioning look as she took it and slipped it under her arm, then walked out of the tube car.

Putting the book in her pocketbook and tugging her long coat around her as if she were hiding a secret, she walked up the steps and rode the escalator up to the station entrance and exit of Camden Town, relieved to feel the cool evening breeze on her face.

Once safely home in her flat on Crowndale road, she said hello to her flatmates Suzy and Mildred, went to her room to change, and closed the door. Her room was simple, sparse, even spartan, but it was home, and it was hers.

Since she’d moved away from her parents’ home in Queenhoo, Hertfordshire, she had craved her independence. London during the Great War was hard, and yet the city bustled, even more so now that the men were back. But the fresh-faced boys who had gone to war had come back broken, hurt, mangled. Many young men were invalids and missing limbs. The youth of 1914 had come back damaged, in more ways than one. It was now not uncommon to see a young man on the street, standing in orderly queues for bread.

But the city itself was bustling, and she loved it. She had her independence, even if it meant she worked at the makeup counter at Harrod’s in Knightsbridge seven days a week and had to watch her shillings and pence.

This book was the most exciting thing to happen to her in ages. She wasn’t a wild creature, far from it. But some impulsion had made her take the book, this piece of literature that didn’t belong to her. Faced with it alone in her room, it seemed as though she was the caretaker of a great secret. What would it reveal?

She crossed the room, turned on a light, removed her coat, and opened her pocketbook. She took the book out and examined it. It was an art history book, from Tottenham Court Road Town Library.

She opened the spine and out tumbled a letter. It was folded up and on fresh paper. She glanced at the book’s pages and read. The letter had been used as a bookmark of some art history book. She closed the book and picked up the letter. Within seconds of reading, she tensed.

It was a love letter.

It was addressed to no one in particular. It read,


Dearest,

It has been too long since we saw each other. I miss the sight of you. Meet me at Aldwych Station at 8 pm next Monday. Don’t be late, and remember to bring three shillings.

Love

Jean Fouquet


Henrietta put down the letter. It was none of her business. And yet, something didn’t sit right with her. The letter was odd. She sat down on her pink bed’s coverlet and thought about it.

“Suzy,” Henrietta called.

A minute later there was a quiet knock on her door. It opened up to reveal a young woman in her twenties, with brassy blonde hair, cut short in a fashionable style. “You rang?” She shot Henrietta a cheeky grin.

“Come here,” Henrietta patted a spot on the bed next to her and handed her the letter. “What do you make of this?”

“Ooh, what’s this? A love letter? I didn’t know you had a beau,” Suzy said, sitting down beside her. She began reading and her face grew curious. A moment later she put down the letter. “Hen, is this a joke?”

“What do you mean?” Henrietta asked.

“Do you know who wrote you this letter?” Suzy asked.

“No, I found it in a book a girl had left on a train. Why?”

“Because Jean Fouquet is a painter. And he’s been dead for four hundred years,” Suzy said.

Henrietta stared at her flatmate.

Suzy picked up the book. “You say you found the letter in here?”

“Yes.”

Suzy opened the book up to the binding and found the pages where the letter had been stuck in. “Look at this, Hen. Here’s your letter writer.”

The pages were of pictures of French paintings, with a page mentioning great Renaissance painters, like Didier Barra, Simon Marmion, Jean Fouquet, Marc Duval, and more.

Henrietta scratched her head. Who was the recipient, and why was she receiving love letters from a dead Renaissance painter?

“Are you going to return the book?” Suzy asked.

“I don’t know. I think so. I think I have to. It’s a letter to some girl.”

“But it’s clearly fake. It’s from a dead artist. What if you go to return the book and you meet a man who kills you?” Suzy asked.

Henrietta’s friend always had a flair for dramatics. “I’ll be fine. Besides, there’s no way I’m going to that meeting. It’s between lovers. I’ll just go return the book to the library, and that’ll be the end of it.”

“If you say so,” Suzy said. “But I’d throw that thing in the nearest bin. I wouldn’t have picked it up in the first place. It’s like out of a Sherlock Holmes novel.”

The next day was Saturday. Henrietta had read the letter again and wrapped it in tissue paper, along with the letter folded and put back in its place among the pages. The entire business was odd, but she decided to leave it. She dutifully took the tube to Tottenham Court Road and eventually found the library.

But when she went to return the book, the librarian examined it and said, “Oh that’s not one of ours. Not anymore, anyway. A person bought it years ago at a book sale.”

Confused, Henrietta left the library and re-read the letter. Why was she to bring three shillings? It felt like a clue somehow.

After work on Monday, she took the tube after work, got a quick dinner and by the time 8 o’clock rolled around, she stood outside Aldwych station. It was busy, and with men and women entering and leaving, she had no idea who she was looking for.

What if the woman was a crook? A thief, meant to steal a priceless painting and only used the names of dead painters as clues? She shivered. What if it really was a love letter between a woman and a man named Jean, who just happened to have bad luck to be named after a dead Renaissance painter? What if…

On a whim, she opened her pocketbook and took out the book. She held it to her side where it could be plainly seen.

Within a minute, a man approached her. “Dearest?” he asked.

She looked at him. The speaker, a young man of about twenty, stood thin and taller than her and with a stiff military bearing. But he had no right arm. Instead, a flap of his sleeve had been pinned down.

She didn’t know how to react and tried not to stare. “Um, I’m sorry, I found this letter in a book. A girl left it on a train and….”

“Dearest,” he said and hugged her. He smelled like tobacco.

She stiffened and said, “What are you doi–”

“Did you bring the three shillings?” the man’s voice, comfortably English, asked as he released her.

“Yes,” she spoke more confidently. “Jean? Jean Fouquet?”

He nodded and smiled at her. “Come with me,” he said and led the way.

She followed him, book in hand, as he led her across the road, and on the side of an abandoned pub, unlocked and opened a set of side doors that led underground.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

He stopped. “Do you not want to see?”

“See what?”

He smiled and tapped his nose. “Buried treasure.”

“But it’s dark. And it’s nighttime. And I don’t know you.” she fretted, holding the book and her pocketbook against her side as if to ward off danger.

“Miss, you found the book. You read the letter. Don’t you want to see what’s buried beneath?” he asked.

“Is your name really Jean?”

He didn’t answer and instead held out his good hand to her.

She breathed in. This was a man she didn’t know, had never met before, and whilst he seemed perfectly nice, what was she doing stepping into the side door of an abandoned pub at night with a stranger? A very pleasant stranger, but still.

She put the book in her pocketbook and took his hand. He smiled and took her hand gently, and tugged her down the first step. “Mind your footing, the steps are steep.”

He led her down into a well-lit tunnel full of old empty barrels. Once they stood at the bottom of the steps he lit a lantern and whistled, and the pub doors closed behind them.

At the sound of the squeal and screech of metal, as they locked by someone unknown, Henrietta felt a chill run down her spine.

They were alone. The lantern burned merrily as he dropped her hand and led the way.

She followed him through the narrow tunnel until they came to a metal door. He knocked three times, the knocks ringing and sounding loud in the quiet. He turned to her. “You have the shillings?”

“Oh, yes.” She rummaged in her pocketbook and handed him the coins.

“Jolly good.” He pocketed them and the door opened. He stepped aside. “After you, miss.”

She walked ahead and stopped. “Oh my goodness.”

She stood in a gallery of wonders.

The walls were covered with framed fine paintings. Heavy metal shelving housed canopic jars from ancient mummies, suits of medieval armor, longswords, pikes and halberds stood at attention in one corner, and early eighteenth-century silver, pewter tea and dinner sets sat on another shelf as if awaiting someone to come by and drink.

It was a grand hall, and yet somehow gave the sense of being only half-filled. “What is all this?” she asked.

“It’s our little gallery,” Jean said with pride.

“But these paintings… I’ve seen some of these in the National Gallery,” she pointed out.

“What you see there is a replica. A fake,” he told her.

“What?”

“The original is here.” He stood beside her, nodded to two other soldiers. The men weren’t wearing their uniforms but she could tell by their bearing. One man was missing a leg and stood on crutches, the other looked perfectly fine, but had a haunted look in his eye. They all did.

“Then the paintings here…” she wondered, “You stole them?”

“No. We housed them. We are the keepers of the originals,” Jean told her.

“Why? Does the national gallery know about this?”

“Some of the staff do. Those who are English anyway, and can be trusted.” He looked at her. “During the war, many galleries were looted, and priceless paintings and artefacts stolen. Once we knew what was happening, we reconnoitered this place, and began filling it with paintings the War department judged too valuable to lose. This week we are showing French Renaissance painters, they’ve just come in from Paris.”

“Then your name isn’t really Jean,” she said.

He grinned and winked at her. “Oliver. You can call me Olly if you like.”

She smiled in spite of herself. “But this isn’t right, the people who visit the galleries don’t know that what they’re looking at are fakes. You’re fooling these people.”

He shrugged. “The National Gallery is free, so it’s not like we’re harming anyone. Besides, would you rather we house the real paintings in the gallery, and then wait for the next invading army to help themselves?”

“No, but neither do I think it right that you’re hiding these away in secret. It feels wrong.”

“Miss, we’re doing this on order of the British government. It’s higher men than us that make these decisions. We’re just acting on orders,” Olly said.

“And that’s your excuse? Just acting on orders?”

Olly tensed, alarmed at seeing this is not how he expected the conversation to go.. “Rupert?”

The man with no outward injuries walked forward and gave her a nod. “Miss, shall we walk together a little? I might show you some of the antiquities we have here.”

She frowned. “All right, but I do no like it.”

He gave her a sidelong glance, and held out an arm for her to take, as if escorting her to a dance. She took it and felt a blush come to her cheeks. She was the only woman here, and the man treated her with the same air as if they were courting. It was the most attention she’d gotten in weeks, and she felt flattered, a little.

She said, “And just who are you?”

“Captain Rupert Flint. I fought in the battle of the Somme,” he voice was dull.

“And what do you do here, Captain Flint?”

“I look after these paintings, and with those two officers over there, we make sure they’re safe. I agree with you, it’s not right we’re hiding these away from the public, but it’s only a temporary measure.”

“The war is over, can’t they go back to their proper place?” she asked.

“Yes, and some have. But there are grumblings in parliament that this rise of fascism is dangerous. The war may have ended, but that doesn’t mean the aggression is over. That is why we’ve received instructions to house a few of these here, still.”

“For how long?”

“Until our higher-ups believe it is safe. Then we’ll be out of jobs, I suppose.” He spoke with a quiet, dignified air as if he’d been raised and educated at Oxford or Cambridge.

Rupert’s soothing voice was so pleasant, she rather thought she could listen to him talk all day. And yet he seemed distracted as if his mind was elsewhere. Back out on the battlefield, perhaps.

She said, “Would you tell me about this one? It looks very beautiful.”

They stood in front of a small painting on wood, only three feet tall thereabouts. “Ah, the Melun Triptych. It’s the ‘Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels’, although supposedly the woman standing in for the madonna is Charles VII’s mistress.” He grinned.

“Oh.”

Rupert laughed. “We received this and a few others of his this week.”

“Is that why you had that girl leave the letter in the book on the train? Or was it your sweetheart?”

He lowered his arm and faced her, his young face solemn. “I have no sweetheart, miss. That letter is our little invitation, for inquisitive souls to come visit our gallery. The letter you read is the clue to our buried treasure, so to speak.”

“I see.” She walked along a little more, observing the paintings. “That’s quite clever, you know.”

“We thought so.”

The rumbling sound of tube trains could be heard. It was noisy and loud. “I know we are across the street from Aldwych Station, but that is very loud.” Henrietta said.

“We’re connected to it, miss,” Rupert told her.

“What do you mean?”

“The tunnel brought us back across the street. You’re standing beneath Aldwych station,” Rupert said.

“I am?”

He nodded.

“Why?”

“The pub back where you came from will be used again in time. But beneath the station, they’ll be safe,” he said.

“So what is this place?”

“A sort of underground bunker. During the war it was used as an air raid shelter, then it became closed off once the war ended. Now we use it as an underground storage container for art.”

“An underground art gallery,” she said.

“And museum. The government figured that if the opposing armies attack us again with their bombs, they won’t attack somewhere like Aldwych. They’ll go for the national landmarks, like the British Museum, Parliament.”

“And the National Gallery,” she finished.

“Exactly. So we’re here. Gives us a chance to be together, each make a shilling and appreciate some art.” Rupert smiled.

“What about the noise, from the tube cars? Won’t that disturb you?” She had heard of men returning from the front, with horrible nightmares and paranoia, linked to their time fighting in the trenches.

“Some. We’re okay, for now. If that changes, we’ll find another man to step in. There’s always a good man to be had,” Rupert said.

She paused in front of another Renaissance painting. “Who painted this one?”

It was a fetching portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots. Her milky pale skin, reddish hair, long sloping nose, and narrowed eyes gave her an enigmatic look that Henrietta liked.

“That was painted by Francois Clouet,” Rupert told her, “a French painter in the 1500s who liked to paint portraits of the ruling families.”

They spent an hour looking at the paintings and chatting. When she had filled her eyes and seen enough art to satisfy her, she turned to Rupert. “Thank you for the tour. But, um, what happens now?”

He exchanged a glance with the other men. “Now, miss, we’d like you to pass the invitation along.”

“Me?” she squeaked.

“If you wouldn’t mind. We always open on Monday evenings, and sign the letters in the name of the artist. Our little clue.”

“Oh. But I’m the only one here. Do you have other people come?”

“Not always. Sometimes girls come looking to meet a fellow, or a man comes looking for trouble. Some people never pick up the books at all. And then we have some who do find the book and letter, and come looking for answers, like yourself.”

She smiled. “Well, that was a nice bit of mystery.”

She thanked the men and was escorted through a different exit, that led to some side stairs up and emptied onto the main street. It was dark and she knew it was getting late. When she got her bearings, she realized she was standing at the back of the station.

“How very odd,” she mused.

That night at home in her flat, she took out the book and penned a letter. In her graceful writing, she wrote:


Dearest,

It has been too long since we saw each other. I miss the sight of you. Meet me at Aldwych Station at 8 pm next Monday. Don’t be late, and remember to bring three shillings.

Love,

Francois Clouet


She folded the letter, stuck it in the book in the same pages, and put it in her pocketbook.

The next day, she left the book on the train.



Historical note

Aldwych Station exists but since 1994, has no longer been in use. It was apparently used during WWII as an underground bomb shelter for Londoners. Today you can hire tours to visit it, although perhaps not visit it after dark.

 



Winning pieces are published as received.

 
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Fiction Potluck

January 2024

First Place Winner:


E.L. Johnson

E.L. Johnson writes historical mysteries for Dragonblade Publishing, the #1 ebook publisher of Historical Romance on Amazon. A Boston native, she gave up clam chowder and lobster rolls for tea and scones when she moved across the pond to London, where she studied medieval magic at UCL and 16th-century remedies at Birkbeck College. Now based in Hertfordshire, she is a member of the Hertford Writers’ Circle and the founder of the London Seasonal Book Club. She was a reader for the 2023 George Orwell Youth Prize and has given expert comment to national news outlets on creative writing and historical fiction.

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