Shadow of a Lady, страница 1
Shadow of a Lady
Jane Aiken Hodge
© Jane Aiken Hodge 1973 *
* Indicates the year of first publication.
DRAWN by the sound of music, Helen wriggled through the familiar gap in the park palings. It was child–size only, so pursuit, if it came, must come by the gate, with explanations to old Ben who kept the lodge. The thoughts slid unformulated through Helen’s eight-year-old mind, the joy of escape predominant. Grandfather had reduced Mother to tears again at breakfast and Mrs. Telfair had retreated to her room with one of her headaches. Helen, consigned to the random care of cook and maids, had soon made her escape and taken the now familiar path to Uppark. She had found it the first time she ran away, when the primroses were out.
Today there was a good smell of grass. The men must have been out with their scythes in the park. She pushed her way cautiously through the evergreens that masked the inside of the park fence, the music calling her, nearer now, loud and joyful. There were voices, too, and laughter. She moved more slowly. No one had found out, yet, where she came when she managed to get away, and every instinct urged caution. But she must see what they were doing in the park. The laurels gave way to rhododendrons, heavy with strange-scented blossoms, and she found that she could climb through their branches, her own height above ground, safely masked by green leaves and purple flowers. Ahead, the music danced to a halt and there was a spattering of hand-clapping and a great deal of laughter. Lying along two branches, Helen pushed aside a head of bloom, and saw.
Sir Harry was having a party in his garden. Canvas had been laid across the new-scythed grass to make a dancing floor. There was a long table beside it, and men in the Featherstonehaugh livery were clearing away the remains of a meal. Helen saw one of the fiddlers reach out and snatch a leg of chicken. They were the ones from the village; she remembered their faces from May Day; but they were playing different music today. They were tuning up now, ready to start again, and she saw Sir Harry emerge from the group of young men who were drinking and talking beside the long table.
“What’s it to be then?” Speaking, he seemed to be looking directly at Helen, and she cowered in her hiding-place. She did not like Sir Harry, though he was kind enough on the rare occasions when she met him with Grandfather or Mother.
“Who cares?” This was a young man rather more formally dressed than the others, whose shirts and breeches had struck even eight-year-old Helen as odd at a party. But then, it was a very hot day. “Who cares, so long as the divine Emmy dances for us. Mr. Haydn’s new air perhaps? They have it pretty well now, I think.”
“Thanks to you, Greville.” Sir Harry turned and spoke to the fiddlers, who nodded rather dubiously and scraped away harder than ever at their tuning.
“Look!” This was a young man Helen knew, one of the neighbours she saw from time to time in church. Today his face was very red. “Here’s your stage, Emmy.” The table was almost clear now. He seized a corner of the damask cloth that covered it, gave a good pull, and brought the last dishes clattering to the ground. “Up with you!”
“But I’m in a mook sweat already.” The woman’s voice, from the centre of the group of young men, surprised Helen. She had thought this a men’s party, and besides, the accent was very strange, neither like Sir Harry’s nor the villagers’. She peered eagerly through the screen of flowers to see this woman who was at a party with such a great many men.
Sir Harry was looking cross, and no wonder, with his silver all over the grass. He spoke again to the musicians, who bobbed nervously in assent, then strode over to the group of his guests. “I’ll put her up.”
The group parted before him, and Helen saw an angel. She had been talking to the grave young man called Greville, but now turned to Sir Harry, all sweet compliance. Dark auburn curls tumbled on bare shoulders. Her face was far more beautiful than that of the lady in the picture Grandfather was so proud of, and her dress infinitely brighter than any of Mother’s. She was laughing, and holding out her hands to Sir Harry, “All right then.” The “A” was flat. “If I moost, I moost.”
Sir Harry picked her up, with a tumble of dishevelled petticoats, a flash of red shoes and neat ankles that brought a whistle from the young men. On the table, she dropped a deep curtsy, then struck an attitude. “So, what’s it to be?” Her voice was lovely, when you got used to the accent.
“Greville’s Haydn,” said Sir Harry. “If you can do it?”
“I can do anything.” This time the curtsy was stately, like the ones Helen remembered her mother practising once. The word “court” flashed uncomprehended through her mind. It had been a long time ago . . .
The fiddlers struck up, uncertainly at first, then coming out strongly with the most beautiful time she had ever heard, and, lovelier still, the girl began to dance, dipping and swaying, her nimble feet always just on the table, her face grave, serene, an angel’s still. It was too beautiful to be borne, and Helen, lost in wonder, lost, also, her grip on the rhododendron branches, and tumbled helplessly out onto the grass.
The music stopped, with a scream of discordant notes, and Helen, picking herself up unhurt, heard Sir Harry saying one of Grandfather’s words as he moved towards her. She cowered for a moment, then straightened. Her hands, black from the rhododendrons, were clasped tight across her dirty pinafore. It was the end, of course.
“Who the hell are you?” asked Sir Harry.
He did not know her. Why should he? There was hope yet. But she would not lie. “Helen,” she said.
It caused, for some reason, a roar of laughter. The grave young man, Greville, came over to stand beside Sir Harry and look down at her. “ ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’ ” he asked, puzzling Helen.
“Please let me go.” She did not like him any better than Sir Harry, to whom she instinctively addressed her plea. “I meant no harm, truly, sir.”
“A young lady,” said Sir Harry, surprised.
“A very young lady,” said the other man. “Can you find your way home, young lady?”
“Of course I can.” Indignantly. “Please, sir,” again she spoke to Sir Harry. “Let me go. I was only watching the angel.”
This brought another roar of laughter, frightening, horrid. But it also brought help. “What, me?” said the angel, appearing behind Sir Harry. “Coom on, Harry, luv, let her go. She’s only a tiddler. And whipping’ll be the least of it, if her folks find out she’s been here, whoever she is. You sure you can find your way home?” Her smile, bent full on Helen, was exquisite, if a trifle gap-toothed.
“Oh, yes, please!” Helen smiled back.
“Then, scoot,” said the angel, and turned to throw an affectionate arm round Sir Harry’s neck. “Much simpler that-a-way, luv.” And, as Helen obediently scooted, “That’ll be a smasher one of these days, and no mistake.”
Safe back among the rhododendrons, Helen hesitated for a moment. The temptation to stay was strong. The heavenly music was striking up again. Even if she dared not look, she might listen. But suppose Sir Harry changed his mind? It was too great a risk. She crawled back through the fence and headed fo
“Filthy!” Look and tone were crushing. “That any son of mine . . .” Helen had learned not to listen when he talked like this, but she got her whipping just the same.
It was raining. Dead leaves lay sadly by the roadside and the carriage was damp and full of draughts. Helen was glad when they got to Petersfield, even if it did mean dragging through the rain with her mother as she did the errands. There were to be more of them than usual. They were celebrating, and Mother and Grandfather were on good terms for once. Helen did not entirely understand what it was all about, but Father had been very brave on his ship and there was going to be something called prize money.
It was hard to remember what Father looked like. Helen obediently jumped down out of the carriage in her mother’s wake and found with relief that it had stopped raining. “Watch where you go, child.” Mrs. Telfair picked up shabby skirts to avoid a huge puddle. “We must go to Miss Brown.” She looked down at tired flounces with distaste. “If your father should get home, I can’t greet him looking like this.”
Helen’s heart sank. A visit to the dressmaker meant endless waiting in a stuffy room while Mother and Miss Brown talked caps and sleeves, poplins and muslins. But Mother had stopped to talk to a neighbour. Helen made her curtsy and stood dutifully quiet, as she had been taught, half listening to their talk. Mother sounded really happy for once. “A Spanish convoy,” she said. “Promoted on the spot. If the Admiralty only confirm it . . .”
“Commander . . . hmm,” said old Mr. Masters. “It’s when he’s made post captain, Mrs. Telfair, that you should really rejoice. Mind you, this—ahem—war looks like going on forever. What with the Frogs and the Spanish, and those—ahem—American rebels, the navy’s got its hands full. Your husband will likely be an admiral before you see him home.”
“Oh, don’t say that.” But Mother sounded half pleased at the idea, and suddenly Helen had a picture of her father’s face, very like Grandfather’s.
Mother was beginning to shiver. She was so thin, it was no wonder if she felt the cold. Helen pulled her hand very gently and looked up at her.
“Quite right, pet.” It was Mother’s kind voice. “We ought to be getting on with our errands.” Characteristically, she made no move. “You really think this war will go on so long?”
“I see no end to it,” said Mr. Masters. “We’ll be lucky if it’s over by 1790. You’ll be a young lady by then, won’t you, miss? With ringlets and beaux and billets doux. And that reminds me, there was something my son said. Now, what was it?”
Helen remembered, suddenly, the young man with the red face that day last summer when she had seen the angel. Mr. Masters’s son. She was shivering now, as badly as her mother. Mr. Masters was ruminating, winding himself slowly up to say something, when Mother intervened. “Look! There’s the Uppark carriage.”
It was drawing up outside the Red Lion where the London coaches stopped, and Helen, expecting Sir Harry’s tall figure, and dreading possible recognition, was relieved to see a footman out of livery let down the steps and give a rather careless hand to a heavily cloaked girl.
“Hmm,” said Mr. Masters. “Turned off. I rather fancied it would end like that.” And then, “I cry your pardon, ma’am. Talking to myself. Bad habit of mine. May I conduct you to your next station? If you understand me. Naval man myself once.” He talked almost at random as he guided them along the street, the carriage now between them and the cloaked girl. “Dressmaker’s, ha!” He answered her mother. “Quite right, my dear. Must put out all our flags in case the commander gets home.” He left them at Miss Brown’s door with a gallant bow, and it was only as he walked away that he remembered what he had thought of saying to Mrs. Telfair. But probably best left alone. The boy had no doubt been in his cups and mistaken some village child for little Miss Telfair. A sweet-looking child; pity about that grandfather. Pity about the father, come to that. A grandfather himself, he sighed gustily and turned into his favourite tavern.
The session with Miss Brown was just as lengthy as Helen had feared, but the conversation was more lively than usual, since here, too, there were the subjects of promotion and prize money to be discussed. Helen, settled on the window seat with a handful of Miss Brown’s stale sugar-candy, half listened, half watched as shoppers splashed through the puddles below. It was market day and the little town was full, despite the rain, which was beginning again and in earnest. She saw the Uppark groom emerge from the inn, wiping his mouth, followed by the footman, and wondered idly what was the matter with the coachman, who usually drove Sir Harry’s bays. The two men were laughing—jeering almost, their eyes fixed on someone concealed by the coach. They swung themselves up into their places, the boy who was holding the horses’ heads stood away, a touch of the whip, and the carriage swung forward at the speed Sir Harry liked. It revealed the figure in the cloak, standing in the rain beside a very small box. She had pulled her hood more closely round her face, perhaps in defence against the men’s jibes, but, now they were gone, it fell back as she looked up to study the time on the church clock.
Helen gasped. It was her angel, but pitiful somehow, and diminished, bowed down by the heavy cloak, bright skirts spattered already with mud.
“What’s the matter, child?” Her mother had heard the gasp, and looked up impatiently from the copy of the Belle Assemblée that she and Miss Brown were studying.
“I feel a little sick,” said Helen, lying for the first conscious time in her life. “May I just run down to the front door? I wouldn’t like—” She left the sentence delicately unfinished.
“Sugar-candy,” said her mother, and, “Perhaps it might be best,” said Miss Brown.
“Very well, pet.” Today, nothing could damp Mrs. Telfair’s unusual spirits. “But not outside the door, mind, and don’t, for anything, speak to strangers.”
“Of course not, Mamma.” Helen got demurely down from the window seat, wrapped her cloak quickly round her, and left the room.
“You’re sure about the sleeve?” Her mother had already forgotten her.
Miss Brown’s tiny apartment was, appropriately, above a draper’s shop, but it had its own separate entrance, and Helen stood there for a moment, the door ajar, peering out. It was raining harder than ever and the street had emptied. A boy hurried by with a baker’s tray; a farmer urged two reluctant, new-bought cows towards the London road; the angel was still there, huddled under the overhang of the inn, her eyes fixed on the church clock. Two men, hurrying past Helen to cross the road, explained this. “Coach is almost due,” said one of them.
The London coach. “Turned off,” Mr. Masters had said. Helen knew about that. Cook before last had been turned off for making free with Grandfather’s port. But how could you turn off an angel? She took a deep breath, a quick, frightened look up at the window above, and plunged across the street, almost under the hooves of a tinker’s horse. As she ran, her hands were busy under her cloak, loosening the gold chain her godmother had given her. The tinker screamed frightened abuse at her, but she had the little gold crucifix safe in the palm of her right hand.
The man’s shouting had brought the angel’s eyes down from the clock to gaze for a moment vaguely at Helen. If she was an angel still, she was a sad one. Dark circles smudged eyes that seemed deep-set in the pale face; auburn ringlets hung limp under the hood . . . Helen was a child, but she had known despair, and could feel it. “Please?” Smiling timidly up at her lost angel, she remembered the voice that had said, “I can do anything.”
“Please,” she said again. “Do you remember me?”
The angel’s eyes focussed on her with difficulty. Then, miraculously, the grey face smiled that heavenly, gap-toothed smile. “Sure, it’s me peeping Tom,” she said. “Did you get home safe, luv?”
“Oh, yes, thank you.” Helen glanced nervously back over her shoulder. “Please, I haven’t much time. Are you all right?”
“You’ll always be my angel.” Helen held out the golden cross and chain. “Please, will you take this? From me? It’s mine, truly. My godmother gave it to me. She’s dead.”
For a moment she thought it would be refused. Then, the angel took it and, surprisingly, bit the cross with strong, irregular white teeth. “Dear God,” she said. “It’s gold.” She swooped down to envelop Helen in a damp embrace, and, oddly, in that moment of crisis, Helen noticed that she smelled quite different from the maids or cook, sweet and spicy, for all the mud that draggled her skirts. “If I’m your angel,” she said, in her lovely, strange voice, “then you’re mine, luv. I’ll pay you back, one day, truly I will.” For a moment, her voice had resembled Helen’s own. “But here’s the coach. God bless you, child.” The crucifix was in the breast of her gown. “I needed this. Now scoot, luv.”
And once again, Helen scooted.
Mrs. Telfair’s new poplin had to wait a year before her husband came home, and when he did, it was in a very bad temper, on half pay, on the outbreak, as he would have put it, of peace in 1783. It was not a good moment for a middle-aged, short-tempered naval man to have achieved his long-desired post-captaincy, though at least, as he pointed out with monotonous regularity, his name was now safely on its way up the naval lists. He had only to keep alive while others died, and wait, hopefully, for a new war, a new ship and, he was sure, in the end, an admiralship.
In the meantime there was nothing for it but to live at home with his father, who did not want him. His half pay came to less than fifty pounds a year, and the expectations on which he had married his wife had failed to materialise. Her aristocratic relatives refused to help a girl who had married, in their view, to spite them. Though respectable country gentry, the Telfairs were not at all in the same class as the Glendales, who had wide influence and a handful of rotten boroughs in their control, but saw no reason to advance the interests of a man who had neither intelligence nor manner to recommend him.