Maulever Hall, страница 1
Jane Aiken Hodge
Who Am I?
Her only key to the past was the brooch she wore. “Marianne”—the inscription echoed through her mind as she wandered across the bleak moors, clutching the tiny hand of the child at her side. After hours of frantic searching, she found shelter in the foreboding old house. But instead of comfort she found terror ... With little idea of the peril and horror the relationship will bring, she was oddly attracted to the handsome owner of the manor. And when Mark returned her interest, the stark, shuddering secrets of her past resounded through the haunted walls of Maulever Hall!
Her head ached. The movement of the coach made her feel sick. Coach? What coach? She opened her eyes and found herself looking straight into the anxious ones of a fat woman in red satin.
“Where am I?” she asked.
“That’s better, dearie.” The woman in red leaned forward to pat her knee. “Give us quite a turn you did, going off like that. And for only a little bit of a bump, too, nothing to what I had the day the Brighton coach overturned—but that was The Age of course, a real flyer, not like this old hearse. Every time I come this way I vow I’ll travel post another time, but my husband wouldn’t hear of it today. ‘No, Bessie,’ he says to me, ‘Lord knows, I’m not one to be tight with the blunt, and the best of everything we can afford, and you should have. But traveling post about the countryside by yourself with these Reform Bill rioters out—not to mention the rick-burners, the machine breakers and all that riffraff—is what I will not allow, and wouldn’t have a quiet minute if I did. The public coach may be slow, but it’s safe,’ he says. Of course, he didn’t reckon for its being overturned in a ditch by some drunken dolt of a coachman. But are you really feeling better, dearie?” She leaned forward again, with a powerful waft of cheap scent and dirty satin.
“Yes, much better, thank you, ma’am. But,” she asked again, “where am I? I—I can’t remember.” Her voice trembled on the words. While the woman in red had been talking she had had time to recognize the full horror of her plight. “I—I seem to remember nothing.”
Nothing? The woman leaned toward her, avid curiosity written across her broad red face. “Not boarding the coach at Exton, dearie, and the fuss the guard made because you hadn’t a ticket? And wanting to charge full fare for the child, too, the poor little dear, till we made him see reason.”
“Child?” She had been aware of restless movement beside her and now defied her throbbing head to turn in that direction. He was curled up against her, peacefully sucking his thumb and gazing, half asleep, into vacancy. A very small child: a year, two years, she had no idea. I don’t know much about children, she told herself in sudden panic. Not mine though, surely not mine?
“You’re not having us on, are you?” said the woman in red, her bright eyes suddenly sharp with suspicion. “You mean you really don’t remember?”
“Nothing,” she said. “I—I don’t even know my own name.” Raw panic in her voice now. “And—I’m afraid...”
“Of course you are.” A man leaned forward from the far corner of the coach. “But don’t worry yourself, miss, it’ll pass off soon enough and you’ll remember. It’s just the shock of the blow. You caught yourself a nasty whack on the side of the coach when she went over. Stands to reason it will have shaken you up a bit. Just sit back and take it easy and it’ll all come back to you soon enough.”
“That’s all very well,” said the woman in red, “and very good advice, I’m sure, but if I’m not very much out of my reckoning the young lady’s due to be set down pretty soon, and then what’s to do?”
“Why, then her friends will meet her,” said the man in the corner bracingly. “The best thing that can happen. They’ll take care of you, miss, even if your memory doesn’t come back, which ten to one it will any minute now. But don’t try and force it, miss, let it come easy. I warrant it will soon enough.”
“I’m sure I hope so,” interposed a tall woman from the far side of the child, “but I’ve heard of cases where there’s been a blow to the head and the victim’s never been the same again.”
“Yes,” said the woman in red, “or walked around, bright as you please for a few hours, and then gone over sudden-like, dead as a doornail. But don’t you fret yourself, dearie, for your color’s getting better every minute. White as a sheet you were, half an hour ago ... And as to your name”—she leaned forward with another great gust of scent and inadequate washing—“it’s on your brooch, plain for all to see, Marianne, and a very pretty name too.”
“Marianne,” she said wonderingly. “Am I? How can I not know? It seems—yes, it might be right. But—Marianne what? Who am I?” It was almost a shriek. “And where am I going?” She was distracted by a tug at her skirts, and looked down in new panic at the child beside her. “And who is this?” she asked. “What am I doing?” All the time, behind the moment’s urgency, there lay another, deeper terror, a terror that was part of what she had forgotten. “Where am I going?” she asked again.
“Why, to Pennington Cross,” said the woman in red. “I heard you ask the guard to put you down there myself. And not best pleased, he wasn’t either, it not being a regular stopping place, but you looked at him so pitiful and desperate with those big eyes of yours that he said he’d make an exception this once. Do you really not remember?”
“Nothing,” said Marianne. Was she Marianne? Looking down, she could read the letters, upside down, engraved on the big brooch that held her shawl together. Yes, probably she was. One would hardly wear someone else’s name. It was a large, old-fashioned brooch: surely she should remember something about it? Once again, she racked her memory, but again without result.
“Don’t force it,” said the man in the far corner again. “It’ll never come that way. Your friends will tell you all you need to know, when you meet them.”
“Friends?” she said doubtfully. It was odd, but she did not feel as if she had friends. That was all part of the terror that lay, somewhere, behind her forgetting.
The child at her side pulled at her skirts again. “Mam,” he said fretfully, “Mam...” And then a flood of child’s nonsense.
“He calls you mam,” said the woman in red helpfully. “I don’t know what he intends by it.” A meaning glance fell on Marianne’s gloved left hand and, instinctively, she clasped her hands together in a nervous gesture which allowed her to feel her ring finger. There was nothing there. A little shudder of relief ran through her. Of course she was not married. Whatever this child might be, he was not, she was sure, hers. She looked down at her plain brown merino dress, under the heavy woollen shawl, at the coarse hand-knit gloves that concealed her hands. For some reason the clothes surprised her ... Why? Once again she searched, baffled, for a memory that would not come.
The woman in red had followed her movements. “No ring?” she said. “No, I thought not. You don’t behave like a mother, either, nor yet like a married lady.” She looked, for a moment, surprised at what she had said, then went on: “And his clothes are better than yours, too. That plaid frock and trousers cost a pretty penny, I can tell you. Most like you’re his nursemaid, or his governess, I’d think, if he weren’t young for it.” She still sounded puzzled.
“Why do you call me a lady?” asked Marianne, with the directness of desperation.
The woman in red looked at her approvingly. “You’re quick, ain’t you?” she said. “Nothing wrong with your mind when it chooses to work. To tell truth, I was asking myself that very question. My kitchenmaid wouldn’t say thank you for the clothes you’ve got on— Why, they don’t even fit you.” She looked down complacently at her own all too tight fitting satin. “But a young lady is what you are, just the same.” She pronou
“Of course she’s a young lady,” she said, “but what’s that to the purpose? As for the child”—she leaned forward to address Marianne directly—“if it’s any help to you, his name’s Thomas. I heard you say ‘Oh, Thomas’ when he spilt the sauce down himself in the inn at Exton. And don’t be tormenting yourself that you’re his mother either,” she went on robustly, “because anyone that knows anything can see you’re not. Hullo, what are we stopping for?”
“Pennington Cross, I reckon,” said the woman in red with the satisfaction of one achieving the last word.
She was right. The guard put his head in at the door a moment later to say: “Now then, where’s the young lady as wanted Pennington Cross? Look sharp there, miss, we can’t wait all day. We’re two hours late already.”
“And whose fault’s that,” said the woman in red. “We didn’t ask to be dumped in the ditch and left for hours while you rode for a relief coach. As for the young lady, she’s not well.”
“Can’t help that,” said the guard. “Pennington Cross she asked for, and Pennington Cross this is, and not a regular stop either.” He held out his hand to help Marianne down from the coach.
“Don’t forget the child,” said the woman in red, helpful to the last.
She almost had. She turned and picked him up. His arms went warmly round her neck and he snuggled against her. “Mam,” he said contentedly, “Mam.”
There was a chorus of “goodbye” and “good luck” from the other passengers as the guard helped her out. She turned to smile tremulously up at them. They were her friends, the only friends she had.
“There you are, miss.” The guard turned back to the coach. “Your box will be at the Three Feathers as arranged.”
“Oh ... my box...” But he had jumped back on to the coach. The coachman whipped up his horses, the woman in red leaned out of the window to shout something, but her words were carried away on the wind and Marianne caught only the one word, “friends.”
She looked after her. “Your friends will meet you,” the man in black had said. But there was not a soul in sight; no sign, even, of a house. The name, Pennington Cross, had conjured up in her imagination a picture of a busy town center—a market cross, people ... help. Now she realized her mistake. This was not one of the coach’s regular stopping places, but a lonely crossroads, high up on the rolling, winter-brown moor. In each direction, a road wound away, up and around the sweep of the hills and so out of sight. A cold little wind blew her curls about her face and, beside her, the child whimpered a little, from fatigue. No use standing here. Her friends had not met her. Surely she must have friends? She must seek them out, down one of the roads. But which? Two of them she dismissed at once. There was obviously no sense in going back the way she had come, or forward, where a little cloud of dust still spoke of the coach’s passing. Since she had insisted on being set down here, she must have intended to take, not the main road, with its modern macadamized surface, but one branch or other of the little country lane that crossed it. She was about to cross the road and study a weatherbeaten signpost that stood on a little hill by the crossing when a sound made her start. So far, she had been mainly conscious of a vast silence, infinitely restful after the noise and confusion of the coach. But now, just as the rumbling of the coach’s wheels had merged itself in the low murmur of the wind, there was, far off, the sound of a horse’s hoofs. Someone was riding, fast, along the road by which she had come.
And at once, illogical and all the worse for that, the terror was on her again. She was no longer the reasoning person who had stood there, debating which road to take, but a hunted creature, in fear of its life. Any minute now, the horseman must come over the edge of the far hill and see her standing there, exposed ... helpless. No time to wonder why she was so afraid, time only for action. She looked around her: no hedge, no ditch on these remote heights; no trees, even, only close moorland grass, where here and there sheep cropped among the patches of gorse and heather. But she had been acting while she thought. Already, she was running toward the nearest large patch of gorse. Why, when she remembered nothing else, did she know so well the kind of path that sheep made through these thickets? Her feet seemed to find their way without her direction; already, she was on a narrow, much pitted sheeptrack that led toward the gorse. The child was pulling back on her hand, muttering one of his maddening, unintelligible phrases. “Hide and seek,” she spoke as calmly as she could, picked him up and hurried toward the thicket. Did he understand? She thought perhaps he did, for a sudden smile broke over the solemn and rather dirty little face. “There.” They had reached the first prickly bushes now, and she put the child down and urged him gently ahead of her. The path was just his size and he ran on ahead of her gaily enough, while she had to bend double to follow him, feeling, as she did so, the sharp spines of the gorse catching at her bonnet and tangling themselves in her full skirts. Her face and hands were scratched already, but terror drove her on into the heart of the thicket.
Now, at last, she stopped and put her finger on her lips as the child turned back toward her. “Hush,” she whispered. And, as he solemnly imitated her gesture, she was able, over her own panting breath, to hear the horse’s hoofs, very near now. They were slowing down, coming to a stand-still ... The rider was doubtless at the crossroads they had just left. Bent double as she was among the thick stems of the gorse, she could see nothing and yet had no idea of whether she could, herself, be seen. Time drew out, interminable with terror; the child began to stir restlessly beside her. Once again she put finger to lips, and murmured almost noiselessly “Hush.” Once more it worked. The child beamed back at her and put his own finger to his lips. Smiling at him, she heard the horse’s hoofs once more. She could tell, from the change in their rhythm, that the rider was urging his mount as quickly as possible into a gallop ... How strange it was to know so much—and yet remember nothing. The child was pulling at her hand, tired of the game they had been playing. “Mam,” he said plaintively, “Mam.” She hesitated a moment, listening. The horse sounded far away now, but could she be sure? Suppose there had been two of them; suppose she should crawl out from her lair only to find the enemy waiting for her. The enemy. What enemy? Suddenly her fear of fear itself swelled into panic. In a moment, she must lose control: scream, faint perhaps. “Absurd,” she spoke to herself aloud and the sound of her own voice was oddly cheering. A young lady’s voice, the woman in red had called it. Well, a young lady did not give way to these ridiculous terrors. What was she doing cowering here in the bushes when she knew perfectly well that there had been only one rider and he must be far away by now? Anyway, she told herself, he was doubtless some harmless countryman on the most humdrum of errands. “Come, Thomas.” She took the child’s hand once more. “Time to be going.”
Just the same, she paused for a long moment, looking cautiously about her, before she emerged from the prickly protection of the gorse patch. There was nothing to be seen. The moor was silent and gray-brown as ever, the sheep cropped steadily at the grass which here and there was taking on a greener tint that spoke of spring on the way. But the air held a new chill now, and there was a hint of dusk over the further hills. At all costs, she must be thinking of shelter for the night. She emerged from the sheltering gorse, grateful for the relief of standing once more upright, and walked determinedly toward the crossroads and the signpost.
Its message was simple and unsatisfactory enough. One arm, pointing back the way she had come, read EXTON, and, in the opposite direction, PLYMOUTH. One was broken off and the fourth had been so battered by the prevailing wind that its message was barely distinguishable. It might—or might not—have read PENNINGTON. The name meant nothing to her, except that she knew this for Pennington crossroads. She looked one way and the other along
As she went, she reminded herself that the coach had been, by everyone’s admission, gravely delayed by its accident. Her friends might well have come to meet her, waited for an hour or so, and gone home in despair. After all, they were not to know that she had lost her memory, and therefore did not know where to look for them. Vainly, she cudgeled her brains: “Who am I?” she asked, as she had done in the coach, and then, ‘ Marianne ... Marianne?” she whispered to herself. It sounded right now; she thought she was Marianne. But Marianne what? And why was she afraid? And—she looked down at him, trudging stolidly along at her side—who was Thomas? Not her child. Surely not her child? But then, what was she doing with him, here, alone on the moor? And—it always came back to this—what was she afraid of?
At this point, a new and chilling thought struck her. At the pace he was going, the horseman must soon catch up with the coach. No doubt he would be told that she had left it at Pennington Cross; he would turn back after her. Clasping Thomas’s hand more tightly, she quickened her pace, and, when he protested, wordlessly, at this, stooped to pick him up. Of course he was tired; it was very likely almost his bedtime and she had no idea when they had eaten last ... As for her, she was not just tired, she was exhausted. Best not think about that. She clasped the child more tightly to her and hurried along the rough road that might lead anywhere.
Several miles farther along the main road, the lonely horseman had indeed caught up with the coach, which had been making its slow and ponderous way up a succession of steep hills. Ruthlessly extorting a last burst of speed from his weary horse, the rider pushed it past the coach, and stopped it clear across the road. The coachman drew up swearing. He had had enough of delays for the day and was in no mood to be cross-examined. Asked if he had set down a passenger at Pennington Cross, he denied it angrily. “It’s not a stop, there, see. I never drops people but at the appointed stopping places.” He was by now convinced that the stranger was a company spy, sent to report on his conduct of the coach.