Second class was sparse. There was no access to the buffet car, no complimentary wine and every furnishing had been selected for it’s minimised cost. The gaslight was yellow and dim. The seats solid hard wood, chosen for their durability over comfort.
M. Allegro still had no knowledge of why or where he was going. He’d simply told his deputy that he would be gone for the weekend. The envelope had contained nothing more than two railway tickets, and with that – he’d raced to the Gare de L’est.
The railway snaked and writhed around the mountainsides, this way and that, through miraculously-built tunnels, over modern steel viaducts and through dense snow-dusted forest. It bridged rivers, some trickles, some torrents. It merged remote villages along its many stops where sprinklings of passengers would board and leave. Mail was unloaded and reloaded. Small cargoes of eggs, hay and cheese were brought on and off the freight carriages. Chickens clucked as their cages were lifted on and off. Bottles of ale and wine clinked on the platform as their wooden boxes were put down.
These railways were the arteries and veins, spidering across the continent, weaving Europe together.
The November gale whistled through the pine trees against the windows. M. Allegro watched the local villagers in their grubby rags, mist rising from their mouths as they spoke in bizarre and unfathomable dialects. He watched the barrowboys pocket the odd jam jar and croissant. He noticed the conductor overcharging the fare, pocketing the difference. He saw the girl on the seat opposite, beautiful with curly blonde hair, yet her face etched with the scars of poverty. He noticed the young soot-faced driver, get off part way and embrace his wife and boy before reboarding his steed. He saw it all, just as he did at work. Of course saying nothing and doing nothing. Merely, observing.
He observed because he was puzzled. Everyone he saw and met and knew, he could understand. He would see their class, their life story, their manner of behaviour unfurling a story before his eyes. He knew the words that they would probably say before they even said them. He could forsee disaster, often preventing the disaster. He could forsee the miraculous and set about enabling miracles for his guests. But here, as he chugged through the deep valleys of the alps he was utterly baffled.
Nobody he’d met had seen what he’d see. Nobody he had met knew what he knew. Yet that man, who had sloped into the lobby of the Chateau Rouge had looked at him in the same way Allegro looked at his guests. And he was stringing him up to the Alps, 7 hours on the train, for what? To converse with him? Surely a quiet cafe in Paris would have sufficed. Or a strolling meeting through the Bois de Boulogne. But no. Here he was being taken in cattle class to the mountains.
Surely the man wasn’t a homosexuelle. No, perish the thought. So why here and why now? The only clue he really had to go on was the crossed keys seal, now broken and unsealed. He circled through increasingly far fetched possibilities, before returning to the dim carriage and the mountainscapes passing by.
The gentle tugs and rhythms of the train had sent him into slumber. He awoke at his destination and indeed the end of the line. The greasy conductor was tapping on the shoulder and it was time to get off. As he put his suitcase onto the platform he took a deep breath of the pure, crisp, clean mountain air. The crisp silence cut through the even crisper air and left him rather confused. He looked around, still coming-to in the moonlight. He blinked and sniffled. He was the only passenger here. He looked into the empty, unattended stone station with its empty, unattended cafe. He passed through the other side, to the road. The village was well presented, wood and stone houses adorned the slopes, wood smoke drifting into the snowy peaks, bright white in the moonlight. There was an inn with glowing golden light and as he approached it, he noticed the hotel.
It was small, humble, modest. There could be no more than 12 rooms burried into the mountainside, almost cave like. He waited for the peasant and donkey cart to pass in front of him before crossing the road and entering.
As he closed the wooden door of the reception cabin, his eyes met with the volumptuous beaming mountain lady in charge.
“We’re delighted you made it! I said to Geoff we ought to approach our new members straightforwardly. But you see, he always loves spinning mysteries.
Unaccustomed to the warm welcome and still in the daze of awakening, Allegro smiled and stood back.
“Give me your coat, he’s waiting in the lobby for you.”