The Girl from ParisJoan Aiken
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Copyright © 1982 by Joan Aiken
Cover and internal design © 2016 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover art by Aleta Rafton
Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious and are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410
Fax: (630) 961-2168
Originally published as The Young Lady from Paris in 1982 in the United Kingdom by Victor Gollancz Ltd. This edition issued based on the hardcover edition published in 1982 in the United States by Doubleday & Company, Inc.
Note to Reader
An Excerpt from The Smile of the Stranger
About the Author
When, after twenty years, Matthew Bilbo came out of prison, his first impulse was to climb to the top of the nearest hill.
It lacked several hours to dawn when the great gate clanged behind him and he walked, a free man with a heavy heart, into the middle of the city of Winchester. The shadowed streets were still empty and silent, dankly glistening from a light rain that had fallen overnight; he could see no signpost or people to advise him of his homeward way. Yet a long-disused shepherd’s faculty soon asserted itself, and he began, slowly but with certainty, to make his way toward the east, up the long hill that led in the direction of Petersfield, Midhurst, and Petworth. His legs felt strangely weak. His eyes ached from withheld tears. Getting to be an old man, he supposed, fifty or thereabouts. Life in jail had been so uneventful that his memory seemed to have slipped a cog or two, and spun round vaguely these days, presenting some facts clearly enough, but drifting mistily past others. His original sentence for poaching had been fifteen years; but then, a couple of times, he had tried to escape, first when word had come that Martha was going to marry somebody else, then when his parents had been evicted from the cottage. He had been recaptured and that, of course, had added to his term, and he had been transferred to Winchester. But resignation had set in, after Martha’s marriage and his parents’ death; he had learned calm with time, suffering the slow years to come and go at their own pace. Solitude had always been his friend, for silence is much the same whether experienced in a cell or on a rainy hillside with one’s flock of Southdowns huddled against the turf. The long hours of his own company afflicted him less than they did most prisoners. It was true, he had missed the cry of the sheep and the song of larks; now, making his way rather slowly and stiffly along the Petersfield road, he discovered how much he had missed the air of the hills; it tasted pure and cold as spring water.
After five or six miles his prison stiffness began to wear off, and he moved better; besides, he had reached the top of the ridge and come to a level stony track; ahead, the domed summits of the Hampshire Downs were outlined against the paling eastern sky. Like a row of mushrooms, thought Bilbo with pleasure, and, the image reminding him of food, he presently sat on a fallen log by a spinney and munched a bit of the penny loaf, yesterday’s ration, which he had been too bemused by thoughts of coming freedom to eat when it had been given to him. Stale though it was, the fresh air made it tasty; even so, he could eat no more than the crust. At rest, he began to think immediately about his forsaken protégé, and trouble came down on him like a cloud.
He rose and walked on.
The prison authorities had supplied him with a suit of clothes, for his own, taken from him on admission, baked, fumigated, and stored, had long since mildewed away. They would have been too big, anyway, he reflected; he had shrunk somewhat in jail. He now had a coat, waistcoat, breeches, and stockings of dark, cheap woolen. By the permitted occupation of weaving horsecloths he had managed to earn eighteen shillings, of which ten had gone to pay for the clothes; the remaining eight now jingled in the pouch he had made himself. But I’ll need to get me some better gear than this, he thought, for I can’t tend sheep in these taffety things; a couple of weeks’d see them worn through and torn to shreds. I’ll be wanting a hard hat, and a gabardine smock, and some leather leggings, and a pair of iron-tipped boots. Time to worry about that when I’m home to Petworth.
The sun, having extended a long band of light—prune, lemon, and chestnut-colored—along the dimpled horizon, now appeared in a blaze of rainy glory.
Ah, thought Bilbo, that’s summat, that be! And he inhaled a deep breath of satisfaction. But for the first time in many years an intimation of what he had lost now came to trouble him, and the breath he drew ended in a strange, painful groan; buried memories began to stir, of rainy mornings on Barlavington Down, with the sheep’s wistful chorus echoing far and near, and his young sister Sarah, a dot in the distance, bringing his breakfast tied in a red-spotted handkerchief.
No use to make a fantigue over what’s gone, though, he thought, and strode on firmly, for he had more than thirty miles yet to accomplish. Despite the resurrection of old griefs and the presence of a new one, his heart was hopeful; he was, after all, going home to Petworth in sweet, auspicious April; the larks were skreeling their hearts out in the sky overhead, and down in the valley the timber trees were covered in pink buds.
* * *
He did not reach Petworth until evening; out of condition after the long wasted years, he was obliged to rest every five miles or so, and though he was eager to see his native place again, there seemed no reason to overtax himself and get there all tired out and vlothered. He followed bridle paths rather than turnpike roads, so as to avoid encountering people, for he felt nervous of human contact; so dusk had fallen over the small market town by the time he was tapping at the door of a cottage near the toll gate.
A child opened the door, blue-eyed, straw-headed, finger in mouth.
“Your ma about, liddle ’un?” he asked. “Say her brother’s here—your uncle Matt.”
“Ain’t got no uncle Matt,” said the child, removing finger from mouth.
This was a blow; but a fat, suspicious-looking woman now arrived, who cleared up the puzzle.
“Missus Bowyer? She moved round the corner into Darner’s Bridge arter her husband was took bad. You’ll find ’em there, third house along.”
The street called Da
rner’s Bridge was, luckily, only a few steps farther; but Matt’s reception there was hardly more welcoming. He would, he thought, hardly have recognized his sister; although ten years younger than himself, she had aged much more; all her teeth had gone, her once flaxen hair was gray and scanty, her eyes faded, and her face, lacking teeth, had become haggard, pinched, and shrewish in expression.
“Sairy? It’s Matt.”
Her gasp was not one of delight; rather, his arrival seemed the last straw.
“Matt? What the pize are you doing here?”
“I just come out,” he said simply. “Didn’t you get word? I sent you a message by Toby Hedges, six months past.”
“Oh, ah. Reckon he did say summat, but it slipped my mind. You can’t stop here, Matt,” she went on hastily. “There’s ten of us in the two rooms as ’tis. We’ve not room for another nipper, let alone a grown man.”
Matt began to feel discouraged. His feet burned after walking all day along rough tracks in the cheap prison shoes; his toes throbbed like glowing embers.
“Maybe I could just come in and have a set-down?” he suggested mildly.
“Oh well—I daresay.” Reluctantly Sarah Bowyer stood aside to let him in. The small stuffy room, opening directly off the street, was below ground level, and smelt dankly of burning waste on the tiny fire, potatoes boiling in their skins, old grubby clothes, and unwashed human bodies. There seemed to be five or six smallish children in the shadowy, shabby place; Matt edged himself gingerly onto the corner of a torn horsehair couch.
“Ned about?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“He’s working at the clog factory now; he got too crippled up with rheumatics to blow the bellows for Sam Budd.” Ned had been a blacksmith’s assistant. “Sam and Cathy’s at the clog factory too now,” she went on.
“That’s good,” said Matt tentatively.
“Good? For six shillings a week? Times are terrible hard, Matt. And we’ve ten to feed; and only three bringing anything in.” She looked with exasperation at the skinny, towheaded children huddled about the room, as if calculating how long it would be before any of them rendered some return for all the potatoes they had consumed.
“Well, I won’t be a charge on ye,” said her brother pacifically. “All I was wanting was a bed for the night, time I’ll go to Mus’ Strudwick and ask for my old job back.”
“Strudwick? He won’t have ye,” said his sister contemptuously. “He’ve long since found himself another shepherd. Time don’t stand still while ye’re in jail, brother.”
Slowly, reluctantly, she inched him a half-cupful of tea from the brown pot that stood on the hob, filled the cup with hot water, and added a drop or two of milk from a metal can.
“Thankee, Sairy.” He drank the tea with pleasure; in jail it had been a luxury served only at Christmas. And he reflected soberly that what she said was perfectly reasonable; somehow in all these years it had not occurred to him that his job would not be waiting for him when his term was done.
“What did you expect?” Sarah demanded bitterly. “D’you think they’d be awaiting with red carpets when you come out? To my dying day I’ll never know why you done such a tarnal foolish thing as take that hare. Couldn’t you see the trouble as’d come from it?”
“I didn’t take no hare, gal. I never took no hare in all my borns. I—I—I wouldn’t.” Matt had a stammer at times, when he was trying to express something that was of importance to him; he had to help his words along by hammering the air with his hand. He did so now. “There’s summat—ellynge—about a hare.” Haunted, he meant—unchancy. “Remember how Mum allus used to say as how they belonged to Old Scratch? I don’t reckon to that. But I’d never touch one—nor sell it—nor eat it—not for dunnamuch! And so I told owd Mus’ Paget the Justice—over and over—but he ’oodn’t believe me.”
“Paget!” Sarah turned and spat into the fire. Her brother was somewhat shocked at such a gesture. Mum ’ud not have liked that, he mused. She told us to behave like gentlefolk.
“If a blessed angel came to tell Paget the Day of Judgment had come, he’d not believe it,” Sarah said.
“He still on the Bench here?”
“Oh, ay. Still sending chaps to jail, or transporting ’em. But if you didn’t poach the hare, brother,” persisted Sarah, “then who did?”
“Ah, who knows? Maybe young Barney Lee. He was allus half a gypsy. And he’d chuck it in my cabin when he knowed they was after him. He’d be sore at me, because Martha’d never look at him, once her and me was promised.”
She looked at someone else soon enough once you were in jail, thought Sarah, but she kept this thought to herself and said, “Well, if it were Barney, no one’ll ever know, for he died twelve years since of the typhus, time Mum and Dad and the others was took.”
“God rest his soul, poor chap; he were allus a scrawny, ill-set creature.”
“God rest his soul? Aren’t you rued about it at all?” burst out Sarah. “Twenty years you been in the lock-up, your gal lost, your job gone, all on account o’ that lying rapscallion and that stone-hearted Justice, yet you sit there smiling like a sawney. If it was me—I’d be up-atop-o’-the-house angry! I’d want to do summat.”
“Do what?” Matt looked at her, honestly puzzled. It was a long time since he had engaged in a conversation of this kind; ideas came to him slowly.
“To Paget! To make him remember me! He busted up your whole life; and there he sits in his fine house. Now he’s wed to Lady Silk-Satin Adelaide, widow of the Earl of Muck.”
“What’s she ever done to you?” Matt asked, struck by Sarah’s vindictive tone.
“Sits on the Parish Relief Board. Won’t give out so much as a candle, ’less you go in the Union.”
“What come to Paget’s first wife?”
“Died, poor soul. Ah, a right nice lady, she were.”
“Well then,” suggested Matt, “he’ve had his troubles too.”
“Huh! He didn’t care! Wed again afore the grass had sprouted on her grave.”
Matt sighed. The world was so full of trouble, it seemed to him there was no use dwelling on it. Better, if possible, to turn one’s mind to more comfortable matters.
“Larks were a-singing, loud as a tempest, all the way I come along,” he said. “And the merry trees was out on the hill; I’m glad I didn’t miss that.”
“Larks!” Sarah sniffed. Then her ears picked up a limping step outside the house. “Here’s Ned. He’ll wonder to see ye, surely.” She did not sound as if she expected her husband to welcome the arrival of his brother-in-law; and indeed, Ned Bowyer, when he hobbled in, stopped short, stared hard at the visitor, and then lowered himself onto a stool with a kind of gloomy grunt, suggesting resignation rather than pleasure.
“Matt’s only here for a sit-down and a cup of tea,” Sarah said conciliatingly. “I told him we couldn’t put him up.”
Ned, as was his way, immediately contradicted her. He was a thin, twisted man, totally bald, with large transparent outstanding ears and a facial expression made irritable by the constant rheumatic pain he suffered; he was, however, obstinate rather than bad-tempered, and liked, when possible, to put his wife in the wrong. “Turn away your own flesh and blood?” he demanded. “What kind o’ set-out is that? Matt can bide out in owd Tom Boxall’s shed, I reckon. Sam fed Boxall’s chicken, time he were laid up, he owe us a good turn.”
Matt said the shed would suit him very well; and some bits of sacking were found, to make him a bed. He refused to share Ned and the elder children’s supper of turnip-and-potato stew, saying he had eaten already, and that he would go to bed directly.
“Dunnamany years ’tis since I walked thirty mile,” he explained with his diffident smile.
Sarah shook her head over him when he had gone out of the room.
“Matt don’t change. He were allus a bit
natural,” she said, meaning simple. “Fancy! He reckoned he could just pick up his old job again; it never crossed his mind as folk wouldn’t want a jailbird as a shepherd.”
“Dunno why they wouldn’t,” said her husband instantly. “Matt were a ’countable good shepherd, I heard. Mus’ Noakes, over to Duncton, were wanting a chap for the sheep since owd Ted Goodger died. I’ll tell Matt, come morning time. It’d be a fine place for a man without a wife or family; there’s a cabin, top o’ Duncton Down, goes wi’ the job.”
Sarah sniffed again. Fine for some, her expression suggested; they only have to come out of jail and suitable jobs are handed them on a plate. But still she had, in the old days, been sincerely fond of her brother. Some of this feeling still lingered; and it was a relief to learn that he was not likely to be a drain on the family’s slender resources.
Despite fatigue, it was some time before Matt Bilbo fell asleep. The little wooden shed was draughty, and colder than his prison cell; and there were the added distractions of large bright stars, visible through gaps in the planking; the hooting of owls in the garden of a large house called Newlands not far off; and all the unfamiliar nostalgic smells of things in the shed, turpentine, peat, linseed, and straw.
Matt was deeply troubled, too, about a friend left behind in jail. Poor Simmie, how’ll he ever wrostle through in that place without me to watch out for him when he gets in a pucker, and stop him trying to fight the Beaks? Still, fretting won’t help him. Trying to put such thoughts aside, Matt thought over the conversation with his sister. Some of her words about Paget came back: “There he sits, in his fine house! If it were me, I’d want to do summat to make him remember me!”
* * *
Matt slept late next morning, tired by his wakeful hours, and the unwonted exertions of the previous day. Sarah let him lie till she had given the children their scanty breakfast; then she roused him with a cup of warm milk and a crust of bread.
“I can pay ye for the vittles, Sairy,” he said, confused and made humble by this kindness.
“Bless the man! Can’t you take nothing for granted?” Sarah was in a better mood today. She told Matt about the possible job at Duncton. “Ned says, best go after it directly.”