The Winding Stair, страница 1
Jane Aiken Hodge
A Note on the Author
Also by the Author
Moonlight lay, like water on smooth grass. Cypresses cast strange shadows across the river that ran fast, deep and cruel under its ornamental bridge. Pausing there a moment before he braced himself to enter Forland House, Gair Varlow lifted his head to listen. Somewhere, a late nightingale sang. Nearer, running feet crunched on gravel. A figure appeared from where Lord Forland’s theatre stood at the far side of the house, showed briefly in black silhouette against ranges of lighted windows, then cut across the rose garden toward the river. Watching, Gair instinctively stepped back into the scented shadow of a huge climbing rose, listening to the sobbing, hard drawn breath that might mean exhaustion or tears.
The runner emerged from the shadow of the house, and Gair swallowed a gasp of surprise. This was a creature from fairy-tale, a slender boy all silver-white in the moonlight, whose doublet and hose belonged not to 1806, the age of odd old King George and Bonaparte, but to an earlier day when Queen Elizabeth sent out her fleet against the Spaniard.
While Gair watched, stock-still with amazement, the boy reached the middle of the hump-backed bridge. Still sobbing, he stopped for a moment to catch his breath, unaware of the watcher in the shadows, then began to climb on to the low parapet.
‘Don’t!’ In a moment the dream boy was going to plunge into the river, and Gair had stayed, like a fool, amazed, too far away to intervene. He would have to do it with words. The boy was hesitating, surprised at the interruption, poised on the top of the low wall. ‘Don’t,’ Gair said again, but casually now. ‘It’s quite shallow under the bridge,’ he lied. ‘You’ll look sufficiently absurd, head down, legs up, in the mud. Besides,’ he moved forward into the moonlight. ‘This is my best suit of clothes. I don’t at all want to spoil it hauling you out.’
‘Are you sure?’ The boy’s high clear voice suggested that he must still be in his early teens.
‘Of course I’m sure.’ Gair risked another slow step forward. ‘I ought to know. Let me introduce myself. I’m Lady Forland’s brother, Gair Varlow, and entirely at your service.’
‘Oh! Mr Varlow … Yes, I suppose you should know.’ But he stayed perched on the wall and Gair did not dare move nearer. ‘Is it really so shallow?’
‘In winter it might be as much as waist deep, but now—’
‘I see.’ The boy sat down suddenly on the parapet, and Gair breathed a silent sigh of relief. ‘What a fool I am,’ the high, clear voice went on. ‘I might have known it would be no good. Nothing I d … d … d …’ He stuck on the letter, struggled for a moment, then began again. ‘Nothing I do ever is.’ He finished it in a rush.
While he stuttered, Gair had had a moment of delighted illumination. Here, fantastically, was opportunity presenting itself to him unasked. This was the very person he had come to Forland House to see.
‘Do you stammer too?’ he asked as if it was the most natural thing in the world. ‘I used to when I was a boy.’ He had thought a great deal about what his approach was to be, but had never thought of this one.
‘You d … d … don’t any more?’ It came more easily this time.
‘Not the least in the world. I grew out of it when I was at the University. I expect you will too.’
‘The University? Me?’ And then, looking down at the extravagant white and silver costume. ‘Good gracious! You can’t think—’ An irrepressible, delicious giggle ended the sentence. And then, sliding lightly down from the wall, plumed hat in hand, with a parody of a deep bow: ‘Your humble servant, Mr Varlow.’
‘And yours, Miss Brett.’ He knew it for the crassest of mistakes the moment it was spoken.
‘Miss—’ She choked on it. ‘You knew all the t … t … t … You knew all the while.’ She was too angry to let even the stammer stop her. ‘I suppose your sister t … t … told you. My Lady Forland who thinks I’ll make such a comic t … t … turn in her opera. Viola with a stutter.’ She turned away towards the river. ‘Why did you stop me? If I’d kept still, down there, I might have contrived to d … to d …’ She stopped, stutter and words alike lost in a rush of tears.
As for him, he was almost too angry to think. What lunacy was this of Vanessa’s? He had asked her to get the girl to her house party so that he could look her over. He had warned her, too, about the stammer, and yet she had apparently driven the child to the point of suicide. If he had not happened to be here … He shuddered at the threat to his carefully laid plans. And it was not averted yet, though he saw with relief that Juana Brett was making no effort to get back on to the wall, but merely leaned against it, her face in her hands, sobbing and shuddering.
‘But what in the world possessed Vanessa to give you the part?’
His tone of simple enquiry was just what she needed. She raised her head to look at him, her thin face ravaged in the moonlight. ‘I … d … don’t stammer when I sing,’ she explained. ‘They said it was just a singing part. My step-mother said I must. It was why we were asked, you see, and she said it was such a chance for the girls. My step-sisters.’ It was a relief to her to talk about it, here in the cool anonymity of moonlight. ‘It’s a new opera of Mr. Haydn’s,’ she went on. ‘One they found in the poor D … D …’
He watched her writhe, stuck fast on the letter, his compassion mixed with despair. What use could this poor creature be to him? He had had no idea her stammer was so bad. Had old Mrs. Brett not known, or had she simply not chosen to tell him?
‘The D … D …’ She threw back her head, her strong features showing shadowed in the moonlight, and amazed him with a fluent stream of Portuguese bad language. Then, on the same high note: ‘They found it in the Duchess of Devonshire’s papers,’ she said. ‘It’s based on Shakespeare’s T …’
It was going to start again. ‘I admire your command of Portuguese,’ he said in that language.
‘Oh!’ It took her aback. ‘You speak Portuguese?’ She, too, spoke it like a native. ‘I didn’t think …’ Was she blushing? ‘Nobody else understands it here. It seems to help, somehow. It’s only what the servants used to say at my grandmother’s.’
‘I can imagine.’ Dryly.
‘It’s not so very bad either,’ she went on. ‘They’re happy people, the Portuguese; they don’t swear much, or drink either. I didn’t know what life was really like, till I came here, to England.’
‘You don’t like it here?’
‘Who cares whether I like it or not? What’s that to the purpose? You don’t ask to be born. If you’re a girl, you don’t ask to be happy either. You just live. Or – you don’t.’ She had turned away again to gaze down into the dark water.
‘I don’t understand.’ Anything to distract her. ‘You don’t seem to stammer i
‘In Portuguese? Of course not. Why should I?’
Hope welled up in him. ‘Then you’d like to go back there?’
‘Don’t talk about it! I can’t bear even to think of it. In Portugal, I was alive. I could talk, think, breathe … You know Portugal, Mr. Varlow? You must, to speak the language so well.’
‘I’ve been there.’ Careful, he told himself; don’t rush your fences.
‘Then you know what it’s like. The sun, and the sea, and the quietness … All that time to be yourself, with no one to carp, and quibble and wish you different.’
‘You’re talking about your Grandmother Brett’s house at Cabo Roca?’ It sounded most unlike his own experience of the gossipridden English colony at Lisbon, but then, things were different in that extraordinary castle on the cliffs, where old Mrs. Brett, English herself, ruled a Portuguese household with a rod of iron.
‘The Castle on the Rock? You know it?’ Eagerly.
‘Yes. I went there once. An amazing place. I was actually received by your formidable grandmother.’
‘Were you really? And the others – you saw them? My uncles, my cousins, my Aunt Elvira …’ Her voice changed, softened on the last name. ‘I grew up there, you know. I was happy.’ She made it absolute. ‘And I did not even know it, till we came away, my father and I.’
He knew enough about the circumstances of her father’s disastrous quarrel with his rich mother, and still more unfortunate second marriage, to be able to fill out her bare sketch in his imagination. It brought him back to the immediate point.
‘And they want you to sing Viola in some opera of Mr. Haydn’s based on Twelfth Night?’ he asked.
‘That’s it.’ In Portuguese, even her laugh sounded different, richer and freer. ‘It’s a difficult part – calls for an unusual range. They could none of them do it. So Lady Forland asked us over to her house party. We live quite near, you see. Mamma was wild with joy. She’s been angling for an invitation ever since we settled here.’ And then. ‘I oughtn’t to be telling you these things.’
‘Never mind.’ He made it matter-of-fact, casual. ‘Blame it on moonlight and roses. Can you smell them? I think we’re both a little moon-mad, you and I. Besides, I might be able to help you. Vanessa – Lady Forland sometimes pays attention to me. Your problem, as I understand it, is that you can sing happily enough in their opera – so long as you don’t have to talk?’
‘That’s it.’ Eagerly. ‘Recitative’s all right; I can do that, but now they want to write some dialogue in the duel scene. They say it will just add to the comedy if I stutter. I could kill them.’
‘I don’t blame you.’ He meant it. ‘Better them than yourself, though I’d be sorry to see you hang at Tyburn.’
Her laugh really was delicious. ‘Thank you, Mr. Varlow. And I’m glad you stopped me. Though mind you,’ she was looking down at the river again. ‘I think you lied to me. It’s quite deep enough, isn’t it?’
‘Of course.’ And then, risking it. ‘Shall I give you a leg up?’
‘Not tonight, thank you. Not if you think you can persuade Lady Forland about the part. I won’t be made a mock of, but I like singing. It’s heavenly music, Mr. Haydn’s.’ She threw back her head, and moonlight illuminated the thin, pointed face, with its huge eyes and the undisciplined ringlets escaping from under the plumed hat. ‘ “Oh, mistress mine,”’ her voice rivalled the nightingale’s. ‘ “Where are you roaming?”’ And down suddenly to earth. ‘They will be wondering, won’t they?’
‘Where you’re roaming? I suppose they will.’ He was loath to end this strange, promising, moon-drenched scene, but turned beside her to start back toward the house. ‘Tell them it’s all my fault. You came out for a breath of air, met me, and we got talking about Portugal. Of course you wanted all the latest news.’ He left it like that, hopefully. This was too promising a chance to let slip. He needed to know much more about this strange, quicksilver, stammering girl before he decided if he could use her.
‘But I do,’ she took the bait. ‘You mean, you’ve been there recently?’
‘I’m only just back. I work for the government, Miss Brett – for Lord Howick, the new Foreign Minister. You know; he took over from poor Mr. Fox. Oh, I serve him in a very modest capacity.’ More bitterness in his voice than he liked. ‘You could say I run his errands. My latest one was to Lord Strangford, our representative in Lisbon. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, who are half Portuguese, that Portugal is our oldest ally. And one of the few we have left, just now, to help us fight Napoleon.’
‘Yes.’ He could hear the smile in her voice. ‘I can remember how father and Uncle Miguel used to argue about it, back at the Castle on the Rock. And grandmother too.’ This was a less happy memory. ‘Father thought the peace we made with France, back when I was a little girl, would give us – what did he call it? Peace in our time, he said. Freedom to expand the business, he talked about. Our wine business – you know?’
‘Yes, I know. And very good wine too.’
‘Thank you.’ Playing the great lady, she reminded him extraordinarily of her extraordinary grandmother. She sighed. ‘He wanted to come to England, to reopen the English House. It would have worked, I’m sure, if war hadn’t broken out again so soon.’ She was trying to convince herself.
‘Of course.’ He knew too much about her father to believe it for a moment. Reginald Brett had always been one for the easy choice, the quiet life. Surprising, really, that his daughter seemed to have so much character.
‘How did you know I was half Portuguese?’ Her question, harking back to something he had said earlier, was a new reminder that she was no fool, this girl with the stammer.
‘My sister told me,’ he lied, and wondered if it was a mistake. ‘Besides, there’s your name. Such a pretty name: Juana.’ He must not betray how much, in fact, he had made it his business to know about her.
‘But that’s not Portuguese.’ She pounced on it. ‘It’s Spanish, after my mother. Not that she was Spanish, thank God,’ she hurried to explain. ‘But she spelt it that way. It was some kind of a family thing.’ Again she laughed that delicious laugh. ‘If you’ve seen anything of them, you must know that my family – my family in Portugal – are given to “things”. Oh dear.’ It was a sigh from the heart. ‘How I wish I was back there.’
‘You really do?’ Should he speak now? No, first he must write to her grandmother. After all, the final decision, like the final danger, was hers. And this girl’s, he thought, with a qualm that surprised him. What was he doing, boggling at possible danger to an unknown girl. Ridiculous. He took her arm, and felt it tremble, ever so slightly, through the silk sleeve. ‘We must be getting in or my sister will have my head. But—’ He found he really meant it – ‘You’ll sing me the rest some time?’
‘ “What is love, ’tis not hereafter,”’ she sang, then laughed. ‘You’ll hear enough of it if you stay.’
‘Oh, I shall stay,’ he said.
Lord Forland had built his theatre a little way from his house, and in the shape of a Greek temple. It was an admirable arrangement, said his wife, when the weather was fine. On this mild June night, the big doors behind the portico stood wide open letting out a blaze of light and a babble of voices, but no sound of music.
‘Do you think they’ll have missed me?’ Gair could feel his companion shrink into herself.
‘Well – since you’re the heroine—’
‘I? Good gracious, what an odd idea. Lady Forland – Olivia is the heroine. I thought they would be working on her scene with Orsino for ages. Anyway—’
He could not help laughing. ‘Since you did not intend to return, it did not much matter? Don’t look so frightened, Miss Brett. I’ll stand by you.’ They had entered the broad pathway of light from the doorway and he saw that she was both taller and plainer than kind moonlight had suggested. Tall and strongly built himself, he had not noticed, before, that her head came nearly up to his. Her boy’s costume suited h
‘It will be worse. I shall have to speak English.’ This, in Portuguese, with the simplicity of despair. ‘I shall stutter.’
‘If you think you will,’ he said bracingly, ‘you’re bound to. But don’t worry: if you start, I’ll interrupt you. It’s “t” and “d”, isn’t it?’ he went on in English.
‘You’ve noticed!’ She answered in the same language. ‘Yes, they’re the only ones. If I can just keep away from them, I can manage.’ He felt her stiffen on his arm as they reached the wide doorway and saw the buzzing crowd of costumed figures inside. On the stage, his sister, Lady Forland, magnificent in Elizabethan ruff and sweeping black velvet, was appealing for silence. ‘Does no one know where she has gone?’ she asked. ‘You Mrs. Brett? She said nothing to you?’
‘She never does.’ A faded blonde in the demure grey of a lady in waiting, Mrs. Brett spoke more angrily than she had intended, looked angrier still as a result, and continued on a note of careful reason. ‘Did she not say anything to you, girls … Daisy? Teresa?’
‘No, mamma.’ Two other waiting-women moved forward to speak in unison and Gair, noticing their likeness to their shrewish mother thought he began to understand what the trembling girl on his arm had had to endure.
‘Vanessa!’ He pitched his voice high enough to be heard across the hall. ‘Here’s your truant. You must blame me for delaying her. But who could resist the chance of talking to Cesario in the moonlight?’
‘Gair: I might have known it.’ But his sister’s tone was indulgent. Three years older than he, she had been his first and was his most faithful slave. ‘Thank goodness you are here at last,’ she went on. ‘You can settle the point that’s been vexing us. It’s the duel scene between Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Cesario. There’s no music for it, I don’t know why. Perhaps Mr. Haydn never finished the opera; perhaps the poor Duchess of Devonshire lost it. The manuscript was tattered enough when it was found. But there it is. We can’t leave the scene out; it’s the cream of the whole jest.’