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Authors: Tracy Rees

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BOOK: Amy Snow
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Then he looked up and saw me and raised a hand, his mouth opening into an “Ah!,” though of course I could not hear it. He made a sequence of gestures expressing an invitation to join him, an imprecation to be secretive and a great, good-mannered deference all at once. I had not known that communication without words could be so fulsome. Hastily, I dressed and bundled back my hair, then ran through the silent passages, out into the walled kitchen garden.

“Is there somewhere to speak in private? Away from the house?” he asked at once in a low, urgent voice. Whatever his business, it was clearly too important to waste time on niceties.

So I led him through a gate, along a lane, and thence into a small copse. Shrouded by trees and January mist, we would not be observed. The wind whispered secrets in its own incomprehensible language. The trees stood in enigmatic silence, bare and black like the truth of Aurelia's death.

He glanced around and, satisfied that the place would do, whipped off his hat. “I beg your pardon, Miss Snow, for disturbing you at such a difficult time. Only, you see, I was charged to come.”

“Charged by whom, Mr. Clay?”

He looked bewildered by his own words. “By Miss Vennaway.”

My heart stilled.
How could this be?

He reached within his overcoat and drew out a parcel. Clutching it, he hesitated. “After I returned home last night I felt . . . uplifted by the generous bequest she had made me. I sat in my study and wrote an extensive letter to Miss Page telling her of Miss Vennaway's generosity and vision. Miss Page and I are betrothed, you know.”

“I know, Mr. Clay, I know.”

“And then, well, I partook of some chops.”

“Chops, Mr. Clay?”

“Yes, chops. Simmered with herbs and onions, delicious. I find that good fortune brings on a hearty appetite. And so it was some time before I returned to my study to open the package that Mr. Ditherington had entrusted to me. It was quite large, as you may recall, and I expected it to contain a great many legal papers.”

I could not recall the package, distracted as I had been during the reading of the will. But if there were some final word from her, I would give everything I owned for it.

“In fact, it contained very little for me. A banker's draft for the amount stated and a letter containing very kind sentiments for the school's future and my matrimonial happiness. The letter also contained a request. And . . . there was this.” He handed the parcel to me at last.

“Amy Snow” was written on the outside in Aurelia's familiar handwriting, in Aurelia's favorite violet ink. I could hardly believe it. I looked up at Mr. Clay's earnest face.

“The request was that I should deliver this to you in person before you left Hatville Court, and let no one else know that I had done so. I could not let her down.”

“She has thought of everything,” I said in a low voice.

“You meant everything to her. I wish you luck, Miss Snow. I hope you will count me as one friend, at least, wherever you may go.”

He bowed and I curtsied, then we took our leave. He wished me Godspeed and I blessed his endeavors for the school, strongly suspecting that I would never see good Mr. Clay again.

I would not linger. I was dressed now and half packed. If I could leave before encountering the Vennaways, it would spare us all one last discomfort. But first I was impatient for some word of further explanation. Hastily, I opened the parcel and withdrew an envelope. The envelope contained a sheaf of money that I did not count and a letter, which I read at once. I dared not risk lingering to read it in the house; even in my room I could not rely upon privacy. So I stayed in the copse, in the half-light, reading and shivering and quite unable to believe the words before me.

Then I hurried back inside. I finished packing, buckled my carpet bag, and brushed my wayward cloud of dark hair, readying myself for the road.

My heart nearly jumped into my mouth when the bedroom door suddenly burst open. I spun round to see Lord Vennaway stalking towards me, face gray, mustache shivering on his lip.

“You!” he rasped, running a hand through his hair, plunging it into a pocket, withdrawing it in a fist, pocketing it again. “You are here and you should not be, you should never have been. Who are you, anyway? Taking advantage of my girl's soft heart and innocence. Wheedling your way into her affections. Staying here where you were not welcome. Schemer! Vagabond! Baseborn!
You
should have died, not her. We treasured her, but she was blighted like a rose. And you were poison in her ear. You were unfit company for her. She might have lived if you had let her be but you wouldn't. You
wouldn't
!”

I had never heard him speak so. In fact, I rarely heard him speak at all—we avoided each other as much as possible in the usual run of things. His wife was more often my tormentor; I had heard from
her
countless times that the wrong child thrived, that Aurelia had been destined for greatness, that I should have been left to die in the snow. Lord Vennaway, by contrast, was merely a disapproving presence—a rain cloud over a picnic. The reality of the man, here in my room, angry, tragic, and raving, was deeply alarming. I backed away from him.

“What have you there?” he demanded, pushing past me and seizing my carpet bag.

I gasped in horror. The precious package! I must not lose it before I had even inspected its contents. I must not let Aurelia down at the very outset!

At least the envelope was safe in my skirt. Instinctively, my hand went to it and I felt its papery crackle. Lord Vennaway stared at me and for an awful moment I thought he would grab my hand, find the letter and the money. But instead, he started hunting through my bag—oh, humiliating invasion though it was. Clothes, books, undergarments (I closed my eyes in mortification) and old letters were tossed through the air to land on bed and floor as he grunted in the passion of his search. The parcel was discovered in a trice.

“What's this?” he demanded, seeing Aurelia's handwriting on the wrapping.

I had to speak. “A birthday present. From Aurelia.”

“A
birthday
present? You don't have a birthday. You have no birth worth marking.” His eyes locked onto mine.

I would not be undone. I had heard worse.

“We used to pretend a birthday for me. In January. The day I was found. It was a few days before she . . . she . . .” My eyes filled with tears. For the love of God I could not say
died
. “I kept it,” I struggled on, “to have something from her after . . . after . . .”

Aghast I watched him turn it over as though to open it.

“No!” I could not help myself. I reached out to seize it and he pushed me hard away from him.

He tore the paper and I watched, wretched with helplessness. Some kind of gauzy green fabric spilled out, soft and feminine, perhaps with embroidery, I could not tell in the shock of it all. He cast it away too. The wrapping landed on the bed, the green gauze slithered to the floor.

“Get out!” he hissed. “Leave my house and never return. We have tolerated your unsavory presence too long. Now Aurelia is gone and any affection for you is dead with her. Know that if you ever set foot on this property again, we will call the constable and make sure you are removed for good.”

Shaking, I gathered my possessions. No careful packing this time; I just bundled them in anyhow. The green fabric and torn wrapping I stuffed in first, then everything else on top, while he watched me fumble and drop things. My only thought was to escape with Aurelia's bequest undiscovered. I packed so badly the bag scarcely closed; my old gray dress spilled from the top.

There were no farewells. Not even Cook came to see me off, though I imagine she was forbidden to. The door was slammed behind me and I was on that long, straight road while my hair still crackled from the brushing. But the money and letter were undetected, and the parcel was still in my possession. That was all that mattered.

Chapter Four

The Barley Room in the Rose and Crown is a quarter the size of my room at Hatville and contains twice the amount of furniture. It smells of polish and soot. It feels lonely and unfamiliar, but it offers blessed privacy; at last I can investigate Aurelia's gift thoroughly.

The green fabric is silk, embroidered with tiny sprays of
Myosotis
—forget-me-not. It is a light stole such as fine ladies wear to summer balls to veil ivory shoulders. When I bury my nose in the silky folds, I fancy I can smell jasmine and moonlight. It is not the season for such a pretty thing, nor am I the girl to wear it.

I count the money and discover it is a hundred pounds. I gaze at it in bewilderment, then hide it, for want of a better place, in my wash bag. It is not yet safe for me to have it.

I read the letter again by lamplight, hours after my first reading in the grayish sigh of early morning. Now the page is lit by the lantern's deep golden glow.

My treasured Amy,

If you are reading this letter, then Mr. Clay has carried out my request, as I feel sure he will, and I am gone, as I know I must. Dear heart, I know you must be in great pain now. We have been lucky, haven't we, in our time together? I do not know many who can boast the depth of affection and great camaraderie that we have shared. I may have been born an only child, but I have a sister nonetheless.

Enough of this, for you know my sentiments well enough and there is much that I must tell you. Close as we were and are, dearest, there are secrets I have kept from you. Not through lack of trust, I hope you know. You will understand when you learn them, as I always meant that you should. But they are not secrets I can simply set out in a letter—at least, not this one. I wish with all my heart that I could tell you in person, our heads bent together in the firelight as we have sat so often. Prepare yourself, dear Amy, for much that you do not know.

Do you remember, dear, when you were little, how I used to delight in creating treasure hunts for you? I would labor away at clues and secret locations after you had gone to bed, creep out to plant them and then enjoy every moment of watching you run about the place to find the treasure! (Usually nothing more than an old doll or a lace hanky, but we both know why that was, don't we? And once, some handmade chocolates that I brought you from London—at least you could eat that gift before they took it! Oh, very well then, we both ate it.)

What have these old memories to do with here and now, you must wonder. Just this: this is the start of my last treasure hunt for you. Think of my letters (for there will be several) as the clues—each will lead on to the next. I have planned for my story to unfold just a little at a time, with every letter taking you farther from Hatville, farther from the ignominy of your treatment there: safer and stronger and freer. By the fourth or fifth letter, the trail will long have run out for anyone else. No one knows me as well as you, dear.

So forgive me if there are no answers here. Forgive me, too, if the tone of this letter is all wrong. Perhaps these are not the perfect first words to send to someone from beyond the grave. But you see, as I write this, I am still here, seated at my desk in the room you know so well. I said good night to you just five minutes ago and I will see your sweet smile tomorrow. We plan to sit in the rose garden after breakfast. It is hard to write as a dead woman when life is still so sweet.

Yet my death approaches. When it comes, you will be friendless, for we both know the unfortunate—nay, cruel—attitude my parents hold towards you. Our friendship is precious and I hope that you will never regret it, but it kept you a prisoner also, tied to this house and dependent on me. Now you can fly free, little bird! And I will help you, for you have helped me, more than you will ever know.

So. You are grieving, you are alone. But you do not want for means. I enclose a sum of money for you. There will be more, but this will do for now. Ten pounds indeed! As if I would ever leave you such a negligible amount! That they could even believe it of me is enraging, and yet also highly convenient. The green stole is a gift. It will become you, Amy, though I doubt you will believe me.

Your first instruction in this treasure hunt? To journey to London, my dear. That is your first destination. You have money, you can travel in comfort, enjoy the journey if you can. Marvel at seeing a part of our kingdom so different from Enderby! When you get there, find a bookshop called Entwhistle's. Go to the natural history section. (A lady browsing amongst the works of Mr. Beckwith . . . Oh, the scandal! Be sure your fragile brain does not explode, dear!) Cast your thoughts around the book we discussed at length that summer's evening after Mr. Howden came to dine. Consider the variables and you will find a letter from me to you. How have I achieved this? Ah, but I am a magician, my little bird.

To end, dear Amy, take heart. I do not expect you to recover from my loss overnight, nor forget me, nor replace me (for I am one of a kind, am I not?). But I do expect you to live. And live well. For the life you have known hitherto, our friendship notwithstanding, is not life as it can and should be.

BOOK: Amy Snow
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