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Lady Catherine's Necklace, Page 3

Joan Aiken

For a moment, Maria was quite unable to reply. Her throat was tight with tears. She waited for a minute or two, then became able to say lightly:

  ‘Oh, fie, Colonel FitzWilliam. You make too much of so little! Let us not aspire to any heroics or grand renunciation scenes. Indeed, there is nothing to forgive. The fault, if any fault there be, was equally mine. I should have been more circumspect. ’Twas only a piece of summer foolishness, soon lost in the past. “In folly ripe, in reason rotten”, you know!’

  Maria gave the colonel what she hoped was a satirical smile, trying not to let her lips tremble.

  ‘No, no!’ he exclaimed vehemently. ‘You must not say so! For that would deprive me of some treasured, treasured memories, which will enrich my life to its very final moments, even should I live to be an old, old man. That misty, enchanted evening by the lake when we saw the bats flying…’

  Maria’s involuntary movement of pain, the faint sound of protest that escaped her, fortunately passed unnoticed, for a door near the top of the stairs opened at that moment and the clamorous noise of an infant crying made itself heard, a lusty and importunate howling which immediately engaged the visitor’s attention.

  ‘Come, come now, Colonel, you refine too much—’ Maria had begun huskily, but, without attending to her, he ejaculated:

  ‘Oh, good heavens! Of course! I was despatched by my Aunt Catherine to make an inquiry after Mrs Collins. But I had my own reasons for wishing to come to this house.’ He paused, sighed, then firmly continued: ‘I hope from what I hear that all went as it should?’

  ‘Oh, yes,’ said Maria with a wan smile. ‘Matters fell out just as Mr Willis had predicted. My sister, as well as the two children she has already, is now the mother of twin boys, William and Henry.’

  ‘Oh,’ he said rather blankly. ‘That must be very – very gratifying for Mr and Mrs Collins. I am sure that my aunt will be full of approval. But I should not detain you any longer. You must wish to be with your sister. She is well? She is not too exhausted?’

  ‘No, fortunately she is very strong and has the ability to recover quickly from such an experience.’

  ‘Please give her my very warmest congratulations, as well as those of my aunt and cousin. I – I suppose we shall not be seeing you up at the house in the near future – you will prefer to remain at your sister’s bedside?’ He added rather doubtfully, ‘I know that my cousin Anne would wish to solicit the pleasure of your company, if that were at all possible; she has, as I am sure you know, a very strong regard for you,’ Maria looked sceptical at this, ‘and is eager to renew the pleasure of hearing you play and sing; she sends all kinds of messages to your sister and yourself, and, remembering that there is no piano at the parsonage, wished to assure you that you must feel at liberty to come whenever you choose and make use of the instrument in the music room.’

  ‘That is exceedingly thoughtful and solicitous of Miss Anne. Please convey my warmest gratitude. But, in fact, that – that state of affairs is about to be remedied,’ Maria told the colonel quietly. ‘On my way here from Hertfordshire I stayed in London for some weeks with a cousin of my father, a Mrs Jennings, who was so kind as to – as to take an interest in my performance. Learning that there was no piano in this establishment, she, with unexampled kindness and generosity, at once hurried off to Broadwood and ordered an instrument to be sent to Mrs Collins’s house. We expect it to arrive very soon and – and then I shall be able to give music lessons to my niece and nephew.’

  She smiled faintly.

  The colonel looked disappointed but said, ‘I am happy to hear that others besides myself place a true value on your talents, even if that means we are to be deprived of the pleasure of hearing you up at Rosings House as often as we would wish…’

  ‘Thank you,’ Maria murmured, longing for him to go.

  And, as if his intuition made contact with hers, he turned with true military alertness, bowed and removed himself from the room.

  After he had gone Maria stood still for a moment, staring at her hand, which, when he turned to go, she had raised as if in expectation of its being kissed. But he had not done so. She turned her palm upwards and studied it, but there was no fortune to be found there. Shrugging her shoulders like a horse beset by flies, Maria ran upstairs to her sister’s bedroom.

  ‘Well!’ she announced. ‘That was Colonel FitzWilliam, sent by her ladyship to inquire. He brings all kinds of messages.’

  Charlotte sighed. ‘That means, I suppose, that within half an hour we shall receive several enormous baskets of parsnips, turnips, carrots, apples, celery and beetroot – we shall be half buried in vegetables for weeks to come. And I must immediately write an effusive letter of thanks – you had better be fetching me a pen and some paper—’

  Charlotte broke off from what she was saying and cast a penetrating glance at her younger sister.

  Charlotte Collins had never been handsome: she had a square, pink countenance, redeemed by a friendly expression and two clear, intelligent grey eyes. But her young sister was the possessor of decidedly engaging looks. Maria’s face was delicately boned, her very red mouth was wide and sensitive, her dark brown hair fell in natural curls and her eyes, large, brilliant and dark-lashed, were a striking shade of grey-green.

  ‘You are looking unusually pretty this evening, Maria, even for you,’ remarked Charlotte in her shrewd, downright manner. ‘I do hope and trust that Colonel FitzWilliam has not been making love to you?’

  ‘No, indeed he has not! I congratulated him on his engagement; I seized the chance of doing so directly he came in, so – so all is understood, the footing on which we stand has been established.’

  ‘You did just as you ought,’ approved Charlotte. ‘And he?’

  ‘Accepted it as he should. There was no— Anything – anything that might once have been between us is now entirely at an end.’

  ‘Good girl! He is entirely blameworthy, I do not excuse him,’ said Charlotte frowning. ‘He should not have allowed matters to proceed … as far as they did. Men can be shockingly thoughtless: they do not reflect. Once, there was a Lieutenant Throgmorton, in the militia at Meryton…’

  Her voice trailed away, and Maria looked up at her sister in surprise.

  ‘Lieutenant Throgmorton? Why, I remember him. Oh, Charlotte! Was he – was he ever serious?’

  ‘No, he was not. It was not, with him, a case of money – I had enough of that – but breeding, and of that I had not sufficient. Our poor father, with his ironmonger’s shop! The knighthood did not serve to screen it. My ten thousand pounds would have done well enough, but not my background, which, together with my lack of looks … So, two years later, I was glad enough to take Mr Collins.’

  ‘Oh, Charlotte!’ Maria had slid from her low chair on to the floor; she now hid her face in Charlotte’s coverlet. ‘My heart is broken,’ she brought out at length in a strangled voice, ‘I can feel it bleeding.’

  ‘Well, you must just set to work and mend it. What of the handsome gentleman who is at present quartered at Rosings with his sister, Mr Delaval? I received only a very brief description of him from William, who, of course, was entirely concerned with his own affairs. Pray tell me, what did the colonel have to say about the Delavals?’

  Maria was obliged to confess: ‘They were never mentioned from first to last.’

  ‘Oh, Maria! Shame on you!’

  The door opened. Hungry howls accompanied the buxom woman who entered the bedroom with a red-faced, white-wrapped bundle on either arm.

  Downstairs, the front doorbell rang loudly.

  ‘That must be Lady Catherine’s gift of garden produce,’ said Charlotte with a sigh.

  ‘Never you mind about that, ma’am. You just tend to your duty here.’

  ‘I absolutely refuse to have them both at once!’

  ‘Master William first, Master Henry after. ’Twill be t’other way round next time.’

  ‘Hand me William then, Mrs Hurst. Maria, be a love and run down to receive Lady Cath
erine’s vegetable bounty, will you, and say all that is proper.’

  But it was the new Broadwood piano from kind Mrs Jennings.

  * * *

  Rosings House was situated at the summit of a gentle slope of rising land, approached in front by a gravel drive winding in easy stages up the hillside. A belt of woodland protected the pleasure gardens, which lay to the east at the rear of the house. Beyond them, and separated from them by a ha-ha, there extended a large rolling meadow which fell away at first gradually, then more steeply, and was bordered by a wide brook or small river, on the far side of which rose a wooded incline of some abruptness and grandeur. The brook had been dammed in two places to create a large millpond and a fish pond of almost equal size. Rosings Mill was out of sight, a mile away and screened by trees; but at the head of the upper pond, and visible from Rosings House, stood a small, unimpressive building, originally a keeper’s cottage but latterly occupied by two men who had been friends of the late Sir Lewis de Bourgh. Both were painters, the elder one of some considerable repute in the world. Formerly, they had lived in London, using the cottage, which they rented from Sir Lewis and had christened Wormwood End, as a holiday retreat. But of late years, due to the older man’s decline in health, they had come to spend more and more time in Kent, and had at last given up their house in Hanover Square entirely. Their names were Desmond Finglow and Ambrose Mynges, but since both had the middle name of Thomas, their affectionate friends in the London community of artists, of whom there were many, always referred to them as ‘Old Tom’ and ‘Young Tom’, and these nicknames had somehow followed them to the country. Both men, until ‘Old Tom’ Finglow’s health began to decline, had been regular frequenters of the Hopsack Inn in Hunsford village, and they had established friendly terms with local people right across the neighbourhood, from Canterbury to Maidstone and from Faversham to Charing.

  ‘Young Tom’ Mynges had an agreeable talent for dashing off small, pleasing sketches of buildings, whether barns, oast houses, cottages or castles, and presenting them to the surprised but gratified owners, who often responded in kind with a load of logs, a basket of cabbages or half a pig. Acquaintances from London frequently came down to visit the two friends, and so, with these and the company of neighbours, the two men enjoyed a larger society, probably, than even in their London days. They received decidedly more visitors than ever crossed the threshold of the great house; for Lady Catherine was decidedly nice in her choice of the company she considered fit to mix with her daughter Anne, who, in consequence, led a dull and lonely existence.

  Lady Catherine was not on particularly amiable terms with the two painters. The fact of their friendship with the late Sir Lewis was no recommendation to her, and, though she conceded that they were both of her own class – gentlemen – she could not endure their way of life, which she considered insecure and raffish; and she entirely disapproved of the hail-fellow-well-met terms on which they lived with their neighbours, whether gypsies, poachers, magistrates or bishops.

  It was therefore by purest accident that Anne de Bourgh had become acquainted with the artists, a circumstance which she had hitherto succeeded in keeping from her mother.

  The foundation of their friendship lay some three years back.

  At this time, when Anne was sixteen, Mrs Jenkinson had become subject to occasional severe migraines. She did not dare admit this disability to her employer, who displayed scant tolerance of illness unless it was an immediately visible broken limb or bleeding wound. Poor Mrs Jenkinson therefore habitually crept about her duties, enduring the misery of the migraine as best she could. But on one occasion when Lady Catherine had driven off to preside over a magistrates’ bench in the local town, Mrs Jenkinson seized the opportunity to totter away to her chamber, adjuring Miss Anne to take her usual afternoon walk in the company of her maid, Polly. Anne, who was intensely bored by Polly’s never-ending accounts of beaux in the militia regiment quartered at Ashford, told the girl that she intended to walk in the shrubbery and so needed no escort.

  As soon as Polly was out of sight, Anne made haste to escape through the pleasure gardens and across the bridge that spanned the ha-ha. Then she fled over the meadow and down to the path which followed along the rush-fringed banks of the two artificial lakes. This path was prohibited territory, for, although the water was not particularly deep, Anne had never learned to swim. Once or twice, long ago, she had been here in the company of her boy cousins, Darcy and FitzWilliam, but those occasions were half lost in the dreamlike mists of childhood memory. She remembered a waterfall, and a post with a large bird sitting on it, and some thick, dark overhanging yew trees, and a cave or passageway that led through under the waterfall from one side to the other. But were these picturesque and romantic features really there, she wondered, or had she invented them; were they products of her youthful imagination?

  Anne led such a silent, solitary, unstimulated life that, quite often, she suffered from real uncertainty as to whether an event had taken place, or whether she had dreamed it. Her dreams were more vivid than her waking life. She told herself stories all the time, and these stories had taken over a large part of her mental landscape.

  But no! She now discovered there really was a post, standing out in the middle of the water, with a heron perched on it, just as she had remembered. And now, also, she could hear the rushing sound of the waterfall and see its white gleam. There were the yew trees casting their dark shadows over the high bank ahead, and the brook running down in little artificial tributary channels spanned by bridges made from single flat rocks. Amazingly, it was all exactly as she recalled. There, too, was the cave entrance, a dark, narrow opening half veiled from view by sheets of falling spray from the cascade.

  Anne had not the least intention of venturing anywhere near the cave, let alone going into it, but she was intensely happy to find that it really existed, that it was still there, and not a product of her starved imaginings.

  I shall go into it sometime, by and by, she thought. With the right companion. When I am grown. I shall go in and walk right through, from one side to the other. Darcy and FitzWilliam did that, I remember. They became very wet, soaked through their jackets and up to their knees, and my Aunt Anne gave them a great scold, and so did Mamma. That was when Aunt Anne was still alive, so it must have been over ten years ago.

  Growing accustomed now to the sound of the cascade, Anne began to think that she could hear, as well, a faint sound – a whine, a mew, some plaintive cry – up ahead, at the top of the bank above her.

  Retreating back across one of the little rock bridges, she found a path which led on up the bank. Here the stream had been confined in a narrow channel between brick walls, and so induced to pour with considerable force over a stone lip, dropping twelve feet into a pool below, and thus away through the lower pond towards the mill. The water in this sluice ran swift and clear, not more than eighteen inches deep. It was studded, here and there, with large flat rocks, each about the size of a card table, so that a bold and agile person might use them as stepping-stones and pass across to the other side of the stream. For the more timid, the path led on to a conventional wooden bridge, higher up. Anne pursued her course towards the bridge, then came to a stop. For, on one of the rocks in midstream, looking damp and disconsolate and thoroughly out of place, was a large, tawny-yellow cat, which, on seeing Anne as a possible rescuer, opened a vast pink mouth in a frantic, dolorous and peremptory demand for assistance.

  Lady Catherine, holding that animals breed dirt and disease, had never allowed pet dogs or cats about Rosings House. But Anne recognized this one, for it belonged to the two painters at Wormwood End cottage who sometimes, in fine weather, took drives about the countryside in an ancient pony-chair, with the cat sitting majestically between them, visibly enjoying the treat quite as well as its two masters.

  ‘You foolish beast!’ called Anne. ‘How did you ever get yourself there? Come to me, come!’

  But the cat, evidently unnerved by the slip
pery, weed-grown surface of the rock on which it was perched, or the force of the water rushing past it, raised and lowered its front feet in indecision, mewing loudly and piteously.

  Anne was not at all courageous and had not the least intention of trying to rescue the cat herself, but her conscience was touched by its plight and she felt that she could not go away and leave it in such a predicament. She made haste to follow the continuation of the path along by the side of the upper lake until she reached the cottage known as Wormwood End. It was an unpretentious little stone-built, slate-roofed dwelling, with a paling fence and an ash path. There was a barn adjoining it, which the two occupiers had turned into a studio.

  Receiving no reply to her knock on the cottage door, Anne walked over to the studio and rapped on its door. This was immediately opened by Ambrose Mynges, or ‘Young Tom’. He was a Roman-nosed man in his late thirties who looked, from his black curly hair, as if he might have Mediterranean blood. He wore a paint-smeared smock and held a paintbrush in his hand. He appeared surprised and not especially pleased at the sight of his visitor.

  ‘Miss de Bourgh! What brings you here?’

  ‘Oh, sir! Your cat is in trouble, sitting on a rock down where the brook runs so fast. That is your cat, is it not? That big yellow one? She is crying most miserably!’

  ‘Our Alice? Yes, indeed! Has the wretch got herself into difficulties again? I am very much obliged to you, Miss de Bourgh – I will come and rescue her directly.’

  A voice from the interior now demanded to know what was going on, and Mynges, turning, said:

  ‘Do come in a moment, Miss Anne, while I leave my brush to soak and find a jacket. Tom, here is Miss de Bourgh, arrived to inform us that Alice has got herself marooned on a rock in the rapids.’

  He swept a large bundle of blue velvet from a chair and said, ‘Pray be seated, Miss de Bourgh. I shall not be more than a couple of minutes.’

  Anne moved almost unconsciously to the freed chair and sat down on it. All her attention was focused on the figure who reclined upon a chaise longue at the end of the studio. The figure was merely that of Mr Desmond Finglow, swathed in more of the heavy blue curtain velvet and holding a toasting-fork in his right hand, but he looked so amazingly kingly that she was quite electrified and could only gaze in silent wonder.