Rebel Heiress, страница 1
A Note on the Author
Also by Jane Aiken
The black winter that began 1812 was the worst Henrietta Marchmont could remember. The snow began early, and lay long. The Charles River froze over and presented a lively spectacle as young men skated out from Boston to attend lectures at Harvard College in Cambridge. But for Henrietta it was a season of unrelieved gloom. Illness did not improve her Aunt Abigail’s temper, and she was alone as nurse, companion and scapegoat. And then there was the news: War with England seemed increasingly certain and, if it came, would put an end once and for all to Henrietta’s long dream of reunion with her English father. How often she had imagined the meeting, having recourse to dreams of it, as to a drug, when Aunt Abigail was more than usually bad tempered.
Spring came at last, unwillingly. Skunk cabbage showed green on the Common, sludge lay in the gutters, a raw wind blew off the harbour, and Aunt Abigail’s strength dwindled as the days lengthened. Now, the long, angry fight with death was over and Aunt Abigail would scold no more.
As the funeral procession reached the little graveyard on the hillside, Henrietta pulled her pelisse more closely around her. It had begun to snow again and the faces of the few mourners were pinched with cold. Mr. Anderson, the young minister, looked enormous with an overcoat under his surplice. Bowing her head over her aunt’s open grave, Henrietta watched the first flakes settling idly on raw earth. Above, the New England sky was bleak and grey as the hard soil. Her feet were ice-cold in their shabby boots and from time to time a slow trembling shook her whole body. Was it cold? Or perhaps, though she would hardly admit it, even to herself, excitement? Poor Aunt Abigail. Closing her eyes as Mr. Anderson began to pray, Henrietta thought how sad it would be to die so unlamented. She had tried, ever since she could remember, to love her aunt. Now, by her grave, she admitted defeat. The little group of polite mourners were muttering the Lord’s Prayer, but Henrietta’s prayer was different.
‘Oh, God,’ she breathed, ‘forgive her for what she did to me, and help me to forgive her, help me to escape.’
Clenching her hands more tightly inside their darned gloves, she allowed herself just for a moment, as the prayer ended, to lift her eyes and glance down towards the harbour. Yes, the Faithful was still there, but from the bustle on the docks near her it was clear that the business of loading was proceeding apace. There was no time to be lost.
The short service was soon over. Earth began to fall hollowly on to the coffin that was narrow and dark and frugal like Aunt Abigail herself. Mr. Anderson shut his prayer book, came round the grave to Henrietta and took her arm.
‘Come,’ he said, ‘my dear Miss Marchmont. You must not be lingering here in the cold.’
She let him guide her away to the gates of the graveyard, grateful for the convention that demanded nothing from her but docility. On her other side, Miss Jenkin, her aunt’s only friend and relentless competitor in good works, had begun to talk again, taking credit for her devotion to her sick friend, her organisation of the funeral, and of the austere collation that awaited them now in Aunt Abigail’s cheerless little house on the wrong side of Beacon Hill. There was no need for Henrietta to listen to her. Miss Cabot, on her other side, was providing the necessary chorus of approving monosyllables.
Mr. Anderson’s grip on Henrietta’s arm tightened. ‘I must speak to you. Are you very cold? Could we perhaps take a turn on the Common before we go in?’
‘Why, yes.’ Henrietta had known that this explanation between them was bound to come, and at least it would postpone the dreary ritual of the funeral feast. ‘I have no doubt that Miss Jenkin will do the honours to a nicety. And indeed,’ she reminded herself rather than him, ‘I have much to thank her for.’
She listened passively while he made their excuses to the other mourners, only rousing a little to think with a flash of her usual spirit what an advantage it was to be the minister. What other young man would have been able to detach her with such public calm from her chaperone: Yet there was Miss Jenkin smiling her approbation and then turning, as he led her away, to mutter something to Miss Cabot, who nodded with such emphasis that her black Sunday bonnet shook on her grey curls.
They were out of earshot now. Mr. Anderson turned to face her. ‘Miss Marchmont, I do not know how to begin.’ It was true enough; he stammered to a halt, his pulpit eloquence failing him utterly.
She managed a smile for him. ‘Indeed, Mr. Anderson, you must not mind it so much. Aunt Abigail had every right to do what she would with her own. Her house will make an admirable minister’s residence. And believe me, I beg of you, when I tell you that I do not want it.’
His face glowed still redder. ‘It is like yourself to say so, Miss Marchmont, and I appreciate it, believe me, I do. But it is an iniquitous thing none the less; I would not have thought it of Miss Abigail. And yet I cannot refuse the bequest since it is made not to me myself, but to me in my capacity as minister. How can I reconcile it with my conscience to deprive my successors of so suitable a residence? But to have left you penniless and without even a roof over your head! When I think of all the donations I have accepted from Miss Abigail for her favourite charities — why, my blood boils. I thought her a good woman.’ He paused, at a loss for words.
‘Yes,’ said Henrietta, ‘I believe most people did.’
‘But not you, Miss Marchmont, I know it. How many times I have blamed you in my heart for not being more loving to your aunt. I begin to understand it now. Tell me, what was there under that mask of virtue?’
‘There was wickedness, Mr. Anderson, pure wickedness. I have long felt it, and now, at last, I know. The knowledge has made me happier. I used to feel so wicked myself because I could not love her when she had been so good to me. As I thought.’
‘Well’ — he made an obvious effort to be fair to the dead woman — ‘the fact does remain that she brought you up when you were left alone in the world.’ She made a move to interrupt him. ‘No, let me speak, Miss Marchmont. There is something I have to say to you. You are alone again now, without a home, without means, and without, I fear, much hope of earning your bread. To go out as a governess or companion is what I know your proud spirit would reject, nor are there many families who can afford such a luxury these days. No, Miss Marchmont, you must hear me out and believe me when I tell you that I have long pondered this step. It may seem rash to you for a man so young as I am, with the world all before him, but I have long believed it my duty as a minister to find myself a suitable helpmeet. And who could be more so than you, my dear young lady, brought up as you have been by your aunt, in the very odour of good works?’ He paused here for a moment, embarrassed as he remembered the new and unlovely light that had recently been shed on her aunt, but then went on undaunted. ‘Miss Marchmont, I am not a romantic man, but I have known you now these five years or more. I have watched you grow from a somewhat headstrong girl — you will pardon my frankness, I know — into a young woman I am proud to be able to call my friend. I have seen your attendance at your Sunday school class; so faithful, so patient even with the most ungrateful and disobedient of your charges. I have watched yo
Henrietta had listened to this remarkable speech with some astonishment. Now she turned to face him, releasing her arm from his. Their brisk walk and the cold wind had whipped up the colour in her cheeks; one dark curl had escaped from her mourning veil and blew against her face. Her blue eyes sparkled and for a moment his hopes soared, then plummeted as she spoke.
‘You have not said you love me, Mr. Anderson.’
‘My dear Miss Marchmont’ — he was pained and showed it — ‘I had thought better of you. I have often urged your aunt to forbid your reading those trashy novels. I blame Miss Edgeworth and Mrs. Radcliffe for this. If by “love” you mean that I would throw my bonnet over the moon, abandon all for your sake, then I must honestly confess that I do not love you. But as a sister in God, I may say that I love you most dearly and promise to care for you more tenderly than any hero of romance. Perhaps I have erred in speaking to you so soon. It is, I know, hardly fitting that we should be talking of love and marriage almost at the graveside, but I wanted you to know that, alone and penniless though you are, you yet have a friend who will care for you. Do not think you must answer me now. Treasure up what I have said in your heart, and remember, I beg, how truly I admire and respect you, how eagerly I look forward to your presence at my side. But come, our friends will be wondering what is become of us, and gossip is, as you know, what I in my position must of all things avoid.’ He took her arm again and gently urged her up the slope to the far side of the Common.
‘But I must answer you, Mr. Anderson, as much for my own sake as for yours. I fear you have been much mistaken in me, and when you know me better, will be grateful to me for this frankness. Do you truly believe that I want nothing else in life but to devote myself to good works? Why, I have had enough of Sunday school, of flannel and sewing bees to last me several lifetimes. I am about to begin to live, Mr. Anderson. But forgive me’ — she softened at his hurt look — ‘I am an ungrateful wretch. I have not told you how deeply honoured I am by your flattering offer, how grateful I am for it, how kindly I take it — but, indeed, I cannot accept it.’
He was walking faster now. ‘I am grieved, Miss Marchmont, grieved and surprised. Has yours too been nothing but a mask of virtue? But I will not believe it; you are disturbed, not yourself; you will think more of this. Besides, how else will you live? What will you do? Have you seriously considered the position in which — I am sorry to have to say it — you find yourself?’
‘What else do you think I have been doing since Aunt Abigail died and I found how I was placed? I have it all planned, only I need help. I had intended to ask it of you, for indeed, Mr. Anderson, I have always looked on you as my friend. But how can I ask you to help me now?’
‘Help you? Of course I will. If you are truly convinced that you have no vocation for a clergyman’s wife, why then (was there a shade of relief in his voice?) we will say no more about it and you must tell me how else I can help you.’
‘Oh, if you only would! Mr. Anderson, will you persuade the captain of the Faithful to take me as a passenger when he sails for England? I know he does not usually take passengers, but if you were to make the request, perhaps he would accept me.’
‘Go to England? And on an English ship? Have you taken leave of your senses, Miss Marchmont? Do you not realise that war between the two countries is now inevitable; that it is only a matter of time before it is declared? And, besides, what would you do when you got there: I would not wish to pain you, but surely you cannot intend to go to your father — to Lord Marchmont? You know only too well that he has ignored your very existence all these years. What hope have you that he will welcome you now?’
‘The best. There is much that I must tell you. It will shock you, I fear, but I hope you know the story of my birth — it has provided enough talk for Miss Jenkin and her friends all these years. You know, I am sure, that my father came here from England as a wild younger son and met my mother (I am like her, they say), married her in haste and could not stay to repent it, for his elder brother was killed in a duel and his family sent for him to come home posthaste. My mother was not well enough to travel, and stayed here with her elder sister, my Aunt Abigail. She was to join her husband in England after her child was born. But — he never wrote to her. Of course, the posts were slow, but weeks passed and she had no word from him. Her health was affected, she pined and fretted, and died when I was born.’
‘Yes, yes,’ he said somewhat impatiently, ‘it is an old story and a sad one; you will do yourself no good by reviving it now. I know only too well that your father even ignored the news of his wife’s death and of your birth. After such heartless behaviour, what hopes can you have of him?’
‘Heartless indeed it would have been had he done so, but only listen to me, Mr. Anderson. Since Aunt Abigail died, I have, of course, been going through her papers. There was one box, particularly, that I had never seen opened. You know how suddenly Aunt Abigail went at last. I am sure if it had not been for that, she would have destroyed the papers it contained and thus finished her wicked work. But she was not able to do so, and thus I found the letters from my father that she had kept hidden all these years. They were loving letters, Mr. Anderson, written to my mother from England, telling her of his reception by his family and how, after the first shock of surprise, they were prepared to welcome her as a daughter, and her child as the heir to the title. And then, a last, heartbroken note in answer to one from my aunt in which she had told him that mother and child had died together.’
‘What? You mean she suppressed his letters to his wife?’
‘Yes, and told him I was dead as well as my mother. Do you wonder I call her wicked? I do not know how I shall contrive to forgive her. All these years I have read of my father in the public prints: of the fortune he made in India, of his return to England and entry into politics; of his speeches, his successes, his position at last in the inner councils of their Tory Party. And always I have thought of him as my enemy, as having wilfully disowned me. But it was nothing of the kind. He thought me dead. Now do you understand why I must go to England?’
He had followed this passionate speech with deep attention. Now he sighed and nodded. ‘You are in the right of it, Miss Marchmont. You owe a duty to your father; you must go and tell him the truth. Yes, I will help you to get to England. But what will you do for passage money? Captain Gilbert is a good man, I know, but no philanthropist, and gladly though I would help you, I fear it is much beyond my means.’
‘You are too good. But there’s no need. Before she died, Aunt Abigail gave me all the money she had. It was not much, and I fear it was but grudgingly given, but you know how she hated lawyers. She said it would save her the trouble of willing it to me. Of course, I did not then know about the house … But at least it means that I have enough for my passage and a little to spare for my expenses in England. And after that, well, I can but hope for the best.’
‘You have proofs of your birth?’
‘Oh, yes, they were all there. Aunt Abigail may have been wicked, but she was a good woman of business. No, I shall have no difficulty in convincing my father who I am
‘Then I will see Captain Gilbert on your behalf tomorrow. Fortunately for you, I know that though he is English he is no supporter of the iniquitous Orders in Council that have brought our two countries to the point of war. He will not hold your being an American against you.’
‘But I am not an American. Had you forgot?’
‘Indeed I had; you seem so much like one of us. Well, well, perhaps, after all, it is for the best.’
‘Yes. It would hardly be fitting for a clergyman to marry a woman of the enemy, would it?’
‘You are too quick for me, Miss Marchmont. I confess, though, that thought had passed through my head. But here we are’ — his relief was obvious — ‘at your poor aunt’s house. Rely on me to do your business for you tomorrow.’
She thanked him and they went in to join the decorous party assembled over tea and cookies in Aunt Abigail’s dark little living room. All conversation ceased at sight of them, and Henrietta was only too well aware that they had been its subject. She sat down next to kind, busy Miss Jenkin and parried as best she might her persistent and well-meant enquiries about her plans. Gradually, however, as she sipped lukewarm tea, she became aware that Miss Jenkin was leading up to something. She had made various angling references to Mr. Anderson: ‘So fortunate for him to receive the house … but a responsibility for a single man … a minister really needs someone to take care of him,’ and so on, which Henrietta had answered as neutrally as she could. Now she changed her ground.
‘I hope you will not mind it, my dear,’ she said, helping herself to another cookie, ‘but dear Miss Cabot and I were speaking of you just now and wondering what the future holds for you. And — if some more eligible prospect should not open up before you’ — here she paused archly for a moment, then continued — ‘if, as I say, no more attractive alternative has presented itself, dear Miss Cabot was wondering if you would care to go and live with her for a while. She has that big house, you know, and neither chick nor child to call her own. You could do very much worse, my dear, left as you are. We will say nothing against dear Miss Abigail, but the fact remains that things have not come out just as we expected, have they my dear?’