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Whispering
 

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Whispering


  Whispering

  JANE AIKEN HODGE

  Contents

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  A Note on the Author

  Chapter 1

  The rain came down in torrents. The hired post-chaise leaked. Jeremy Craddock congratulated himself that it was only a child he was fetching. A young lady would grumble. He just hoped the nuns had her ready for him, the timing was tight enough as it was. A quick anxious glance at the watch on his fob confirmed this, but it was no use telling the coachman to hurry. Heavily bribed, he was doing the best he could with the tired horses that were all the Bath livery stable had had to offer. But at least the man knew the way to the convent, which was more than Jeremy did himself. Why should he? He had never been in the town before, did not much like what he saw of it now.

  The sound of the wheels changed as they left paved and terraced streets behind and crossed the river to climb a hill. He pulled out his letter of instructions and peered at it in the bad light of the wet August morning. No need, he knew them pretty well by heart, but no time must be lost in misdirection. Here at last were the gates Senhor Gomez had described in his letter. A child ran out through drenching rain to open them and the carriage moved forward up a tree-lined drive. He had never visited a convent in his life and visions of hands extended through iron gratings ran through his head. It was a relief to have the carriage stop on a gravel sweep outside a perfectly normal pillared Palladian entrance.

  A swift dash through the rain. The big door had already swung open. An ordinary maidservant stood there, bobbing an ordinary curtsey.

  ‘The Reverend Mother,’ he told her. ‘She will be expecting me. Mr Craddock.’ Time seemed to drip away down his fingers with the rain from his coat-sleeves. The girl had taken the hat he handed her, but looked puzzled. ‘There’s been no orders, sir,’ she said. ‘They allays sends to let us know when someone’s coming. Specially a gentleman.’

  ‘No orders? But there must have been. Senhor Gomez wrote at the same time as he wrote to me. I’ve come for Miss Gomez,’ he went on. ‘I hope she’s packed and ready.’

  ‘Miss Gomez?’ Something more than surprise in the girl’s face? He was trained to read faces, and thought so. ‘But she’s –’ She stopped. ‘I’ll pass the word to Reverend Mother,’ she said. ‘If you’ll wait in here, sir?’ She took his heavy greatcoat and opened a door upon a dank, dark parlour.

  ‘Don’t lose any time about it, there’s a good girl.’ He slipped a coin into the ready hand. ‘I’ve none to spare.’

  ‘I’ll do my best for you, sir.’ His smile, and the coin, had charmed her.

  Left alone, he ran fingers through his fair, short crop, glanced in the glass over the chimneypiece to make sure of the set of his cravat, and got out his letter of instructions again. He knew what it said. Gomez had written to the convent by the same post as he had to him, and told them to have the child ready. ‘She will be no trouble, I promise you.’

  Reverend Mother was not behind gratings at all. She was standing by a welcoming fire, a formidable woman in black habit and white wimple. ‘Mr Craddock.’ She did not offer to shake hands, keeping her own folded. ‘In what way can I serve you?’ She did not suggest that he sit down.

  It irked him. ‘You have surely heard from Senhor Gomez?’ he said.

  ‘No. Should I have?’ Heavy black eyebrows were drawn into a frown. Of puzzlement, or of anger?

  Why should she be angry? ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Senhor Gomez wrote and asked me to fetch his daughter, take her to Portugal with me.’

  ‘You are going to Oporto?’

  ‘Yes. If I catch the ship. I trust you have the child ready, ma’am.’

  ‘I have had no letter. This needs thinking about. You had best sit down, Mr Craddock.’

  ‘Thank you.’ He waited until she had done so. ‘I can only think that Gomez’ letter has gone astray,’ he said. ‘You would perhaps like to see mine.’ Lucky he knew its contents so well, there was nothing in it she should not see.

  ‘Thank you.’ She read it quickly, efficiently, coldly, as, he thought, she probably did everything. He found himself wondering what it would be like to be a child in her care.

  ‘I know the hand, of course.’ She gave him back the letter. ‘There is no question but it is from the child’s father. And the instructions are clear enough. As it happens, her things are packed and ready. It seems to me that I have no alternative but to let her go with you.’

  ‘Packed and ready?’ Now she had surprised him. ‘But you said you had not heard –’

  ‘Nor had I. I think it only right to tell you, Mr Craddock, that the young person was about to be expelled from our establishment.’

  ‘Expelled? Why?’ And then another equally relevant question. ‘And where to?’ A glance at his watch reminded them both of what he had said about haste.

  ‘Appalling misconduct.’ Now he knew why she was angry. ‘She is in isolation, Mr Craddock, and was to stay there until she went to her mother’s family.’

  ‘The old mad woman down in Wales? But, ma’am –’

  ‘You address me as ‘Reverend Mother,’ Mr Craddock. Yes, I wrote to Lady Trellgarten to tell her I was sending the young person to Trellgarten Hall. She was to have left tomorrow. You come most timely, Mr Craddock. Senhor Gomez appears to think it safe enough for the child to return to Oporto. It had not, frankly, struck me as at all a possibility. I am responsible for the girl, after all. I could hardly send her off to be snapped up by a French privateer, or, worse still, be subjected to the kind of savagery that the French soldiers inflicted on the city two years ago.’ She was on the defensive now, and he was glad. She had not wanted, he thought, to wait until she could get a reply from Oporto. What in the world could the child have done?

  ‘Oh, it’s safe enough now, ma’am.’ He was not going to call her Reverend Mother. There was not much that was reverend about her, he thought, nor much that was motherly either. ‘With Lord Wellington in control,’ he went on. ‘He has Masséna well and truly on the run, and not in the direction of Oporto, thank God. The English merchants are all taking heart and making their arrangements to go back, those who did not go when the Lines of Torres Vedras held so splendidly last year.’

  ‘That jumped-up Indian general,’ said the nun, and made him angry.

  But there was no time for that. Another glance at his watch. ‘If you would be so good as to have the girl fetched? It’s a blessing she is packed and ready to go. And I am sure I can count on you to make your explanations to Lady Trellgarten. I suppose I should know what terrible sin the child has committed.’

  ‘Insubordinate, unruly …’ She rang the silver handbell on her table and gave instructions for Miss Gomez to be fetched. ‘She’s been a disruptive influence ever since she came, three years ago. If I had known –’ She stopped. ‘If it had not been for the family connection … A bold, rebellious girl, Mr Craddock, wicked herself and a cause of wickedness in others. And then, this!’ She had risen to move over to the writing desk under the window and came back with a piece of paper in her hand. ‘Did you ever see anything so scurrilous, Mr Craddock?’

  His training stood him in good stead. He did not laugh. But it was a wickedly funny caricature; the bold, black strokes summing up everything he had himself found to dislike in the Reverend Mother. ‘Scandalous,’ he said. ‘But,’ diffidently,
you do not think it suggests a certain artistic talent?’

  ‘Talent!’ she snorted. ‘Talent should be put to the service of God, Mr Craddock, not the devil. I found a group of my young ladies laughing over it. Laughing!’ She was about to tear the paper across but he reached out and took it from her.

  ‘Do you not think her father should see it? To make him understand –’

  ‘You’re right, of course. There are probably others; I would just as soon not see them. But, Mr Craddock, am I not to meet your chaperone? As responsible for the child, I feel I should do so.’

  ‘Chaperone?’

  ‘You have surely brought an abigail, a respectable young female, a companion for Miss Gomez?’

  ‘For a child? I thought her too old for a nursemaid.’ Had he thought about it at all? ‘I am her cousin, ma’am, her aunt’s son, with three sisters of my own. She will play no tricks on me, I can promise you.’

  ‘You wilfully misunderstand me, Mr Craddock. A chaperone! The proprieties! You keep calling her a child.’ She turned at a knock on the door. ‘Come in.’

  Not a child. The dark-haired girl who stood summing him up with bold black eyes was very nearly as tall as he was. Now she sketched elegant little curtseys for them both. ‘You sent for me, Reverend Mother?’ Her hands were folded in front of her; everything about her seemed demure and was absolutely not.

  ‘Yes.’ The old nun’s tone was uncompromising. ‘This is your cousin, Caterina, Mr Craddock, come to fetch you on your father’s orders. I hope you will behave better to him than you have to us.’

  ‘Father has sent for me? To Oporto?’ She turned eagerly, held out her hand to Jeremy. ‘Oh, I am so glad to meet you, cousin. When do we go?’

  ‘This instant,’ he told her. ‘But first I think you should apologise for all the trouble you seem to have caused here.’

  ‘Oh?’ A slight gesture on his part had drawn her attention to the picture he was holding. They exchanged one quick, understanding glance. ‘Yes.’ She turned to the old nun. ‘Reverend Mother, I apologise. You will be glad to see me go, I know, and I am glad to go. But I thank you from my heart for all you have done for me.’

  She meant it, Jeremy thought, and thought that the old nun believed so too. ‘Bless you, my child,’ she said, surprisingly. And then, to Jeremy. ‘But this question of a chaperone.’

  ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I understand now.’ He turned, smiling, to Caterina. ‘I thought you a child still,’ he told her. ‘I did not see why Reverend Mother spoke of the need for a chaperone. I do now.’ Back to the nun. ‘It is but to apply to my sister in Bath,’ he told her. ‘I know you will trust me with Miss Gomez for those few miles. And we must be going or we will lose our ship. Are you ready, Cousin Caterina?’

  ‘Yes, cousin,’ she said with deceptive meekness.

  The post chaise stood ready; her small trunk had been strapped up behind; the rain had stopped; Jeremy handed Caterina ceremoniously into the coach, and got a mischievous look of thanks. ‘Such a perfect gentle knight, cousin.’ And then, as he joined her in the carriage. ‘Are you my cousin?’

  ‘Of course I am.’ Now she had shocked him. ‘You mean you were not sure, and yet you came with me?’

  ‘I’d have come with the devil to get out of that place,’ she told him. ‘And not to the depths of Wales to rusticate with poor mad granny either. You do come very timely, cousin. Thank you.’ He was arranging the shabby travelling rug around her knees. ‘And now for your sister in Bath.’ She was teasing him. ‘What are you going to do about her?’

  ‘You saw through that.’ With a rueful look.

  ‘I most certainly did. It was a miracle the old beldame did not. She is usually quicker than that, to give the devil her due, but I suppose she was so glad to get rid of me … And without the expense of sending me into Wales, either, which was bound to be a consideration for the old skinflint. So – no sister in Bath?’

  ‘No. Just one much older brother.’

  ‘Whom you don’t much like.’

  She was dangerously quick, this unusual girl. ‘No. We don’t see much of each other. I invented the three sisters for your old dragon’s benefit. I thought they would make me seem more reliable. Just as well I did. Your father called you a child. How was I to know?’

  ‘How was he? We’ve neither met nor written for over three years and didn’t see all that much of each other before that. I was a bitter disappointment, don’t you see, a mere girl. Girls don’t run vineyards. And then my mother was so disobliging as to die. No son. No heir. Very inconsiderate, he thought that. They were her vineyards, you see. What he married her for.’

  ‘His now, surely.’

  ‘Oh, that’s of course. Do you know my father?’

  ‘We have not met, no. Only corresponded. I look forward to meeting him.’

  ‘No law against that,’ she said. ‘So you don’t know what has made him relent and have me back.’

  ‘Relent? But he sent you home for your safety, surely?’

  ‘It made a most convenient pretext. With the French holding Lisbon, the Spanish holding Porto, and the English ordered to leave. But this is not home. I am not English, cousin, I am Portuguese like my father.’ She had switched into fluent Portuguese to say this.

  If it had been meant to baffle him, it failed. ‘Of course,’ he spoke in Portuguese as idiomatic if less fluent than hers. ‘I had quite forgotten, finding you in such very English surroundings.’ That was careless of him, he thought. He must not let this surprisingly grown-up child throw him off balance.

  ‘Where are we going?’ she asked now in English, surprising him again, not at the question but at the fact that she had not asked, nor he answered it sooner.

  ‘Into Bath for a change of horses. Then to Falmouth. There’s a ship loading there. When she is ready, and the wind serves, she will sail. And I mean to be on her.’

  ‘So masterful! And what about my abigail, cousin? You have not been to Porto, I take it, so you do not know what a scandal broth they brew in that tight, smug little British community. I don’t suppose you much wish to have to marry me on arrival. Though really,’ judiciously, ‘there might be something to be said for it.’

  She had silenced him, and knew it. ‘Here we are, almost into Bath,’ she went on in the same reasonable tone. ‘If you will have your coachman follow my directions, I think I can find us a chaperone. She’s an old friend. I promised her long ago that she should share my fortunes, if any. I had been wondering how in the world to get her to Trellgarten if I had to go there. This works out most admirably. We need to turn right here, cousin.’

  ‘Who is this? And will she agree to come?’ But he gave the order.

  ‘Oh, she’ll come all right. She’s a friend, I told you. We met – No, I don’t think I will tell you how we met. You might be shocked.’

  ‘I think I am beyond being shocked.’

  ‘Good,’ she said. ‘Left here, tell him, then right at the corner and stop at the end of the mews. I just hope Harriet is in.’

  ‘Harriet?’

  ‘Harriet Brown. A dear friend. And I promise you will make a most convincing chaperone. We may have to outfit her a little. Are you game for that, cousin?’

  ‘Your father undertook to pay your expenses.’

  ‘Handsome of him. For once. I do long to know why he decided to have me back. Tell me, if Harriet is there, how long can she have to get ready?’

  ‘Half an hour at the very longest. I want to be well on the road before we stop for the night.’

  ‘I should just about think so,’ she agreed. ‘Bath is another fine spot for scandal. I’m glad you do not intend to rack up at York House with me. Even with Harriet in attendance.’

  ‘York House is well above my touch.’ He meant to quell her.

  ‘Not above my father’s,’ she reminded him. ‘Here we are.’ The carriage had pulled up at the end of an extremely unsavoury mews. ‘With luck, if Harriet is home, we will be no more than fifteen minutes. If it’s to
be longer, I’ll let you know.’

  ‘But I am coming with you.’

  ‘Oh no you are not. I go alone or not at all.’ She was ready for this. ‘Be reasonable, cousin. Look at me. Look at yourself. You’re a swell. I’m – just a girl. I can go down there without being noticed; you cannot.’

  It was true. He had been momentarily appalled at her plain, even dowdy appearance when she joined him in bonnet and pelisse. ‘We will buy you some clothes in Falmouth if there is time,’ he told her and realised that he had let her win her point.

  ‘Splendid.’ She turned back to smile at him from the carriage step. ‘And Harriet can have mine.’ She looked up at the coachman. ‘If you want to walk the horses, there’s some open ground over there.’ She turned and walked swiftly away down the crowded, insalubrious alley, only her erect carriage and purposeful stride differentiating her from the shabby crowd around her. He should not have let her go. Could he have stopped her? ‘Yes,’ he said irritably in answer to the coachman’s question. ‘Walk them as the young lady said.’

  Young lady. He had thought a young lady would grumble at the leaking carriage, and that was one thing his surprising young cousin had absolutely not done. He looked at his watch. She had been gone five minutes. He had known her now for not much more than an hour, and, amazingly, he was regretting that from now on they would have a companion, this mysterious Harriet Brown who lived in such a poor way, and whom Caterina had met in circumstances that, she said, would shock him. He rather looked forward to the process of getting to know this cousin of his, and perhaps letting her learn how very little there was in the world that shocked him. The younger son of a younger son, he had been fighting his own battles for ten years since his father died bankrupt when he was fifteen. And fighting them, he reckoned now, with some success. After all, here he was, on a secret and fascinating mission to a strange country, and he could congratulate himself on having acquired an equally fascinating companion.

  What would she be saying to her friend Harriet Brown? He wished he could be a fly on the shabby walls that enclosed their confidences.

 
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