The British Museum, London – April 1963
The neat angles that ordered the planes of Severine’s face looked as though they’d been drawn in determined strokes with a sharpened pencil.
Yet the keen points that usually held her figure so finely poised, from the wide triangle of her shoulders tapering to the slant of her ankles, seemed to pleat, shrinking her as she backed away from the glass cabinet. Swooning for a heartbeat, she reached blindly behind for a nearby seat into which she folded.
The tailored two-piece she wore, with its Parisian designer’s label stitched to the satin lining, folded with her. Nevertheless, it maintained its hauteur and thus her envied chicness that her female British colleagues referred to with wistful envy. Perched on the chair, though, she resembled a fragile bird, ready to startle; she didn’t register others, not even when her colleagues descended making collective clucking, worried noises.
‘Mademoiselle Kassel!’ her companions cajoled, but it was as though she could no longer hear them.
In these moments of terror, Severine couldn’t touch the present because she was transported. Today, suddenly, she was no longer standing on parquet floors surrounded by burnished timber and glazed bookshelves in the King’s Library of the British Museum. In her mind it was no longer morning in London’s Great Russell Street of 1963 that was rife with traffic and people sniffling with the tail end of their spring colds. All those human sounds and today’s innocent landscape had dispersed in her mind and coalesced into the vivid scene of 1941, a memory she had bullied over the past decade into hiding.
In these protracted moments of rekindled terror, the nightmare escaped from the prison in which she kept it, unleashing the recollection of blood, so powerful she could feel its damp stickiness once again clinging to her skin. On her lips was the taste of it . . . like the copper of the Czech korunas that used to tang on her childhood tongue when she hid them in her mouth on the way to the sweetshop.
She had pushed the horror of 1941 so far away inside, buried it so deep, that there were some days – the rare, shiny ones – when she did not think on the evil that had changed the course of her life. Severine did, however, feel the burden of it inside like a viscous poison trying to erode its way out to consume her again with all its toxic, terrifying reality. But she had taught herself to be the ringmaster of those demons, and that circus was not allowed to play in the big tent of her mind – unless she chose to let the beasts out.
That disciplined control meant for many years she’d led a quiet, regimented life of exacting routine in order to keep evil corralled, to keep her thoughts occupied and tidy. And particularly to keep her emotions cooled. It meant, though, that she – once an effervescent and precocious child – had become someone for whom neither unbridled joy nor genuine laughter was likely.
But today she’d shown no control. It was the sight of the Pearls that had triggered her.
Her day had started without any clue of the drama about to unfold. She’d woken at the usual time of nearing five-thirty to a frosty spring dawn. Early sunlight slanted through her Bloomsbury flat on the top floor of the red-brick mansion; she wasn’t sure whether it was neoclassical or baroque. English architecture’s fluid styles down the centuries confused Severine and she reminded herself once again to check with her colleagues at the museum. Nevertheless, she liked the tall and brooding symmetry of her building – called Museum Chambers – which she presumed was Victorian by its austerity but it was countered by decorative details of scrolls, window dressings and a portico in white stone. It was her temporary home and a mere stroll from her work at the British Museum. Her apartment in France had tall French windows and these English sash versions with pretty boxes of tumbling flowers during spring and summer were, in Severine’s opinion, a happy substitute. Her balcony encased by wrought iron would be ideal on a balmy summer’s evening, although she would never know. Her contract was only for six weeks.
She gave a soft sigh as she looked down into Bury Street, already moving with people at first light with a street sweeper and a couple of pedestrians hurrying in opposing directions. They were featureless huddles of clothes insulating their owners against the icy feel of the morning.
‘Past three weeks now,’ she calculated in whispered French, her mind reaching to Paris and the realisation that she’d be heading back to France soon. She nodded, guilty at feeling torn because she was enjoying this London sabbatical and all its challenges, especially using the local language. ‘Maybe they’ll extend it,’ she murmured, this time in English, liking how it rolled easily off her tongue. Her late father would be proud if he could hear her using the languages he’d insisted she master.
‘French, because there’s none more beautiful; English, because there’s none more relevant; and German, because there’s none more practical right now,’ he’d counselled back in 1934 when she was seven. ‘But always be proud of your Czech and Hebrew . . . because that’s who you are,’ he’d added, tweaking her nose playfully.
Severine had shaken her thoughts free and focused on her life now – it never helped to rekindle even the good childhood memories for too long. Did she really want to stay longer in London? Live here? She was prepared to entertain the notion. To remain in England . . . permanently? It would require organisation to sell up in France, set up a proper home; maybe a bedsit in the city and a cottage in the countryside . . . York, perhaps, which she liked so much . . .
She’d bathed and considered wearing her favourite trapeze dress – a copy of Yves Saint Laurent’s daring silhouette that had not just taken away the collective breath of French designers but had sent a tremor through fashion houses worldwide. She could remember her own sigh of pleasure at seeing the clean, stark lines that appealed so strongly to her tidy mind and neat ways. The ‘young Turk’ who’d taken the helm at the death of her design hero, Yves Saint Laurent, had borrowed from the master’s design and inspired her to claim a style of her own. She realised that breakthrough design had opened the door to the baby-doll dresses that so many modern Londoners today embraced as their own invention. ‘But it was all French.’ She smiled to herself as she said it. ‘Perhaps I should have gone into fashion,’ she added. She knew it was eccentric to talk aloud when no one else was present, but put it down to years of self-inflicted loneliness.
Rather than think on the reason why she had chosen antique jewellery as a specialty, she distracted herself by rifling through her small wardrobe of outfits. Each of them had been saved for diligently because she preferred the sharply reliable cut of the more expensive designers and was prepared to have fewer options as a result.
Severine reached for a two-piece dress that she hadn’t worn yet in London because it hadn’t warmed up enough for ballet-length sleeves, but the frost would pass quickly and she’d have her coat. Memories of the Thames freezing over during the winter just gone were still fresh in people’s minds, but the thaw was well and truly past. There had been photos of children playing on the ice covering the great river in all the British newspapers, which had been picked up and run in Paris too. It had happened on the Seine in years gone. Right now, it was time to think only spring, she decided. Severine pulled the Parisian-designed mid-grey double-knit skirt over her slim hips, which the unfussy outfit enhanced. The simple round-necked top had elbow-length sleeves and her only adornment was a silk scarf in deep marine that she didn’t deliberately choose in order to set off the colour of her eyes, but glancing at her reflection critically, she accepted it did just that.
No rings on slender fingers, no brooch at her collarbone, not even a watch around her narrow wrist did she adorn herself further with. But she liked lipstick for a kiss of colour. Now in her mid-thirties, Severine Kassel had admitted to this same mirror that she didn’t consider herself young enough for the ingénu look of hip London and its pale-faced, pastel-lipped youth. While a sweep of vermilion was close to being mandatory for a Parisian, she chose instead a duskier cousin and dragged it carefully across her bottom lip first. ‘Moroccan Rose is perfect,’ she said, pouting at her reflection to admire the choice. ‘Très bon,’ she admitted to her image staring back and attended to her top lip with even more care to get the line of colour exact.
Severine rarely ate breakfast and today was no exception. A cup of coffee filled her belly mostly for its warmth and particularly because she enjoyed the ritual of brewing that allowed her to recreate the smell of Paris in London. While she could never embrace the fascination that the British had for tea, she knew how important it was to sip the beverage with colleagues for purely social reasons. Every problem was solved over a pot of tea, it seemed. But here, in Bury Street, the top floor smelled of darkly toasted beans where the acidic notes had been roasted out to leave the signature bittersweet note of Costa Rica percolating on a tiny stove.
Despite its intensity, Severine took her coffee black, short, unsweetened, and standing up at the small kitchen counter. She swallowed her morning caffeine in no more than three sips, just as she would if she were calling into a French café on the way to her office at the Louvre.
She pulled on coat and gloves, ignoring a hat, in favour of a thick extra scarf, before picking up her glossy, dark tan crocodile leather handbag that she’d bought a decade earlier in the flea markets north of Paris. It reminded her strongly of the one her mother had carried for special occasions just before the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. She briefly wondered who carried that exquisitely structured design of polished reptile skin now – it would be worth plenty – and immediately sifted the dangerous thought away. She hung the gleaming bag she helplessly admired on her elbow and with a single final glance at the mirror, she departed her flat.
Severine left Bury Street almost to the minute each working morning. Neighbours she wouldn’t be around long enough to learn names for would lift a hand in welcome and she would return the gesture with a smile.
‘I could set my watch by you, miss,’ the local pub owner said with an appreciative wink. He and his lads were restocking their cellar for another day as she approached the corner into Great Russell Street.
‘Morning, miss,’ his three helpers chorused, lifting caps.
They never could get their tongues around ‘mademoiselle’, although she’d tried to teach them. ‘Morning, handsome boys.’
One put his hand on his heart as if swooning; another gave her a cheeky whistle. ‘Will you come dancin’ wiv me tonight, miss?’
Their elder flicked his cap at the lad. ‘Cheeky blighter! Watch your manners around a lady, Billy.’
She threw a careless grin over her shoulder, aware the daring one was young enough to be her son, and waved as her heels clicked her away across the damp London pavement towards what had been in the eighteenth century a grand mansion purchased from the Montagu family by a body of trustees. Mid-century that house had been reinvented as the British Museum through an act of Parliament to which King George II gave his formal assent in order to house the tens of thousands of objects, books, manuscripts, drawings and specimens that formed the cabinet of curiosities assembled by Hans Sloane and bequeathed to the nation. By the turn of that century explorers from Captain James Cook to collectors of antiquities donated or sold their collections until the museum began to bulge with everything from gems and coins to the famous colossal marble foot of an Apollo. And still it had grown, as Victorian and Edwardian archaeologists and collectors had plundered the ancients from Greece to Egypt through the Ottoman Empire.
Severine stood at the grand gates and considered the vast expansion that had occurred over the decades with new buildings, new floors and new acquisitions from all over the world. The war had meant enormous disruption at the Louvre, which was more about theft than destruction. It was a shadow, though, in comparison to the scale of reorganisation and cunning of the chiefs at the British Museum. She’d listened with no little wonder at her colleagues’ descriptions of shifting priceless antiquities to secure basements around London, to an old quarry in Wales, to tube stations like Aldwych, where – she couldn’t help her delight at hearing – the famous Elgin marbles from the ancient Parthenon frieze had been stored for the duration of the war. According to her older colleagues, they’d begun their ambitious arrangements for the dispersal of important pieces as early as 1934. Transfixed, she’d listened to how various people involved with the nation’s treasures had gauged the dangers of war ahead and had begun stockpiling packing cases five years before the first shot was fired.
‘Oh yes, indeed, when the order came in the summer of 1939 from the Home Office, dispersal was fast and efficient,’ Mr Partridge had explained, enjoying her interest. ‘Material of first importance left directly after dawn on the following day and roughly one hundred tons of material was packed and despatched within a fortnight, including all prints and drawings.’
She’d given a brief but audible low whistle at hearing this. ‘What about the larger sculptures?’
‘They required equally heavy sandbagging, and those of global importance, such as the Elgin marbles, were given special treatment and removal at great expense and effort,’ he’d assured her.
‘It served the dual purpose,’ the eldest librarian had explained to her in the tearoom, ‘of giving education and entertainment for wartime visitors but could serve as a sacrifice to the perils of war.’ If that were not astonishing enough, Severine learned that the first of six high explosive bombs fell on the museum roof on 18 September 1940. It passed through the Prints and Drawings study room, its floor and four other concrete floors below that to land unexploded in a basement. And in further irony, a second, smaller bomb had arrived, miraculously passing through the hole created by its predecessor, to land harmlessly on the mezzanine.
The third unfortunately ripped through the King’s Library – now the Room of Enlightenment – to destroy one hundred and fifty or so precious volumes. A fourth shed its oil outside the copper sheathing of the room and the emptied Duveen Gallery was hit by a small bomb that damaged its architecture but no artefacts. The newspaper library was all but destroyed with a further bomb and lost its thirty thousand volumes of nineteenth-century British provincial newspapers.
The old man with a rheumy gaze and an egg stain on his tie had sighed. ‘Luck ran out in May 1941. Incendiaries rained down and the fires burnt uncontrollably, racing through so many of the display rooms, and the suicide exhibition fulfilled its destiny.’ He had given Severine a smile of resignation and she could feel his sorrow as she watched him limp away, back to one of the library rooms, presuming he would have been one of those quirky, diligent staff who had been instrumental in the preservation of the antiquities.
Now that all the precious artefacts were returned and the museum had begun the long restoration from damage sustained during the Blitz, specialists had been called in to help, particularly those, like her, with expertise in Jewry.
She recalled the day the senior team at the Louvre had spoken to her of this.
‘Your heritage is precious; the world is relying on survivors to help with art and all manner of items stolen from the Jewish people during the war.’
‘How does London know about my knowledge in antiques?’
‘My fault,’ an older colleague had admitted with a smile of soft apology. ‘I told them provenance is your area of expertise.’ He’d stepped closer and squeezed her hand as tenderly as her father had in years gone by. ‘We’re still emerging from the darkest of times and commerce is on everyone’s minds, my dear Severine. You know as well as any how the market has been flooded with fakes alongside genuine articles.’ She had nodded as he’d wanted her to. ‘Our friends at the British Museum are equally determined not to acquire stolen pieces. We have agreed to lend your expertise.’
‘For how long?’
‘A short secondment. Six weeks, maybe. Just help where you can; it’s a start. Help with the curation of some of the jewellery in particular, but give an opinion on the backlog of Jewish items they’ve either acquired formally or that have somehow come into their sphere.’
‘Whatever you can do is a boon, Sev,’ a younger male colleague had encouraged her. ‘We’re proud to offer such expertise out of the Louvre. Your weekends would be free to visit the city of York you enjoy so much.’ He’d winked.
She’d smiled and nodded. She couldn’t deny it was a genuine opportunity for her. And it was true: she did love York for so many reasons, not least for the city’s addictive history. But, more importantly, she might even get to Durham and spend time around the university, for one or two weekends. That sealed it.
‘I’ve said you could be there at the beginning of April.’
She sighed now at the British Museum gates. There had been trepidation about coming to London and now here she was feeling sentimental about leaving this great city after such a short time.
‘Missing home?’ said a voice she knew.
She smiled. ‘Morning, Catherine.’
‘Gosh, I love the way you say my name. Growing up I thought it was so common. Every fourth girl in my class was Kathy or Kate, or spelled with a C like my version, but you make it sound exotic and regal.’
Severine fell in step with a dismissive grin . . . if only Catherine knew her truth.
‘No, really. You do know you could read out the museum’s guidebook to most of the men who work here and they’d think you were making love to them.’
‘Well, you are the mysterious French expert that everyone’s lost their marbles for. To be honest, I think half the women are in love with you too.’
Severine laughed. ‘And the other half?’
‘Hate you to bits.’ Catherine grinned, adopting a catty tone. ‘That figure! That coiffed hair! That simmering gaze! That accent. The aloofness – so bloody French and rude!’
Severine cut a glance of dismay. ‘Really?’ It didn’t bother her to be a mystery or indeed even to be disliked for her distant manner, but she needed no hostility in her life.
‘Well, I can’t help that you’re all peasants,’ she said with a light sarcasm intended to amuse.
Her friend tipped back her head to enjoy the laughter. Severine had to shoosh her, for the sound of her amusement echoed loudly around the museum’s courtyard. Catherine, a few years younger than Severine, was one of the bright women she’d met and might even call a friend. She was also helplessly pretty in all the non-artificial ways that counted; she needed no make-up to improve on a flawless complexion and was apple-cheeked, had hair the colour of summer straw and a donkey laugh that was hilarious.
‘So, are you missing home?’
Prague? Always, she thought to herself before she replied. ‘I was just thinking that I was going to miss London a lot more than I imagined I could,’ she admitted.
Catherine laid a friendly hand on her arm. ‘Oh, good. Not much to miss about France, then?’ she said with a cheeky grin.
Severine reached for a lighthearted response. ‘Not the clothes, not the food, not its beauty, not its bakeries and patisseries, not its perfume . . . no.’
Catherine was clearly enjoying the soft sarcasm, grinning as they wound their way around the forecourt to one side of the museum.
‘I do miss my walks through the Paris Tuileries and the Luxembourg Gardens, though. They’re easier than having to walk to Regent’s Park for my exercise.’
‘Well, Severine,’ Catherine said, still unable after all her practice to pronounce her companion’s name in the correct way. ‘Oh, blimey, I have to learn to say that properly before you leave us. It’s a beautiful name and I’m buggering it up.’
‘I don’t mind, honestly.’ Severine smiled. What she really wanted to say was, It’s not my real name, so I don’t care.
They entered the grand building through a side entrance for staff, kissed each other farewell and moved to their respective working areas. Catherine was part of the Duveen Gallery restoration team, so Severine didn’t expect to see her friend until that evening when she’d reluctantly agreed to have a drink at the nearby pub. She headed for the museum’s Reading Room, the most beloved of spaces in the museum. It sat in its centre, a grand construction of iron and glass that had taken her breath away the first time she had entered the chamber. It was Catherine who had accompanied her, delivering her to Mr Partridge who would show her around.
A small gasp had escaped at first sight. ‘This is perfection,’ she had breathed. ‘Nothing short of circular glory.’
‘Everyone craves working from here – most of us find a reason to walk in at some point in each day, Mademoiselle Kassel. But you will be here for most of your working hours, so you will be the envy of many museum staff,’ Mr Partridge had said. ‘It is within these walls that notable writers found . . .’ She remembered now how he had considered the right phrase before smiling benignly, ‘. . . a peaceful mind, including Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Conan Doyle, of course, Orwell, Shaw . . .’
She’d read none of the writers he mentioned, although she knew their names, but Severine didn’t need to know their work intimately to understand that the Reading Room was like a place of worship for any researcher.
‘Three miles of bookcases in all, and I believe we have calculated twenty-five miles of shelves.’
‘A lot of books, Mr Partridge,’ she’d remarked, not merely impressed. She had felt a fresh awakening of excitement to be within this chamber of vast knowledge; the pulse reached back to childhood, connecting her to her father’s teachings and later – even as young as she had been – to the museum they had worked in together. As the world had tumbled into madness and despair, their determination to preserve for posterity what their invaders wanted to destroy had felt vital. It had kept a measure of lucidity in a life of increasing insanity. She had blinked away the memory.
Each morning when she entered her quiet working chamber her spirits soared, all the way to the oculus at the apex of the Reading Room. Daily, she allowed her gaze to sweep across the vast circular bookshelves with their thousands of books full of secrets. Severine preferred the day overcast so the light streaming in was muted. It gave a dreamy quality to a chamber painted duck-egg blue and the colour of freshly churned cream that already felt ethereal – to her, anyway. Forty or more French-style double windows stood like a row of sentinels at the base of the glass dome, which could be opened to let in air, while the gilding that shone from the dome’s laced iron structure added a sense that one had entered a heavenly space. She believed it. Outside its round walls the museum shifted with a restless river of people. People, footsteps, sounds of delight and curiosity in hushed tones. But in her workspace there was a stillness where a single cough or the rustle of a turning page could puncture a weighty silence that was enclosed by the papier-mâché ceiling interior.
‘It reminds me of the Pantheon,’ she’d once remarked, but Catherine had smirked.
‘Blimey! Listen to you. When did you visit Rome, then?’
‘As a child. Er, my father travelled in his work and took our family to visit the great city.’ Fortunately, Severine had not been required to elaborate.
This morning passed like most other mornings: her settling down with a comfy sigh at her chosen station before moving to the cabinets containing the index cards. Here she scanned for the subject that was inked onto a small card tucked into the handle. ‘Every librarian should nod daily to Melvil Dewey,’ she murmured barely above her breath, always grateful to the American who devised a method for classifying library books. Despite its constant revision, the Dewey system held true to the librarian who designed it in the final quarter of the nineteenth century.
Her father had taught her the system, by which time they were using the fifth abridged edition. Severine remembered how the fourteenth full edition had been released not long after her family had died. ‘Were murdered,’ she corrected in a whisper as she tugged on the brass handle of the drawer she chose, liking the smooth feel achieved by years of similar researchers making the identical motion to reveal the knowledge within. The gesture allowed her to lose the thought but not the sense of it. She never wanted to let go of the truth.
‘The Dewey organises the contents of a library into disciplines,’ her father had explained, and at her frown, elaborated. ‘Fields of study. So, choose something,’ he’d challenged her.
She’d considered, remembering her mother arranging flowers that morning and let that guide her. ‘Roses,’ she’d answered.
Her father had given her a smile. ‘Good. Let’s imagine that you were especially interested in historical information about roses, so you’d first move to the number 635, which is for Horticulture . . .’
And her fascination with research had begun that day, aged eight, in the Klementinum, a library in Prague that could potentially rival this Reading Room, she thought.
The morning passed quickly as she lost herself in her work. She had recently opened a box containing gemstone earrings. She guessed amethyst and seed pearls, but design appreciation was merely a passing thought in her work. Severine first noted the jeweller named on the satin lining of the box lid. This already led her mind to Western Europe because she recognised it. She lifted the velvet pad from which the earrings gleamed to see markings that told her this jewellery had already passed through the hands of Sotheby’s auctioneers twice in their lifetime. ‘Good,’ she murmured, mimicking her father. Now it was time to discover their provenance and she was about to stand to head back to the index card cabinets when she noticed a familiar figure stepping quietly across the floor. Severine glanced at her watch; it was already nearing ten.
‘Miss Kassel?’ he whispered.
‘Bonjour, John. Comment ça va?’ she mouthed, not needing to say it aloud.
He blushed as he answered, barely above a whisper this time, and not attempting to reply in French. ‘Very well, thank you.’
She pointed to the exit and he nodded. It only took her a few moments to tidy up the desk. She placed the earrings back into a box and locked it, before standing in a fluid movement. A break to stretch her limbs was necessary. She signed the locked box back into the care of the young assistant, who countersigned. She was careful not to let her heels click loudly across the floor as she made for the doors. Outside she found John.
‘I’m needed?’ She hoped so – it would be a welcome interlude.
‘Sorry for the interruption, but Mr Partridge asked if you would help with an item.’
‘Of course. His office?’
‘Er, no. They’re in the Enlightenment Room.’
Even better. She enjoyed every opportunity to stroll through the large space of disconnected curiosities from around the world. ‘All right.’ She straightened her spine and heard it crack neatly into place. Still holding her notebook and pencil, Severine glanced at the clock to be sure the museum was still yet to open to the public. She headed for the small passageway – they all referred to it as the secret tunnel – that would take her into the Enlightenment Room. They emerged from where the door was cunningly concealed amongst the sweep of bookcases; most museum-goers never learned of its existence, unless by chance or accident.
She was greeted by four colleagues, one other woman amongst them, and Mr Partridge, the most senior, beaming at her.
‘Ah, here she is. Mademoiselle Kassel,’ he said. ‘Thank you for coming.’ He waved the pipe he habitually carried but never lit in the public spaces. ‘We have something special to show you and would appreciate your opinion.’ He peered kindly at her through horn-rimmed glasses.
‘I’d be delighted,’ she said, moving closer. ‘What have you got for me?’
‘It’s the most exquisite piece of antique jewellery. It’s not a necklace; I’m trying to work out what it is,’ her female colleague murmured in a breathy tone of admiration. ‘Frankly, I’m not sure I recall a piece of jewellery I’ve encountered that is more breathtaking.’
‘Now I’m intrigued,’ Severine admitted, not for a moment anticipating what would be lifted from the velvet bag.
She stepped closer to the glass cabinet they stood around, which contained a noose and a whip used on African slaves in the Caribbean. When she’d looked at those objects on the second day of her secondment, she had read the small card that explained they had been collected in Jamaica during the seventeenth century. It had occurred to her, as she read the matter-of-fact wording, that the objects had been acquired not out of moral concern for the evils of slavery but out of pure curiosity. It was the way of the world. Had anything changed over the centuries? Hadn’t the Nazis collected Jewish religious objects to put in their private museums out of curiosity and the hope they could visit those museums of an extinct people they had decided to obliterate?
‘Middle Ages, we believe?’ one of her colleagues murmured, recalling her thoughts to the present, ‘but we don’t quite know what it is, to be honest.’
Severine watched as a supple, oddly shaped length of lustrous pearls was lifted to uncoil from the bag in which it lay. From that first glimmer it felt as though someone had suddenly reached into her chest to squeeze her heart. Instantly it was difficult to breathe and with her body moving into shock she was aware, only vaguely now, of blinking fast as if to deny the presence of what she watched emerging, serpent-like, through a rapidly misting lens, of pearl jewellery, heavy and sinuous in its gleaming glory.
Despite her shock, she’d had a couple of heartbeats to register that their lustre had not dimmed. They had been first worn in the eleventh century, so the story went, and certainly the radiant iridescence of their nacre had not dulled over the years since she’d last seen them . . . despite the touch of the treacherous hands that had stolen them.
Her vision tunnelled and she could listen in on the normally silent but now angry rush of her blood, feel her lungs straining for oxygen when she was usually unaware of a single breath unless it steamed out of her mouth on a frosty day. Her senses were shutting down fast. She was blindly reaching behind herself to prevent a fall.
The beast was out . . .
Drenched in blood . . . some of it hers from a head wound, though most of it belonged to others. What last remnant she had of sensibility – perhaps whittled down to base animal survival instinct – had kept her still, silent and looking like another corpse that bitterly cold night. She’d wished she were dead when she later stood at the loose edge of a mass grave that had been hastily dug and quickly filled. The deceased were all those she loved, alive just hours earlier. Strangers had ruthlessly killed them, but only one monster had taken aim at her with his pistol, and worse . . .
Her head snapped back as the pungent vapour of lavender laced with ammonia dragged her from 1941 to 1963. The memory wobbled and dissipated, her vision cleared; she could see the small bottle of Crown smelling salts still waving nauseatingly strong in front of her and she pushed it away. Severine noted a row of worried expressions peering at her from behind the secretary who stood before her and who had presumably brought the salts in a hurry. She watched her screw the purple crown-shaped lid back on the bottle.
‘Are you feeling better?’ she asked.
Severine nodded. ‘Thank you.’
‘Should I leave the salts?’
‘No, no. I’m fine now, thank you, again,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry.’
The secretary was bundled aside as the others crowded in.
‘Mademoiselle, you gave us a scare. Are you ill?’
‘No, Mr Partridge, apologies. I felt dizzy for a moment, that’s all. I’m perfectly fine now,’ she lied, standing and smoothing her skirt self-consciously, feeling exposed. Her colleagues stepped back. ‘Please don’t worry yourselves.’
Awkward silence lengthened; clearly she wasn’t fine and no one seemed to know what to say or how to proceed after the drama. Severine filled the difficult pause with the truth, once again grateful for her command of their language.
‘I can tell you about this piece.’ She didn’t need to so much as touch it to explain more. ‘It is believed that these pearls date back to the eleventh century and they are said to have been commissioned by the sultan of the Ottoman Empire for his newest and from thereon most favoured wife. The story goes that at just fifteen she was chosen from his harem, plucked from the obscurity of the odalisques to become his sultana, and this was his wedding gift.’ She cleared her throat, noting the silence had changed character, thickening around her, filled with anticipation as much as captivation. They were waiting for her to take the Pearls. She preferred not to but the polite and expected words slipped out anyway. ‘May I?’
‘Of course,’ Miss Baker said, gesturing to the Pearls, which were still mesmerising to Severine in their creamy lustre that nonetheless shone metallic, almost mirror-like. She stepped closer, showing no inclination to take hold of the jewellery yet. Severine could view her reflection in each unblemished orb as she leaned in and noted her lips were now a line, her gaze as thorny as the rose their colour imitated.
She still wasn’t ready to touch the Pearls so she continued speaking. ‘We have no proof of what I’ve just told you, but they were once known as the Ottoman Pearls, a title coined by a Russian royal – the Grand Prince Alexander of Tver – during the Middle Ages. Don’t ask me how a Russian prince came to have them in his possession, but he gifted them to his wife, Anastasia, who famously jested that the chief eunuch of the imperial harem stole and sold them on as far east as he could. I’m not sure I can believe that but the Pearls next surfaced, we understand it, in the Slovakian aristocracy.’
‘Good grief,’ she heard Partridge say into what had become a now spellbound silence.
She swallowed, knowing she must now finish what she’d begun. Severine finally reached for the Pearls and lifted their heavy, serpentine beauty. Her colleagues all sighed with pleasure at their shimmering iridescence, even in the low museum light. The most dramatic part of their design was yet to clear the box.
‘This grand piece of jewellery is meant to be worn like a garment,’ she explained. ‘Originally it was designed for a slim, tall woman.’ She gestured to a loop in the strand of the Pearls. ‘See, here is where the new bride would put each arm.’
‘Ah,’ breathed Miss Baker in a sound of delighted dawning. ‘And she’d wear this over what?’
Severine twitched a smile, although there was no warmth in it. ‘Over her skin, Miss Baker. She would come to her sultan naked, wearing only this strand of enormous natural pearls like a tiny bolero.’ She lifted the piece free of the box to view the jewel it suspended. ‘And this exquisite sapphire is said to be of the finest violet hue and likely from Kashmir of the middle centuries.’
Everyone sighed at the sparkling teardrop gem. She remembered the weight of the Pearls, their chilled but silken feel, recalling how her mother had curiously rubbed one against her teeth and exclaimed, That’s how you know they’re real, when you can feel the grit from the oyster and its waters. Severine breathed away the memory of her mother, especially the final one that had stuck in her mind of a birdlike woman, huddled, terrified, unaware that she was preparing to die. Severine held the Pearls against herself. ‘As you can see, when I hold up the entire piece to approximate the way it would be worn, the sapphire would sit at the woman’s navel as a final tantalising encouragement.’
Partridge cleared his throat, looking embarrassed.
Too erotic, she wondered? Perhaps she wouldn’t mention, then, that the whole piece was entirely designed to encircle the nubile young wearer’s breasts and point the gaze of her husband between her legs, newly shorn by slaves using hot, pliable sugar. The young bride would stand nakedly submissive and welcoming, awaiting his pleasure and hopefully his seed because only a child – a son – could ensure her position, never to be toppled. She held back on that detail but continued with less confronting information. ‘If, or rather when, the sultan chose his wife over newer, younger, perhaps more beautiful odalisques, the sultana would wear this piece to show any pretenders who was truly the most powerful woman in his harem.’
‘I thought the sultan had many wives?’ Miss Baker chanced.
‘Yes – as many as he chose. However, there was only one first wife, and these belonged to her alone. The pearls and sapphire were also believed to bring luck to their union, the blue of the sapphire suggesting a son might be made whenever she wore it.’
Poor old Mr Partridge was now blushing furiously at her words. She should stop. She did, returning the extraordinary piece to the box, watching it lie against the midnight-coloured velvet bag she recalled as if she’d seen it just moments ago.
Severine only just caught the sob in time and forced it back down; to those watching it looked like little more than a hiccup. She turned it into a soft cough. ‘Excuse me,’ she said and took a low, long breath as she faced them. ‘I’m so sorry about my swoon earlier. I missed breakfast.’
They seemed to accept her explanation easily enough.
‘You . . . you said the piece emerged in the aristocracy of Slovakia. Do you know any more about its provenance?’ It was one of the younger men who spoke. ‘I’m David Johnson, by the way,’ he introduced himself. ‘The piece found its way to my office.’
‘Hello, David. Er, yes, I do know more,’ she admitted. Time for truth, then. ‘Bringing it up to date, it was finally acquired by the Goldstein family of Bohemia in the 1800s. This stunning piece that so few people know about remained in that Czechoslovakian family for five generations and was passed down through the maternal line from eldest daughter to eldest daughter.’
‘Mademoiselle Kassel, am I to understand that this incredible item of jewellery most recently belonged to a Jewish family?’ Mr Partridge now looked astonished.
‘Correct, Mr Partridge. It did and still does belong to the same Jewish family, although through marriage it came into the family called Kassowicz,’ she said carefully. ‘It was stolen from them during the Nazi occupation, in 1941. October, in fact, from their country house about an hour out of Prague.’
‘My word,’ her boss replied, beaming at David Johnson. ‘I told you she’s frightfully good.’ He cut her a sharp look. ‘And you’re absolutely sure of that?’
Years of torment erupted into rage but of the cool, wintry kind that could burn slow and steady. People said she possessed a simmering beauty but only Severine knew from where the controlled heat originated.
Her tone was even; she had had years of practice masking the pain. ‘I am sure. And I can be this accurate because my real name is Katerina Kassowicz and I am the eldest daughter,’ she explained, keeping it matter-of-fact, ‘and this piece of jewellery is mine, given by my mother to her firstborn daughter.’
There was a collective gasp from her colleagues.
‘And what I want to know – need to know from you, please – is precisely who has brought this piece to the British Museum?’