Authors: Jane Aiken Hodge
JANE AIKEN HODGE
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.
âThe Reverend Mother,' he told her. âShe 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. âThere's been no orders, sir,' she said. âThey allays sends to let us know when someone's coming. Specially a gentleman.'
âNo 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. âI hope she's packed and ready.'
âMiss Gomez?' Something more than surprise in the girl's face? He was trained to read faces, and thought so. âBut she's â' She stopped. âI'll pass the word to Reverend Mother,' she said. âIf you'll wait in here, sir?' She took his heavy greatcoat and opened a door upon a dank, dark parlour.
âDon't lose any time about it, there's a good girl.' He slipped a coin into the ready hand. âI've none to spare.'
âI'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. âShe 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. âMr Craddock.' She did not offer to shake hands, keeping her own folded. âIn what way can I serve you?' She did not suggest that he sit down.
It irked him. âYou have surely heard from Senhor Gomez?' he said.
âNo. Should I have?' Heavy black eyebrows were drawn into a frown. Of puzzlement, or of anger?
Why should she be angry? âYes,' he said. âSenhor Gomez wrote and asked me to fetch his daughter, take her to Portugal with me.'
âYou are going to Oporto?'
âYes. If I catch the ship. I trust you have the child ready, ma'am.'
âI have had no letter. This needs thinking about. You had best sit down, Mr Craddock.'
âThank you.' He waited until she had done so. âI can only think that Gomez' letter has gone astray,' he said. âYou would perhaps like to see mine.' Lucky he knew its contents so well, there was nothing in it she should not see.
âThank 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.
âI know the hand, of course.' She gave him back the letter. âThere 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.'
âPacked and ready?' Now she had surprised him. âBut you said you had not heard â'
âNor had I. I think it only right to tell you, Mr Craddock, that the young person was about to be expelled from our establishment.'
âExpelled? Why?' And then another equally relevant question. âAnd where to?' A glance at his watch reminded them both of what he had said about haste.
âAppalling misconduct.' Now he knew why she was angry. âShe is in isolation, Mr Craddock, and was to stay there until she went to her mother's family.'
âThe old mad woman down in Wales? But, ma'am â'
âYou address me as âReverend 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?
âOh, 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. âWith Lord Wellington in control,' he went on. âHe has MassÃ©na 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.'
âThat jumped-up Indian general,' said the nun, and made him angry.
But there was no time for that. Another glance at his watch. âIf 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.'
âInsubordinate, unruly â¦' She rang the silver handbell on her table and gave instructions for Miss Gomez to be fetched. âShe's been a disruptive influence ever since she came, three years ago. If I had known â' She stopped. âIf it had not been for the family connection â¦ 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. âDid 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. âScandalous,' he said. âBut,' diffidently, âyou do not think it suggests a certain artistic talent?'
âTalent!' she snorted. âTalent 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.
âDo you not think her father should see it? To make him understand â'
âYou'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.'
âYou have surely brought an abigail, a respectable young female, a companion for Miss Gomez?'
âFor a child? I thought her too old for a nursemaid.' Had he thought about it at all? âI 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.'
âYou wilfully misunderstand me, Mr Craddock. A chaperone! The proprieties! You keep calling her a child.' She turned at a knock on the door. âCome 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. âYou sent for me, Reverend Mother?' Her hands were folded in front of her; everything about her seemed demure and was absolutely not.
âYes.' The old nun's tone was uncompromising. âThis 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.'
âFather has sent for me? To Oporto?' She turned eagerly, held out her hand to Jeremy. âOh, I am so glad to meet you, cousin. When do we go?'
âThis instant,' he told her. âBut first I think you should apologise for all the trouble you seem to have caused here.'
âOh?' A slight gesture on his part had drawn her attention to the picture he was holding. They exchanged one quick, understanding
glance. âYes.' She turned to the old nun. âReverend 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. âBless you, my child,' she said, surprisingly. And then, to Jeremy. âBut this question of a chaperone.'
âYes,' he said. âI understand now.' He turned, smiling, to Caterina. âI thought you a child still,' he told her. âI did not see why Reverend Mother spoke of the need for a chaperone. I do now.' Back to the nun. âIt is but to apply to my sister in Bath,' he told her. âI 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?'
âYes, 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. âSuch a perfect gentle knight, cousin.' And then, as he joined her in the carriage. âAre you my cousin?'
âOf course I am.' Now she had shocked him. âYou mean you were not sure, and yet you came with me?'
âI'd have come with the devil to get out of that place,' she told him. âAnd 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. âAnd now for your sister in Bath.' She was teasing him. âWhat are you going to do about her?'
âYou saw through that.' With a rueful look.
âI 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 â¦ And without the expense of sending me into Wales, either, which was bound to be a consideration for the old skinflint. So â no sister in Bath?'
âNo. Just one much older brother.'
âWhom you don't much like.'
She was dangerously quick, this unusual girl. âNo. 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?'