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Temps Perdu

Chapter Text

The grey of the mid-afternoon sky casts a pall over one of London’s more fashionable streets.

A row of stately terraces marches down one side of the road, standing guard behind black wrought iron fences, their off-white façades subdued in the overcast weather.

Light traffic passes to and fro before the houses, though few people walk the streets; this is a private area, after all. Across the street, a swath of green marks a small park meant for the enjoyment of the residents; beyond that, another row of terraces closes ranks around the other side of the park.

Almost a self-contained world, this square marks an outpost of the well-heeled and comfortable, the cream of society. None here would have a care for their next crust of bread, or worry how to produce a coin to pay their debts, or find a need to avoid various harrassments by the authorities.

However, that should not be interpreted as life never imposing its vicissitudes upon the denizens of this world.

The door to one of the terraces opens, and a curly-haired figure strides out.

And thus our tale begins.

###

Raymond Doyle stormed out the door, a large, thin portfolio case in hand, a scowl on his face. Glancing up, he noticed that the skies were overcast, a downpour seemingly imminent, and he was too rushed to head back in for an umbrella.

Another bloody day. Add another to the stack of unfinished works.

Raymond Doyle was an artist - to be more specific, a portraitist. He could fashion a more-than-passable landscape, and had once tried his hand at the impressionist style currently raging in the more artistic quarters, just to see what the fuss was about - but it was in portraiture, the capturing of the details of a human life, that his fame had come about.

And true fame he had, and in his lifetime, though it had been hard won.

For Raymond Doyle was a man of means, earned the hard way: through years of trial and struggle belied by his youthful age. As a child, he had spent time doodling rough drawings; it was Matron Pierce’s sharp eye - not to mention the trustees’ connections and attempts to showcase the borstal whose gates enclosed his world - which had recognized the potential and steered it in the proper direction. It had caused him no end of trouble with the other boys, true, and self-defence was a constant; but given a focus on his talent and the time to develop it, he was able to fight his way out of reform school and into an art college, following a twisted road to the top of his profession, to a point where he was now called upon to capture the likenesses of royalty and leaders, princes and prime ministers.

It had been a long, difficult battle, and a lesser man might have stumbled along the way; but Raymond Doyle was no lesser man. Once he began to see the lay of the land, he’d worked hard to round out his talent with strategic moves, and a sense of discretion, which had put those he’d interacted with at ease and thus opened doors to places and situations he’d otherwise never would have dreamed of. That, as much as his talent, had made him into a success.

Recently, however, he had found himself – not quite at odds, but somehow restless. True, he was renowned, active and young - at his peak really; but somehow it was no longer sufficient. He’d find himself seated before his canvases, his mind void of ideas. Numerous sketches lay on his drawing table, abandoned half completed. His daily constitutional around the park, and his healthful menus no longer provided the energy they once had. Invitations from various friends and acquaintances lay unopened upon his sideboard. His agent, Sydney Edgerstoune, perhaps aware of the danger to his own heretofore significant means of livelihood, made numerous suggestions at diversions and distractions, to get his artist’s creativity flowing once again; however, this only served to irritate Doyle, to the point that he found himself actively avoiding the man's messages and his tread upon Doyle's stair.

The ennui - if that was indeed what it was - wasn’t due to any lack of romantic partners, either. Quite the contrary: Doyle had no deficit in that department, and was limited only by his own personal scruples (no matrimonial connections, no force). No prude, he had always been quite open to experimentation with his partners, almost all female, although with a certain amount of discretion.

He had even been engaged once, gloriously but briefly, to an Ann Holly - a woman of beauty, intelligence, and a suitable class; they had made a wonderful time of it, until they had mutually established that permanently keeping company together would not work as a life plan. They had parted in what he considered a thoroughly amicable fashion, and still saw each other at the occasional gathering, but had had no contact since the event.

But for whatever the reason, Doyle was stuck; well and truly stuck. At first unaware, Sydney had pressed on as usual to procure various commissions, but his artist was not able to execute on them. The requests accumulated like the unanswered calling cards on his sideboard as he somewhat uncharacteristically ignored them.

Doyle was well aware that this state of affairs could not last for an extended period; he had spent too much time and too much effort to get where he was not to realize how fleeting fame would be if not well-tended.

But he also realized that this was a quandary that only he could resolve.

He grimaced, and proceeded off down the street and out of the square.

###

The ballroom floor was packed with couples whirling to the strains of the latest music from the Continent, while those not inclined to dance the night away thronged the refreshments stands or stood off in pairs engaged in various conversations.

Doyle, whose presence at these types of affairs was a requirement of the job, stood to one side, free for an instant. He’d slipped out after Mrs. Everett had cornered him once again for a commission. An older American dowager, though one with plenty of funds, she had been targeting him for several months for the privilege of pointing to a Raymond Doyle original over her mantle. Doyle had been obliging to the point of being polite, but had remained noncommittal for the present. He imagined Syd would be proud that he hadn’t lost his temper at all.

Having escaped the lady in question by slipping out into the gardens, he had then carefully made his way back in, until he was secure behind a stand of potted palms.

He was aided in remaining undiscovered by the presence of several knots of observers stood before the palms, looking out over the crowds on the floor.

Two souls, whom he recognized as the Viscounts Peters and MacDonald from the House of Lords, stood just before him, only several feet away. He had no trouble making out their discussion.

“Best thing I ever did, old son. Came back rested and recharged. Even the Vicountess has remarked on my improved state of mind.” Peters’s deep voice sounded smug.

“And didn't I tell you?” MacDonald agreed in his distinctive tones. “I’m sure that she was quite satisfied with the results, as much as you. Travel is just the thing to clear the mind and free the soul. On what day did you return?”

“Friday last,” responded Peters. “My cousin returned a month earlier, but I was enjoying myself far too much. And now that several key votes are coming due in the House, who knows when the next chance will present itself?”

“A whole three months,” the Scotsman marvelled. “You were right to stay as long as possible. Your wife was also right – nothing like a change of scenery.”

A change of scenery, Doyle mused. Exactly the cure for whatever plague beset him. Someplace warm, different, maybe exotic – and definitely away from the staleness of his surroundings.

Might be just the thing.

###

"You want to what?”

“Not 'want to,' Syd. 'Going to.' As in leave. Travel.”

“And when is this, Doyle?” A look of forbearance across his face, Sydney Edgerstoune sounded like a man used to handling demands from a very headstrong artist.

“Monday next. Seemed an auspicious enough day. It will take me that long to get all my affairs in order.”

“That's in five days. You can't possibly leave then. You have the affair at the Bolivian embassy the following weekend, and the Prince's ball the weekend after that.”

“Already decided, Syd. You'll have to make my apologies.” Doyle was not perturbed in the least.

“At least stay for Mrs. Everett's tea on Tuesday. She could become one of your highest commissions this year.”

“Mrs. Everett will have to do without me. Look, Syd – I'm not producing anything now. We have commissions piling up. If I don't address that little fact, neither Mrs. Everett nor the rest of London society will be best pleased at all.”

Edgerstoune was momentarily deep in thought, weighing the evils of a missing artist against those of a non-productive one.

“At least tell me you'll be back within three months,” he eventually compromised.

“As soon as I'm able to paint again, I will come running back home to you.” Doyle grinned, a chipped tooth giving him a boyish mien.

“Good thing I know you, Doyle, else I might believe that.”

“Good thing I know you, Syd, otherwise I might believe you'd try to stop me.”

###

Doyle sat in the little sidewalk cafe at the third seat on the left – again! his sketch pad closed and an apéritif mostly untouched on the table before him – again! as the crowds surged by. It was chilly, it was dreary, and it was doing little to improve his mood. The garçon passed by on an occasional but regular basis, quietly sorting out whether l’Anglais needed anything. Usually Doyle gave him a steely look, enough to keep the man at bay, although he knew eventually he would need to order something or move on.

His impetuous adventure, which had so excited him only a week prior, seemed to have become an unmitigated disaster. Firstly, the weather was no better in Paris than it had been in London; it was either pouring, damp from a recent rain, or overcast with rain expected at any time. For such bad weather, however, Paris was still teeming with foreigners, most often British; he had to wonder if they didn't have the sense to stay out of the rain.

In addition, half the people he saw were the same people he would have seen anyway, had he just stayed in London. Again he had to bow and scrape and be polite enough to foster future commissions.

Sydney Edgerstoune, you are deeply indebted to me for this, he ruminated darkly. In an amount that you may never be able to repay.

And none of this had made an iota of difference in actually breaking his mood. The cotton sheets of his sketchpad, fresh from a small bookbinder on the Rue du Maupassant, remained virginal, pristine - in mocking silence of his condition.

He felt the condition was due more to the specifics of his surroundings than to his overall impulse. If only he could raise his face, close his eyes, and feel the warmth of the sun. Perhaps then its rays would heal his inner sight, so he could feel the emotion underlying his image’s subject, feel the surge of creation that would flow from his fingertips onto his medium! All he asked was to be so cured, and it had been so long since he'd felt that pure rush.

It had to return, if he were to be cured of this malady.

He knew it was still somewhere inside; it always had been a part of him. It just needed to be tempted back out...

Warmth.

Maybe that was the problem; he hadn't gotten far enough away. He would travel further, somewhere quiet, and seek the warmth.

South. I'll head south.

Thus decided, he tossed back the apéritif; then, grimacing slightly at the bitterness, gestured to the garçon for another.

###

A squeal rent the air, the carriage shuddered, and the great behemoth ground to a halt. The train had reached the end of the line.

Train travel was always a wonder to Doyle. While he understood the underlying mechanics, the act of entering the carriage in one world and emerging into a completely different world always fascinated him. He stepped out of the train car, a little fatigued from a night of restless anticipation but excited all the same, onto a bustling platform. Porters pushing luggage carts were interspersed with businessmen, and families, and youths making their grand tours; and the whole seething mass of humanity flowed towards the terminal. Swept up in the tide, he made his way forward amongst them.

Once he had threaded his way through the grandiosity of the main terminal hall and out onto a sizeable thoroughfare there was no sign of a conveyance from the small hotel at which he had made arrangements. Instead, he had a conveyance hired for him; and finally, at last, he was on his way to the little seaside resort at the end of his journey.

Finally clear of the station and securely into the final leg of his travels, Doyle at last had a chance to more thoroughly take in his surroundings.

It was a small town, a minor port on the Mediterranean; the tops of a few ships were just visible above the mass of buildings that the conveyance passed as it weaved its way through the streets. But that had been the point of his travels; to find a place where he could stay, incognito, without distractions, and spend a pleasant time rediscovering himself. The conveyance bumped along a moderately trafficked route which took them away from the centrally-located terminal in the main town, then down along a modest corniche to a shoreline, dotted with a few hotels and a small casino.

The sun, however, was hardly cooperating, having gone back behind a solid mass of clouds rolling in from over the sea. No matter, he thought, hardly fazed about the weather in the heady rush of the newness about him, it's only one day. Too far south for sunny days not to soon reappear.

A warm breeze wafted by and cocooned him in a welcoming hug. And that was enough for now.

Soon enough, the little conveyance was pulling into a circular drive lined with carefully maintained trees and shrubs, and slowing down before a small but tidy facade. It was his hotel.

Doyle entered from the grey day into the darker sanctum of the lobby, pausing to let his eyes adjust. Small and unprepossessing compared to the grand hotels of London, it housed a few scattered couches and tables grouped along carpets, a bench along the far back wall where he supposed the porters – porter? - would normally wait for tasks, and a short but solid counter ahead, crowned with two large flower arrangements at either end. An officious little man with piercing brown eyes magnified by a pair of pince nez and a Poirot moustache regarded him from behind the desk. From the nearest sofa to the little man, it was all severely neat though just a touch shabby.

Well, at least Mrs. Everett is nowhere to be found here. Doyle smiled to himself, pleased.

He crossed the lobby with a light step despite the weariness of his travels, coming to a halt before the concierge. Upon closer inspection, he noticed that a few of the buds in the flower vases were starting to go brown.

“Buenas noches, señor,” the man intoned measuredly, his voice perfectly matching the expectations of his appearance. “Welcome to the Metropole. How may I help you?”

Metropole. As though this would be the center of anything. “Good evening,” Doyle replied. “You have rooms booked for me, under Ray Duncan.”

The man slowly scanned the register as though officiating over a formal mass. “Ah, yes. Señor Duncan. Suite 24 – our finest accommodations; everything is ready for your presence. Jorge! Hector!” he turned to the side, yelling, the names rolling off his tongue.

A teen boy, yet to grow into his uniform and tugging at the top button, materialized from a side door. “Si, señor.”

A stocky man, slightly out of breath, appeared from behind Doyle, already wheeling a hand cart with Doyle's baggage stacked on it at a slightly precarious angle. “Si, señor.”

“Señor Duncan.” Poirot primly gestured at the two, “Jorge will escort you to your suite, and Hector will bring up your luggage. Breakfast begins at 7:30, luncheon starts at noon, and dinner is at 7 pm. Please feel free to contact us at any time if you should have questions or concerns.”

“Thank you very much,” replied Doyle.

“Jorge,” the desk manager nodded severely at the boy.

“Right this way, Señor Duncan,” Jorge gestured. “ Welcome to the Metropole.” And the little group made their way to the lift.

###

The appearance of the lift, a wire cage very likely older than Doyle, did little to instill confidence; but once the attendant had opened the gates, Doyle had stepped in, and the two attendants had squeezed themselves into a corner, the cage had lurched up and moved slowly but more than adequately to the second floor.

In less than a minute, the cage skittered to a halt, the group reversed their entry, and they proceeded a short distance to a door marked “2 - 4.”

Doyle looked around the hall as the youth unlocked the door. Similar doors lined the passage, and a window at the end of the hall shed some light on a wine red Persian carpet lining the way. Glad to be near the lift, but just as easy to take the staircase. Likely faster, as well. Once the youth had unlocked the door he gestured inside, and Doyle stepped through into the interior.

The door opened onto a cozy sitting room, with a bedroom off to the left and a small bathing room to the right, all three small but tidy. The most striking feature was the wall opposite the entry door, which held a large window facing the beach and the ocean. A broad panorama presented a sandy expanse sloping down to the waves. Outside, the azure waters were rough with waves; even with the grey clouds pressing down against the waves, a few figures were scattered across the beach. It was a feast laid out before him.

Doyle guessed that the room would see sun the majority of the day. Not that he planned to spend much time indoors.

It’s beautiful. Doyle felt his faith in his choice to escape London society more than restored.

He turned to the bellboy and the porter, who waited by the door. “Your name is Jorge, right?”

“Si, señor.” The boy stood at attention, his chest puffing up and coming a little closer to filling out his jacket.

“Thank you, Jorge. And you, Hector. The room is very good. Thank you.” He pulled out a few coins out and bestowed them upon the two figures.

“Gracias, Señor Duncan.” The two accepted the coins and, bowing, stepped out of the room, closing the door behind themselves.