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Authors: Anne Perry

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BOOK: A Breach of Promise
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He shook his head sharply. “You should not have encouraged him, Miss Latterly. Never good to dwell on tragedies, unpleasant things in general. Too easy to become morbid … downcast, you know. And all that is quite unsuitable for Perdita. Distress her needlessly.”

“I don’t think it is needless, Mr. Sheldon,” she answered. “It is the most emotionally profound thing that has happened in his life—”

“Oh, really …”

“And he cannot forget it,” she went on, disregarding his interruption. “One does not forget friends simply because they are dead, and all of it is too big and too recent not to intrude into his thoughts every day. If she is to be any sort of wife and companion, as she has said she wishes, she must share at least some part of his experience.”

“You are asking far too much, Miss Latterly,” he corrected, shaking his head again. “And if I may say so, quite inappropriately. A young woman, a lady, of Perdita’s background, a gentlewoman, should not know of such barbarities as occurred in India. Part of her charm, her great value in a man’s life, is precisely that she keeps an island safe for him, unsoiled by the tragedies of the world. That is a very beautiful thing, Miss Latterly. Do not try to damage that or rob them both of it.” He smiled as he finished speaking, a calm, assured expression returning to his face, except for the faintest shadow in his eyes. She knew he was speaking to
convince himself as well as her. He needed that island to exist, to visit it in mind if nothing more. It was his own dreams he was protecting as much as Gabriel’s.

And perhaps it was his way of protecting himself from Gabriel’s pain. There was a fear in him of the darkness he only guessed at in acts like those in the Mutiny. Like many people, he preferred to think they could not really have happened, not as had been reported.

Was there any purpose in trying to force him to see the reality?

“Mr. Sheldon, when we share our terror and pain with someone else, we create a bond with that person which is seldom broken. Should we not give Mrs. Sheldon the chance to be the one to share Gabriel’s experiences?”

He frowned at her.

“I mean,” she went on hastily, “allow her to decide whether she will or not, rather than deciding it for her?”

“Not very logical, my dear Miss Latterly,” he said with a quick smile. “Since she can have no idea what she would be offering to share, she cannot make such a decision. No, I am quite certain we should not burden her.” His voice gathered conviction. “It is our duty to protect—my duty, in which you will be of great assistance.”

“Mr. Sheldon …” she persisted.

But he raised his hand, smiling widely. “We must have fortitude and strength, Miss Latterly. We shall overcome. I trust you are a woman of Christian faith? Yes, of course you are. You could not do the great good works which I already know of you, were you not. Onward!” He thrust his hand out, holding it high. “We must go forward, and we shall overcome.” And he brushed past her and went on down the stairs with a spring in his step.

Hester swore under her breath, words she would have been ashamed to use aloud, and returned the way she had come.

In the evening Hester sat restlessly fiddling with mending which did not really need to be done. Martha attended to such
things and left little from one week to the next. But she could not keep her mind on mending, and sitting idle was even worse.

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” she said with relief.

Martha entered and closed the door behind her. She looked tired and dispirited.

“Have you time to sit down?” Hester invited. She set her sewing aside. “Would you like a cup of tea?”

Martha smiled. “I’ll get it. I’m sure you would like one too, wouldn’t you?”

“Thank you,” Hester accepted. “Yes, I really would.”

Martha held out a letter. “This came for you in the last post.”

“Oh!” Hester took it with pleasure. It was written in Lady Callandra Daviot’s hand and postmarked from Fort William, in the north of Scotland. “Oh, good!”

“A friend?” Martha said with a smile. “I’ll fetch the tea. Would you like some shortbread as well?”

“Yes, please,” Hester accepted, and the moment after Martha had gone, she tore open the letter and read:

My dear Hester,

What a marvelous country! I had never imagined I would enjoy myself so much. I have the undeniable urge to try painting again. It should all be done on wet paper, I think, to catch the softness of the colors and the way the light strikes the water. Yesterday I came back from the Isle of Skye. The Cuillin Mountains are so beautiful they make me ache inside because the moment I look away I know I shall need to see them again. And I cannot spend the rest of my life standing on the spot staring at shifting sunlight and mist and the shadows across the sea.

Today I am resting and doing very little, except writing to friends, of whom you and William are the only ones who might begin to understand how I feel, and therefore the only ones in which I shall have pleasure, rather than the mere
knowledge of duty performed. What slaves we are to conscience! I wonder how much the postman carries that is no more than obligation satisfied?

How are you? Have you any cases which you care about intensely? Or are you nursing bored old ladies with the vapors, and nothing to do with their time and money but make somebody else run around after them, and irascible colonels with gout whose only cure would be to abstain from the Port and Stilton, and who will never do that?

Have you seen William lately? I missed his last case of real interest. Of course, he told me about it afterwards, but that is hardly the same thing. He is doing so well recently that he does not need my occasional financial intervention—which of course pleases me immensely. I wish him to succeed. Of course I do. My support was only intended to be temporary, or I know he would not have accepted it. Men are very odd when it comes to money—unless, of course, they marry it. In which case they consider it theirs by right, as indeed it is by law.

However, I do miss the excitement of being with you, the urgency of learning the truth about some violence in secret, even though it may in the end prove to be tragic. I am not used to drifting on the surface of life, and I find the calm of it sometimes drives me into a terrible state of loneliness, as if the reality were passing me by. Am I sitting behind a window observing the world, separated by impenetrable glass?

Hester read more description of the majestic and lyrical beauty of the Highlands, but her mind was more fully tuned to the emotions which underlay it, and her own memories of the warmth of Callandra’s friendship—and the honesty. In a sense, Callandra had replaced the family she was no longer close to, and she looked forward to her return.

Martha came back with a tray of tea and a rather large plate of fresh shortbread from the kitchen. She set it down and poured for both of them.

Hester put the letter aside.

Martha held her cup, waiting till it should cool sufficiently to sip. She was frowning and obviously troubled.

Hester guessed. “Did Mr. Sheldon say anything to Mrs. Sheldon about reading Indian history?” she asked. “I tried to argue him out of it, but I am almost sure I failed.”

“I am afraid you did,” Martha agreed, looking at her over the top of her cup. “He believes that the least that is said the soonest it will be mended—which is absolute nonsense!” Her voice was urgent with an anger she knew she should not express. “She is so lonely because she has no idea even what he is closing her out from. It isn’t just the physical pain … or the memories.” She stared ahead of her, her eyes on something far beyond this quiet, domestic room and the household around them, settled for the night, no sound but the hissing of the gas and the occasional creak of a floorboard.

Hester did not interrupt her.

“It is not being whole,” Martha went on. “It is being used to beauty and then suddenly having to accept ugliness, deformity …” She obviously found even the word painful to say.

“Disfigurement,” Hester contradicted her. “It isn’t really the same.”

Martha looked at her quickly. “No—no, of course not. I’m sorry. I was half thinking of something else. I …” She regarded Hester with a curious almost shyness, and yet her eyes were searching.

“You have experienced it before?” Hester asked very quietly, then took the first hot sip of her tea, not to press too hard.

Martha turned away again, pushing the plate of shortbread across closer to Hester. “My brother Samuel married a very pretty woman … twenty-five years ago now, it must be—or nearly. Dolly, her name was. She had the most perfect skin. Not a blemish anywhere. And lovely eyes … and fine features.” She stopped, anger, pity and confusion in her face. The memory hurt her and there was something in it still fiercely unresolved.

Hester waited.

“They were happy, I think,” Martha went on. “Sam adored her. They had a baby, a little girl. Phemie, they called her. That was Dolly’s idea. Sam wanted to call her by a biblical name, something old-fashioned.” She sipped her tea. “I can remember the day he came to tell me.” She stopped and took a moment or two to master her emotions. She breathed deeply, her thin chest rising and falling with the effort. “She wasn’t right.” Her voice was choked. “Little Phemie was deformed. Her face. Her mouth. Her lips were all twisted. Dolly couldn’t suckle her herself. She was too upset. She got a wet nurse in, but even she had terrible difficulty getting the baby to feed. She was a poor little thing for long enough, but in the end she did survive.”

“I’m sorry,” Hester said quietly. She had almost no knowledge of caring for babies. All her experience had been with the results of violence and disease, and always with adults. There was something particularly wrenching to the heart about a tiny creature, new in the world, struggling to live.

Martha drank some of her tea. “It wasn’t until Leda was born about two years later that they realized Phemie was deaf too.”

Hester said nothing. She knew from Martha’s face that she was trying to collect her self-control sufficiently to say something else which still tore at her, over twenty years afterwards, intruding into Perdita Sheldon’s grief and confusion and, for a moment at least, pushing it aside.

“Leda was deformed as well,” Martha said in a whisper. “It was her mouth and an eye. She could see, but she couldn’t hear either, except a tiny bit.” She looked at Hester, waiting for her to say something.

“I’m so sorry.” Hester could only try to imagine what the mother must have felt, the overwhelming tide of pity, anger, confusion, guilt, and also consuming fear for the future of the children she had borne into a world which would treat them with terrible cruelty, sometimes without even realizing it. What would become of them when she was not there to protect and defend and love them?

“What happened?” she asked.

“Sam loved them,” Martha answered, biting her lip and staring straight ahead. “He looked after them, even when Dolly was too distraught to manage.” She stopped again, unable for a moment to continue.

Hester sat motionless, ignoring the tea and the shortbread; in fact, she had forgotten them.

“Then Sam died,” Martha said abruptly. “It was something with his stomach. It was very quick. Dolly couldn’t manage without him. She was completely distracted with grief. Phemie and Leda were put into an institution and Dolly went away. She didn’t tell us where. I expect she meant to, but something inside her just … collapsed.” She looked at Hester, her eyes filled with tears. “I would have taken the girls, if I could have. But I was in service. There was no place for two little children. Phemie was barely three, and Leda only a year … and—and they weren’t pretty children. They were … deformed. And they couldn’t hear, so they would never be any use to anyone….”

Hester reached out and took Martha in her arms, holding her thin body closely and feeling the dry sobs that racked through her.

“Of course, there was nothing you could do,” Hester said gently. “You had to work to eat. So do all of us. Sometimes it is all you can do to support yourself, and if you go under, what use is that to anyone?”

“I wish I knew where they were!” Martha said desperately. “I look at Lieutenant Sheldon with his face all twisted and burned like that until half of him hardly looks human, and I see the look in Perdita’s eyes, and she was so in love with him … and now she can hardly bring herself to look at him straight, let alone touch him … and I wonder what happened to those poor little souls. I should have found some way to help! Who’s going to love them, if not me?”

“I don’t know,” Hester said honestly. False words of comfort now would only leave Martha thinking she did not understand or believe the enormity of her anguish. Hester held her even closer. “We can’t change what has already happened, but
we can try to do something about Gabriel and Perdita. She’s got to learn to understand, to forget his disfigured face and see the man inside … that beauty matters so much more. That is what will love her in return. To the devil with Athol Sheldon and his ideas.”

Martha gave a jerky little laugh, half choking. “He means well,” she said, straightening herself up and pushing back some of her hair which had fallen askew from its pins. “He just doesn’t realize …”

Hester poured fresh tea, which was still hot and steaming fragrantly. She passed one of the cups over to Martha.

Martha smiled and fished in her pocket for a handkerchief to blow her nose.

Hester sipped her own tea and took a piece of shortbread.

“Thank you for bringing my letter up,” she said conversationally. “It was written from Scotland. Have you ever been there?”

Martha dabbed her eyes and settled to listen with interest to Callandra Daviot’s account of her journeys.

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BOOK: A Breach of Promise
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