Did his perception play a trick on him, or had Mrs Burchard indeed cast rebuking glances at Murdoch while this was said? The premier, having undoubtedly noticed his wife’s insinuative look, hastened to change the subject. Mentioning Wirt by name he inquired:
“I suppose you are acquainted with the island’s history?”
“Through books only.”
“Then you are probably better informed than most,” Mrs Burchard quipped, while trying to avoid her husband’s admonishing mien.
She had her knife in Murdoch alright, no two ways about it. The premier, anxious to maintain an atmosphere of civility, addressed Wirt ceremoniously:
“I hope you will feel at home here,” he said.
Murdoch perked up.
“That will take time. In my case months went by before I became acclimatised,” he remarked.
“It seems you find it difficult to divest yourself from it now,” Mrs Burchard suggested with an innocent air.
If Murdoch noticed the tinge of irony in her remark, he showed no sign of it. He merely smiled graciously and inclined his head ever so lightly.
Wirt was about to make known his fascination with Dominica’s enchantment, which grew by the hour, but the words remained stuck in his throat.
“Something is wrong here,” it flashed through his mind, dreadfully wrong. The Burchard’s and Murdoch pursue different agendas, which put them on guard with each other. Wirt felt they were trying to side-step invisible squares, one party set for the other. The realisation put him on pins and needles, it marred the magic of the island. Even the indomitable voices of the Caribbean night appeared to lose their splendour; they suddenly sounded subdued.
Mrs Burchard interrupted the painful silence:
“Well, Mr Murdoch, you must be anxious to hand over the reins,” she commented.
“Who can blame him after many years of service fraught with bitter disappointments,” her husband commiserated.
“Yes, the last one still grates on my nerves. That Alfred Nantes affair cut me to the quick, I must admit.”
Noticing Wirt’s raised eyebrows, the premier explained:
“Nantes, Mr Murdoch’s intended successor, arrived two years ago, then suddenly disappeared without a trace.”
Murdoch, turning to Wirt, explained:
“What a peculiar chap that was, a feigner of the first order. Pretending to be enthused about the job till the day when he absconded. He sure left us in the lurch, especially me who had already undertaken other obligations. As in your case three months had been allowed, giving my successor a chance, with my assistance, to become familiar with the Gardens’ ins and outs.”
Shaking his head disapprovingly, heaving a sigh of disgust, he exclaimed:
“Nantes’ head-over-heels flight, as I call it, threw us in a dither. My bags were already packed, farewell dinners had been given, and travel arrangements were made. Of course leaving under the circumstances stood out of the question.”
Mrs Burchard wondered aloud:
“It seems odd that we never heard from him again.”
“Bizarre, really,” her husband agreed.
Turning to Murdoch the premier declared:
“Your willingness to extend your tenure another two years deserves praise and thanks.”
Wirt’s bewilderment grew as he listened to these astounding revelations. He wondered why Murdoch signed on for another two years, being ostensibly anxious to leave the island. It should hardly require two full years to find a suitable replacement. Beyond that, how could someone, fairly prominent, a white man to boot, disappear among a sea of black people in a confined area?
His reflections were interrupted by rumbling noises outside. Someone stumped up the steps, snorting as if out of breath, hurling imprecations at these confounded inventions.
Murdoch heaved a sigh of relief:
“Finally,” he expelled.
“Sorry, folks, I couldn’t come sooner, the hussy acted up again,” a stentorian voice announced.
The premier grimaced, as did his wife. Everyone but Wirt realised who was meant; none other than Caroline Brise, the terror of Dominica.
Howard Brunt, the chief of police, it couldn’t be anyone else, revealed his origin by his accent. His cradle, without a doubt, stood within the sound of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow-Church; in other words he was a cockney. Wirt gazed at the Falstaffian figure in dismay, for he doubted that the chief could squeeze through the door opening; not unless he sidled in.
“Murdoch, unlimber your refreshments, somewhat laced, if you please,” he roared as he crossed the threshold.
Wirt instinctively liked the man. His rough-and-tumble manners affected him pleasantly; he was a breath of fresh air, wafting away the gossamer of genteel sarcasm.
The conversation soon became vivacious, contrasting sharply with the previous wariness. Brunt’s raucous laughter filled the room, he possessed a gift to relate insignificant incidents with a Rabelaisian flair. Turning to Murdoch he remarked:
“Well, old boy, soon you will be on your way. When have you seen England last?”
“Seven years ago.”
“A deuced long time, I grant.”
Casting an eye at Wirt, he inquired:
“No doubt you have heard of Nantes?”
“Yes, just now.”
“Believe me, sir, we moved heaven and earth to find him. Way up the Morne Diablotin I chased scouts, down into bottomless gullies I urged volunteers to scramble. All for naught I must confess. That Belgian, well liked I should add, had performed a vanishing act worthy of Houdini.”
The minister expounded:
“We contacted his relatives and acquaintances in Belgium, and checked with every company and individual known to convey people to and from the island. All proved futile. To this day he remains untraceable.”
It is a mystery that might never be solved,” the police chief sighed.
The premier, inclining his head towards Wirt, observed smilingly:
“I venture to say that this time we have no reason to fret.”
“None at all,” Brunt agreed.
Did anyone notice Murdoch’s sneer? Probably Mrs Burchard had, judging by her reaction. She gasped, then looking at her husband she said:
“It’s getting late, Raoul, remember our meeting with the Daniel’s.”
Evidently baffled he raised his head inquiringly, ready to protest. But something in her demeanour prompted him to acquiesce.
“Oh that, I plain forgot about it,” he commented.
Refusing proffered coffee and cordials, the Burchard’s left after shaking hands with the others. Again Wirt couldn’t banish an odd sensation of discomfort, he physically felt an undercurrent of enmity between the Burchard’s and Murdoch. Guarded, mind you, yet tangible and no less intense.
Raoul Burchard, the premier, being a politician accustomed to dissimulation, managed to suppress his inimical feelings. But not so his wife who sure had her knife in Murdoch; she blanched on account of stifled anger. For when he extended his hand, she instinctively hid hers behind her back, as if a viper was about to strike. Overcoming an impulse to cut and run, she offered her hand with an air of undisguised loathing.
Soon afterwards Brunt took his leave. Saying goodbye to Wirt he said in an undertone, contrasting with the bluff air shown so far:
“Should you need me, I can be reached at the Government House. Don’t hesitate to call, be it for professional or personal reasons. No appointment is necessary, just knock and enter.”
Then he added ominously:
“You might need me sooner than you think.”