He was getting too old for this. The drainpipe was held upright by rusting clamps. He tested their strength. Barely a movement. A false promise like so many in the past months. As soon as he shifted his weight, two bolts began to pull away from the white wall, at first slowly then … then he found himself toppling. His gloved hand grasped the branches of a conifer. The tip of his rubber soled boot touched something firm. It held long enough for him to reach for the window ledge. Swinging his leg up, he got a purchase. One push sent him away from the conifer and onto the ledge. He was ten metres above the darkened garden. To the north, the few remaining lights across Cap d'Antibes were bright pinpricks. It was past the locals’ bedtime but partying expatriates would be having un dernier pour la route. The only sign of life at Château de la Croë was the yellow glow of a guard’s lamp moving towards a side door.
Deep breaths. Ronnie couldn’t afford an asthmatic wheeze in the bedroom. The tall windows were partly ajar. How convenient that the Duke and Duchess enjoyed fresh air.
On a wide double bed, the Windsors lay well apart. He in pyjamas buttoned to the throat. She in something shiny that caught the moonlight.
Letting his eyes adjust, Ronnie could see the bathroom door was wide open – a gold-plated, swan-shaped bathtub sat smugly in view. The target painting was on the far side of the bedroom.
Perhaps his reflexes were shot, but he could still move like a cat. Ronnie, Le Chat. Albeit un chat that’d seen one bowl of milk too many. Shoulders back, pull that stomach in. This is the last one, Ronnie, he promised himself again.
The painting was a kitsch oil, barely 30 centimetres across. A small boy stood swinging a bucket at low waves splashing at his feet, his back to the artist. The child could not turn back the tide, and neither could the Windsors.
May 1938. Not a wonderful month for the pair. The British Embassy had ordered them out of Paris before a state visit by George VI and Queen Elizabeth. And here he was, standing a few metres from their crumpled bedsheets, turning the dial of the wall safe behind the painting.
As the safe door swung out, there was a very faint squeak.
“Did you hear that?” The Duchess’ voice came out of the gloom, sending Ronnie, bent double, towards a long drop curtain.
The Duke rolled sideways, pulling a pillow over his head. “Not again, darling. I can feel a headac ...”
Now she had the Duke’s full attention. “I’ll call for help.”
Barely hidden by the curtain, his back pressing against the wall, Ronnie mouthed a prayer.
“There,” said the Duchess. “At the window.”
A black cat sat full frame on the sill. Sleek, impassive. The moon behind it.
The Duke was on his feet. “Shoo, shoo,” he ordered. The cat rose, padded along the window ledge, ignored Ronnie behind the curtain, and disappeared.
Just centimetres from Ronnie, the Duke slammed the windows together, turning the key in the lock before heading back to bed.
“My hero.” Her voice had Katherine Hepburn’s throatiness. “Let me reward you.”
Ronnie closed his eyes. This is definitely the last time.
The act was over in minutes. Small Dukes, small mercies, thought Ronnie.
The Duke’s snores came in bursts. Her breathing was simply heavier.
Ronnie counted to 100 then pushed away the curtain. Please God, let the Duke’s pyjama bottoms be on. They were.
Reaching deep inside the safe, he found three slender jewellery cases. He pushed them aside and took out a document box. Its lid popped open at a touch. Ronnie’s hand moved inside his jacket. The stiff envelope was still there, zippered in place. Sliding the envelope under papers in the box, he closed the lid carefully and then pushed the box towards the rear of the safe.
On the window ledge, he judged the distance to the nearest conifer, braced himself and leapt.
As dawn picked out Antibes’ town walls, Ronnie walked to a café pressed against the side of a boulangerie. At a street table, a man in a hat lit a cigarette before offering one to Ronnie. They sat, watching the sky brighten.
“The Germans are coming,” said the man in the hat. "It's time to leave." He took a wad of francs from a leather satchel on his lap.
Ronnie counted the money. “Les Boches are a year or two away … and planting a fake letter from Hitler on the Duke won’t stop them.”
“No, but it will destroy his reputation. He’ll never take the throne again.”
Petty people. It was time to leave them to it. Ronnie wished the man in the hat bonne journée and didn’t look back.