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Authors: Anne Perry

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BOOK: A Breach of Promise
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She was in the stillroom sorting through the various herbs and oils kept in stock in the house when Perdita’s lady’s maid came in. Martha Jackson was a thin, dark woman who had
probably been handsome enough in her youth, but now, in her middle forties, she was a little gaunt. The lines of hardship were etched deeply into her face but there was no bitterness in them, and no self-pity. Hester had liked her from the moment they met. She had gathered from the odd remark let slip that Martha had originally been Perdita’s governess but that circumstances had dictated that she remain in a secure position, and become her maid, rather than leave and seek another post as governess somewhere else, which could only be temporary again, as children’s schoolroom years always pass. Once she had been a senior, almost independent employee. Now she was a servant, albeit a necessary and trusted one.

“Good morning, Miss Latterly,” she said with forced cheerfulness. “How are you today? I hope you are settling in well. If there is anything I can do, please let me know.”

Hester smiled at her. “Good morning, Miss Jackson. Yes, I am very comfortable, thank you.”

Martha busied herself with making a paste for reviving the luster of tortoiseshell which had lost its shine and depth. She was carefully putting drops of olive oil into a teaspoon of jeweler’s rouge.

“Are you needing anything in particular, Miss Latterly?” she asked after a moment or two. “Perhaps there is something missing that you could use?” She started to apply the paste to the comb, rubbing the soft cloth around in small circular movements.

“More lavender,” Hester answered. “I think Mrs. Sheldon is not finding it easy to sleep at the moment.”

Martha was rubbing with the cloth automatically. She turned to face Hester.

“She’s so frightened,” she said quietly. “Is there anything you can say to comfort her? I’ve racked my brains, but I know so little about his condition; if I tell her something that isn’t true, she’ll never trust me again. She has no one else to turn to. Mr. Sheldon is no use—” She stopped abruptly. She had betrayed a family confidence, even if it was one Hester could
have worked out for herself, and probably had. It was not what others knew that mattered, it was the breach of trust.

Hester saw the compassion in Martha’s face. It was more than duty or the pity anyone might have felt; it was the kind of love which cannot escape once obligation has been fulfilled, or walk away when conscience is satisfied. Martha had known and cared for Perdita since Perdita was a child. Perhaps she was the only one who had, closely, daily, seeing the weaknesses as well as the strengths, the temptations and disappointments, the failures; the only one who knew what effort or what price lay behind the outward joys.

“I don’t know,” Hester confessed. “But I am trying to think.”

“She loved him so much,” Martha went on. “You should have seen him before he went away. He was so full of life, so happy. He believed in everything … at least he seemed as if he did.” She pushed a strand of hair off her brow. “You can’t ever get back that innocence, can you.” It was a statement not a question, and it appeared as if she was thinking of other things as well, tragedies that had nothing to do with this.

Hester knew exactly what she meant. She had seen the raw soldiers arrive from the troopships, and then seen their faces again after one of the battles where men were slaughtered by the hundreds, cut down uselessly, human beings sheared off like corn before the harvest. You could not ever get that hope, that unknowing, back.

“No,” she agreed. “She asked me last night if she should read about the Mutiny, about Cawnpore and Lucknow. I didn’t know what to say.”

Martha stared at her, her eyes dark, her cheeks hollow, as if she had borne all Perdita’s suffering; but there was still a kind of softness in her in spite of the angles and the sharp cheekbones.

“She mustn’t!” she said urgently. “She couldn’t bear it. You don’t understand, Miss Latterly, she’s never experienced anything … violent … in her life.” She lifted her hands helplessly,
waving the cloth. “She’s never seen anyone … dead. In families like the Lofftens they don’t ever mention death. People don’t die, they ‘pass over,’ or sometimes they ‘take the great journey.’ But it is always peaceful, as if they have fallen asleep. She will have to learn this … very slowly.”

Hester reached for the jar of dried lavender flowers. “I don’t think there is time to be very slow,” she replied, realizing how little she knew of Perdita Sheldon or of the tenor of her marriage, the strength of her love for her husband. Hester could hardly ask Martha if Perdita was really only in love with the idea of love, of a handsome husband and a dream of happiness which simply moved, untrammeled by pain or reality, into an endless future. Asking Martha would be almost like making such an inquiry of her own mother.

And yet if she did not she might be losing the only chance anyone had to help Perdita—and Gabriel. He was maimed; he was disfigured. He had seen horror he would never forget and had lost too many of the flower of his friends not to be reminded—with every hot day, every military tune, every buzzing of flies—of what he had seen.

“Perhaps she should start with a history of India?” Hester suggested. “Begin forty or fifty years ago. Then the Mutiny would make more sense. By the time she reached it, she would understand at least a little of why it happened.” She smiled, remembering Schoolbook Latin.
“Peccavi,”
she said wryly. “That is what Clive said when he had conquered the province of Sind. He sent it in the dispatch home.”

Martha blinked.

“Peccavi,”
Hester repeated. “It is Latin…. It means ‘I have sinned.’ ”

“Oh. I see.” Martha smiled back, some of the tension easing out of her face. “Of course. It is so long since I taught … and then it was mostly French, and a little Italian for music. I’m sorry.” She blushed, and began to buff the tortoiseshell gently. “Things have changed … but that has nothing to do with Miss Perdita now. Do you think Indian history would help? I suppose … she does have to know? You don’t think
he—Lieutenant Sheldon—would be better if he could forget it, bit by bit? Would it be easier if she didn’t know?”

“If you were she, what would you want?” Hester asked, searching Martha’s face.

Suddenly Martha’s eyes filled with tears and she turned away, wiping her hand quickly across her cheek. “I should want to know!” she said fiercely. “No matter what the truth was … I should want to know!” Her voice was tight and brittle with the power of her emotions, and for a moment some pain within her was naked.

Hester could not pretend not to have noticed, but she could at least refrain from making any remark.

“Then we had better find her some appropriate books,” she said, pulling down the next jar, which held comfrey leaves. It was less than half full. “And I think we should replenish our stock of herbs and oils before it gets too low.”

Martha regained control of herself and continued polishing. “Yes, certainly, Miss Latterly,” she agreed. “I think that would be excellent. Thank you for your counsel.” She shot her a swift look of gratitude, and for a moment there was great understanding between them.

In the afternoon Hester was upstairs with Gabriel, reading to him from a book of poetry, a world utterly removed from the physical immediacies or the emotional pains of reality. It was Keats’s epic “Endymion,” and its lovely cadences soothed without turmoil.

There was a brisk knock on the door, and almost before Gabriel had spoken, it opened and Athol Sheldon came in. He was Gabriel’s height, but broader in shoulder and chest, and he walked on the balls of his feet, as if he were about to break into a run. He had a long, straight nose and an extremely direct stare.

“Good afternoon, good afternoon,” he said cheerfully, looking first at Gabriel, then at Hester. “Getting on well? Good.” He always enquired after people’s well-being, but never waited for an answer, assuming it would be positive. He
had extremely robust health himself, and regarded it as an attainable ideal for everyone, if not immediately, then certainly in time, with the right attitude. As a matter of principle, he never complained about anything.

“Hello, Athol,” Gabriel replied guardedly. In his present state he found such vigor exhausting. “How are you?” He asked from habit.

“Very well, very well,” Athol replied, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Saw Perdita before I came up.” His face shadowed. “Not in good spirits, poor girl. Bit worried, if you ask me. Have to see what we can do about it.”

Gabriel sighed soundlessly. “She seemed all right when she came in just before luncheon. She said she would take a walk this afternoon … later.”

“Good,” Athol agreed. “She ought to get out more. Brisk walk is the best thing in the world. Sure you agree, Miss Latterly. Not enough fresh air. Read somewhere that your Miss Nightingale said that.” He looked pleased with himself.

“Yes,” Hester agreed reluctantly. Athol’s insensitivity annoyed her. He reminded her of many soldiers she had known, always convinced they were right, wearing an air of impenetrable confidence like armor against any kind of doubt, seldom listening to anyone else. Only heaven could count the number of lives they had cost.

She knew she was probably being unfair to Athol Sheldon. He was not a soldier. Being the eldest brother, he had inherited the family estate in Buckinghamshire and most of the time managed it, sufficiently well at least to allow him to offer financial assistance to his injured brother.

“There you are.” Athol rubbed his hands together. “Duties of a wife are first, of course; but she should find an occupation of some sort to fill her hours. Plenty of good works to be done. Vicar’s wife would know all about it. Need younger women on some of their charities. Fresh ideas … energy.” He looked a little uncomfortable.

“I expect she will,” Gabriel agreed, easing himself up a little higher on his pillows.

“Have another one,” Athol offered immediately, leaning forward.

“It’s all right!” Gabriel refused, using his one hand. “I can manage.”

“ ‘Course you can. Apologies.” Athol retreated. “You’ll get used to doing all manner of things. A few weeks will make all the difference. A year from now you’ll have put it all behind you.”

He did not seem to notice Gabriel’s face tighten.

“Time will heal the memories,” Athol went on cheerfully. “Perdita will help you to forget. Lovely girl. Look towards the future. Now, is there anything I can do for you? Anything you need?”

Gabriel smiled. “No, thank you. You have done extremely well for me.”

“Pleasure, my dear fellow.” Athol smiled back, looking a little less uncomfortable. “Don’t worry, everything will sort itself out. Only got to do our part and we’ll be able to put all this behind us.”

Hester cringed. Athol had not the faintest idea what he was talking about. For him the Indian Mutiny and its horror were only mistakes on the pages of history, momentary darknesses in the grand procession of empire.

Athol stood up. “Won’t interrupt you.” He put his hands under the lapels of his jacket and rearranged it on his shoulders. “Must see if I can call on the vicar and have a word with him about Perdita. I am sure something can be arranged. Do her the world of good. Always does. Busy, that’s the thing.”

Gabriel looked quickly at Hester, his eyes searching.

Hester stood up. “I’ll see you to the door, Mr. Sheldon.”

“No need, my dear Miss Latterly,” he said graciously. “Don’t want to interrupt you. What are you reading? Shelley? Bit miserable, isn’t it? I’ll bring you something with a bit more fire to it, something more uplifting.”

Hester controlled herself with an effort. After all, they did not have to read it. “Thank you. That is very kind.” But she still
walked to the door with him and accompanied him onto the landing and slowly down the stairs.

“Mr. Sheldon …”

He stopped, hesitant for an instant, as if he too had considered speaking to her. “Yes, Miss Latterly?”

“Please reconsider asking Mrs. Sheldon to participate too fully in other activities just at the moment,” she said gravely. “I—I don’t think it will help.”

“Always good to be busy, Miss Latterly,” he said quickly, almost as if he had decided how to answer before she spoke. “Needs to get out. Mustn’t brood, you know.” His voice lifted, not as if his last comment were a question but rather as if he sought to encourage her somehow. “Can think about things too much. Get inward. Not healthy.”

“But—”

He frowned. “Know you mean the best for them,” he went on, interrupting. “Gabriel’s your patient, and all that. Er … speaking of which … most natural thing in the world, only thing for a woman, really … faith, modesty … good works …” He colored faintly and ceased meeting her eyes. “I … ah … well … do you think she will have children, Miss Latterly? Perdita … of course …”

“I know of no reason why not, Mr. Sheldon,” she replied. “Gabriel’s injuries are not of that nature, and I fully expect his general health to return in time. However …”

“Good … good. Hope you don’t mind my asking? Indelicate, I know …”

“I don’t mind at all,” she assured him.

He started to move down the stairs again, relieved.

She kept pace with him, then went a step ahead and stopped.

He stopped also, more or less obliged to, if he were not to push past her.

“Mr. Sheldon, I think it is important that Mrs. Sheldon learn something of what actually happened in the Mutiny, in time about the massacre at Cawnpore.”

“Good God!” He blushed deeply. “I mean … good heavens!” he corrected himself. “I simply cannot agree. You
are quite mistaken, my dear Miss Latterly. I know something of it myself. Read the newspapers at the time, having a brother out there, and all that. Quite terrible. Not a suitable thing for a woman to know at all. You can’t have any idea, or you would not have said such a thing. Absolutely out of the question.” He waved his hand to dismiss it.

“I know it was terrible.” She refused to retreat, obliging him to remain where he was, even though he loomed over her. “I also read the newspapers at the time, but rather more important than that, and possibly truer, Gabriel himself has told me some of his experiences—”

BOOK: A Breach of Promise
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