Watch the Wall, My Darling, страница 1
Watch The Wall, My Darling
* * *
Jane Aiken Hodge
A Note on the Author
Also by the Author
Rain beat against the carriage windows. The light was fading fast. For the third time since they had left Rye, the coachman stopped to ask his way. For the first time, Christina admitted a qualm of anxiety. At this rate, it would be full night before they reached Tretteign Grange. She shivered. “The Dark House,” the landlord of the George in Rye had called it. “They don’t much like strangers at the Dark House. Best stay the night here, miss, and go on in the morning.” At the time, telling him firmly that she was expected, it had seemed mere common sense to continue her journey. Now, as the carriage lurched forward once more along the lonely marshland track, she was not so sure. Suppose her grandfather had not had her letter? But of course he must. She had stayed an extra day in London, partly to finish her business there, partly to make sure it arrived before her.
The coach was going more slowly now, the driver feeling his way along the strange road in the dusk. She had tried to persuade the landlord to send one of his men as guide, but he had been oddly reluctant. Pressed, he had hedged. “We don’t go on the marsh at night much, miss. They don’t like it.”
He seemed to hesitate for a moment, and yet, when it came, his answer was reasonable enough. “The guards, miss … the soldiers.” And then, indulgently, “Course, I keep forgetting you’re a Yankee. You speak so clear, just like the rest of us. Maybe you don’t even know. Any night now, Boney may land his army here. There’s guards waiting, all along the coast—beacons ready for lighting. Reckon you must a’ seen some of them on your way down from London.”
“Of course I know an invasion’s expected.” During the short time she had been in England, she had been constantly irritated by this assumption that as an American she must be totally ignorant of European affairs. “I’m glad to hear the coast is guarded—from what I heard in London …” She broke off. “But surely that is no reason why I should not drive to my own grandfather’s house?”
“Your grandfather? Mr. Tretteign? Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” Oddly enough, this seemed to settle everything—except the question of a guide. Here he was obdurate, shifting his ground now to say that he was sorry, but had no man to spare. The instructions he had given her London coachman had seemed lucid enough, but they had missed their way just the same, and had lost valuable time.
It was very nearly dark now. The wind was rising, and she could hear a new sound too, the sullen roar of the sea. Well, at least that should mean they were near their destination, since Tretteign Grange was almost on the shore. Perhaps she would not be so very late after all. She leaned back, purposely relaxed in her corner of the carriage, and wondered for the thousandth time what her grandfather and cousins would be like. Should she have waited for an answer to her letter? In London it had seemed nonsense. Now … in the dark she wondered.…
The carriage lurched to a sudden stop and she heard the coachman and groom shouting. What now? Another missed turning? She lowered the glass and leaned out to feel the whip of the wind and to taste salty rain on her lips. “What’s the matter now?” Her voice blew away on the wind. The coachman, on his box, was fully occupied in holding his horses; the groom had run forward to their heads. She could just see him in the dim light from the carriage’s lanterns, and beyond him—what?
“It’s clear across the road,” his voice came back faintly over the roar of the wind.
“Damnation take it,” said the driver. “And no room to turn.”
Christina swung the carriage door open, judged the distance as best she might by the uncertain glimmer of the carriage lights, lifted her skirts, and jumped. She landed on soft grass, and just managed to keep her balance on the edge of a deep ditch that ran beside the track. Recovering herself, she moved forward. “What’s the matter?” she called up to the driver.
“Road’s blocked,” he answered tersely. And then, “How the hell did you get out?”
“Jumped.” She went on to where the groom had succeeded in steadying the horses. Now she could see that the lane was indeed blocked by a barricade of hurdles and brush. “What on earth?”
The groom started and turned at the sound of her voice. “I reckon landlord’s right. They don’t like strangers on the marsh,” he said.
“What do we do?”
“God knows. Can’t go on. Can’t turn. Ditch this side, shingle that. Take the carriage on to that, we’re here for good. Frank,” he raised his voice, “what’s to do?”
The driver’s only answer was a string of curses. He’d been a fool to come, and it would teach him to put himself out to oblige a lady.
“You were paid well,” said Christina, “and promised more.” She moved forward to examine the barrier. “If we can’t go back, we will just have to go on.” She pulled a bit of brushwood clear of the obstruction and threw it in the ditch. “It will take a bit of time, but we can get this down easily enough, if you will just leave swearing and help.”
She thought the groom muttered something about Yankees, but he left the horses and came forward to join her in removing bits of prickly gorse from the improvised barricade. “I don’t reckon we should,” he grumbled as he did so. “Suppose it’s part of the invasion defenses?”
“If it is,” said Christina, “heaven help us if the French really land. It wouldn’t hold them five minutes.… Oh!” Strong arms had caught her from behind; a hand covered her mouth on the beginning of a scream. Vainly struggling, she saw that the same thing had happened to the groom, while a group of dark figures had surrounded the carriage. It was all over in a moment. Her captor now had her hands held behind her in one of his, while the other still covered her mouth. She bit it as hard as she could.
“Damnation!” The voice was a gentleman’s. The hand had been whipped away and she drew in a deep breath. “Scream if you must,” he went on, “there’s no one to hear.”
It was too obviously true. She let the breath out again on a long, angry sigh. “What is the meaning of this outrage?”
“A lady!” The hand she had bitten moved casually down the front of her warm pelisse and she tensed inside it, grateful for the protection of the heavy unfashionable worsted. “A young lady!” He went on. “What the devil are you doing, wandering about the marsh at night?”
“What business is it of yours?”
“Suppose I tell you we are on coast guard duty here?”
“I shall say you go a very odd way about it.” Tartly. “You will tell me next that these ruffians of yours are in Volunteer uniform.”
“I shall tell you nothing. And, if you are wise, you will ask no questions. There are times when might is right.”
“Too many.” She felt that his grip on her had slackened and wondered whether to make a break for it.
“I wouldn’t.” He seemed, disconcertingly, to have read her thoughts. “Not if you like living.”
A chill shuddered through her. It was no casual threat. He
“Good. Then answer my questions. Your name, and your business here.”
“Christina Tretton.” She felt a shock run through him. “I’m on my way to visit my grandfather, Tretteign of Tretteign Grange. I come from America, where, I may say, only Indians would use travelers thus. Why—what’s the matter?”
Absurdly, fantastically, he had burst into a great guffaw of laughter. “I might have known,” he said. “Trust a Tretteign! You’re on your own land, my dear.… Yes—what is it?” One of the other men had approached to whisper urgently to him, the strong Sussex accent more effective than the whisper in preventing her from understanding. “You’re right, we’ve wasted too much time already.” And then, in answer to a further remark, “No.” Curtly. “Did you not hear? She’s a Tretteign.”
“I don’t care if she’s the devil walking.” This was another member of the gang, speaking much more intelligibly. “The sea’s the place for her. And for the men, too. It’s the only way, and you know it.”
“I know nothing of the kind.” It was odd that the hand that held hers in so ruthless a grip should contrive to convey reassurance. “I said—she’s a Tretteign.”
“And I say she’s a danger to us. And them two, still more so. Londoners both … stands to reason.” There was a little growl of approval from two or three other men who gathered around, uncomfortably close.
“So we kill all three, do we? And have the Bow Street Runners down here, looking all over the marsh for them? Just what we want! Your brilliance is such, my dear friend, I wonder you do not take over as captain in my stead.”
“Who’ll know they were here?”
“I expect Miss Tretteign can answer that best. Who will know you came here?” Hands and voice alike conveyed a warning.
“Plenty of people. The landlord of the George at Rye. He advised us not to come tonight—and, I begin to think, misdirected us on purpose. We have asked our way three times—they cannot help but remember. And—I wrote my grandfather that I was coming.”
“You see.” This for the others. Then, to her, “Miss Tretteign, I would rather not have to kill you, but, believe me, I will, if necessary. Have I your word of honor that you will forget what has happened tonight? Not woman’s honor … word of a Tretteign.”
“Yes. Word of a Tretteign.” For the first time, a warm little thrill of pride in her family. “But what about the men?”
“I have no doubt they’ll promise too.”
“But will they keep it?” growled someone. “I say death for the lot of them.”
Once again there was a low mutter of agreement. Amazingly, her captor had let her go. The hand that had been holding hers now held a gun. “Am I captain here, or not? Those against, speak up now, and I’ll shoot you where you stand.”
The show of force worked. “Oh, very well,” muttered the ringleader, “but you’ll regret it, mark my words.”
“It’s a risk, either way. I prefer it like this. Right. Clear the road, some of you. Miss Tretteign, you will be hostage for your servants’ good behavior. You will be here on the marsh. If there is trouble, we will know where to look for you. Do you think you will be able to shut their mouths?”
“I hope so.” She had stood stock still since he let her go.
“So do I. I’d be sorry to have to kill you.” His orders were already being obeyed. Two or three of the men were hauling the remaining hurdles off the road, muttering as they did so. He took no notice. “You will excuse us, I am sure, if we leave you the task of untying your servants. This road takes you directly to Tretteign Grange. So—bon voyage, Miss Tretteign.”
“Good-bye, sir. And—thank you.”
But they were gone, as silently as they had come. Christina gave a little shiver. It had been a very near thing, she knew, and—they might change their minds. She hurried over to where the coachman and groom lay by the roadside, and began, with hands that trembled, to loose their bonds. An outburst of unfamiliar curses celebrated the removal of the gags and she listened unmoved as she struggled with the cord that tied the coachman’s hands, and then, while he rubbed them angrily, the groom’s. Only when she had finished, did she speak. “I have promised, on your behalf, as well as my own, that we will say nothing about tonight’s work.”
“Say nothing?” Another outburst of swearing. “I’ll have the law on them if it’s the last thing I do.”
“It very likely would be. They swore they’d kill us all if we talked. Besides—could you describe them? Would you even know them if you met them again? And a proper pair of fools you’re likely to look if you do tell the story. You told me you were armed—a fine showing you made of it! Surrounded and disarmed by half a dozen men, without so much as a shot fired. Least said, soonest mended, I think, for all our sakes. They warned me, if the least whisper gets out about tonight’s work, they’d reach out to get you, even as far as London.” This seemed to her a very much more powerful argument with two self-proved cowards than any talk of danger to herself. “And now, let us get on before they change their minds and come back for us. The gang wanted to throw us in the sea, by the way. It was only their captain who prevented it.”
“And you expect us to be grateful?”
“Well, I know I am.” He had let down the carriage steps for her, and she climbed in, then turned. “Our road lies straight ahead. They cleared the barricade for us.”
“Mighty obliging, I’m sure,” growled the coachman.
As the carriage moved forward, Christina sank back against the squab and gave way, for a moment, to the great involuntary shivers that ran through her. Then, angrily, she steadied herself, sat upright, took off her bonnet and began to tidy her hair as best she could in the dark. It was over. She was safe. Think forward, she told herself, not back. She peered out the window, but it was impossible to see beyond the uncertain pools of light cast by the carriage’s lanterns. Leaning back again, she deliberately composed her thoughts for the coming meeting with her unknown grandfather. Would he be glad to see her? It seemed unlikely. But—she had promised. A deathbed promise, doubly binding. She shrugged in the darkness. Too late to be indulging in qualms now.
The carriage was going more smoothly, and slowing down. Once again she pressed her face close to the window and saw a range of low buildings to the right, dark against the darkness of the sky. No lights anywhere that she could see, but the carriage was still moving forward, so presumably they had not reached the house itself. On the thought, it turned and stopped, and now she could see the bulk of a higher building, with lights showing here and there. There was none at the entrance, but the carriage lamps showed her a flight of steps leading up to a big doorway.
The groom had opened the door and let down the steps for her. “It don’t much look as if you was expected,” he said.
She had thought the same thing herself, but took it lightly. “I expect they keep early hours down here in the country,” she said, “and have given me up for today. Here,” she had the money ready in her hand. “This is for the two of you—to make up for what you’ve gone through tonight And, remember, not a word, for all our sakes. Particularly, not here. Who knows what spies that gang may have.”
“Aye,” said the groom. “I’ve heard, often enough, that half the countryside, down in these parts, is involved in smuggling, one way or another.”
“Smuggling,” she said thoughtfully. “I suppose that must be what it was.”
“Course it was. It’s the last time I come down this way near the dark of the moon—or any other time, come to that. But thank you, miss, just the same.” He had just recognized the magnitude of the tip she had given him. “And—mum’s the word.”
“Good. Now, knock on the door for me.” It was raining hard, but she jumped down from the carriage, pulling up the hood of her tra
The big door was opening at last. She climbed lightly up the shallow steps to stand beside the groom and meet the amazed eyes of an old man who was shrugging himself into his livery coat.
“Yes?” He looked, oddly, at once surprised and relieved at sight of her, and seemed to be peering beyond her into the dark. “What brings you here so late at night, miss? Have you lost your way?” He held the door carefully ajar and looked at her around it.
“Not at all. This is Tretteign Grange, is it not? I am Miss Tretton. I begin to think my grandfather cannot have had my letter.”
“Miss Tretteign! It can’t be true.” He put down the lamp he carried and swung open the door. “Miss Tretteign!” he said again. “All the way from America? And—all by yourself? No, there’s been no letter—but then, no one’s been to Rye all week, you see. How could there be? But, come in, miss, if it’s really you. Lord, what a day this is. But—where are the others? Where’s your father? Where’s Mr. Christopher?”
“Dead.” It was still hard to say it. “Will you tell the men what to do with the carriage? They’ll have to spend the night here. I’m sorry to come on you so unexpectedly—and so late. We lost our way on the marsh.”
“Yes. Yes—I see.” He raised his voice to shout. “Jem, Jem! Where is the boy?” And, to her, “Mr. Christopher dead! I can’t believe it. And your mother and sister still in Paris?” He made it sound worse than death. “And you lost on the marsh—and in the dark, too. You—you’re all right, miss?”
“Of course.” Why did he shake so? Surprise, no doubt, at her arrival. After all, he was an old man; must be, to remember her father. But—what had he expected when he opened the door and peered out so cautiously around it?