Authors: Elizabeth Gill
Miss Appleby’s Academy
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by
Quercus Editions Ltd
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block
Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Gill
The moral right of Elizabeth Gill to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Print ISBN 978 1 78087 847 8
Ebook ISBN 978 1 78087 848 5
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Last year, when I was thinking of writing a story about an American woman coming to the north-east of England to start up a school, I went to an exhibition by Tow Law History Society. Ron Storey, a member of the group, told me that in 1900 there was in Tow Law a school called Miss Appleby’s Academy. My thanks to him for the inspiration for my story and to all the members of the society for their work over the years which has helped me such a lot. Besides which when I go and see them they make me feel as though there is a part of me which is always of the little pit town where we all grew up. So many of us have moved, but we have not gone far either geographically or emotionally. It is still home.
The Three Tuns in Durham City is a very pretty hotel and never did belong to Henry Atkinson as far as I know, but I remembered that my dad used to park his car at the County because the car park was bigger and walk through the County to get to the Three Tuns, and that seemed to me reason enough to include it in my story.
In memory of George, Jasper and Timmy,
who were the inspiration for Hector and Ulysses.
It snows a lot in New England. After the fall when the leaves have turned to lime and crimson and orange and given up the unequal fight and dropped from the trees like jewels the weather turns hard and great square flakes light the sky.
Emma Appleby, almost thirty, loved the winter best of all. Her father said that when she was his age she would long for the spring, but she delighted at making snowmen when she was small, skating on frozen ponds when she grew older, and she didn’t think she would ever give up her regard for her favourite season nor cease to listen for the sound of sleigh bells at Christmas and gather with her family and friends in the little white church to give thanks for another year.
She liked to walk for miles, and would encourage her father out day after day to enjoy the snow scenes. So it was nothing special that particular afternoon in December that they were two miles from home and following carriage tracks along the top of the ridge.
She stopped at the very highest point where the tracks
were dug deep into the snow: they were twisted and turned as though the coach had gone out of control. There were deep ruts and gouged-out tracks, perhaps because of horses’ hooves, and the snow was flung away everywhere. Emma was afraid to look and only glad her father was there, because at the very height of the ridge you could see to the bottom. More snow was displaced and there was the coach, overturned as she had feared. She cried out and put her hand over her mouth.
Emma gasped, and her father, coming up behind her, panting, followed her gaze, and then he forgot his tiredness and he too stared. Below, the brown horses were lying at unnatural angles and there was blood, bright scarlet, and the snow around was all shapes and turns. Emma hesitated for only a few seconds and then, regardless of the revulsion which came upon her, she began to plunge downward while her father called after her, ‘Wait, Emma, the drifts may be very deep,’ and since the snow came up to the top of her thighs and impeded her progress somewhat but did not stop her, he too began to lift his legs high enough so that he made progress through the three-foot-high covering. It was difficult to do that, but Emma barely noticed it. Her heart beat hard and even when her breathing shallowed for the effort she waded on through the sea of white, trying to stop herself from worrying about what tragedy she would find.
She did not stop until she had reached the carriage, but she could see then the upside-down coach, and there were people inside. Nobody was moving and they too were lying
like rag dolls in confusion, in ways which made her think they would never move again. She took another breath so that she would not let herself break down in tears. There was no room here for such things, she told herself, there must be something she could do. She heard her father’s voice. Like any good parent he would have shielded her from whatever disaster he could, but Emma took no notice.
She got down in the snow. Inside the coach there were four people as far as she could make out, and none of them was moving. One door could not be reached because the coach lay on its side. The other was somehow jammed shut, and hard as she tried, and hard as her father tried, they could not budge it. She glanced away as though if she did so when she glanced back the scene would have been some mirage which was gone, but the stillness all around confirmed what she had feared, that there was no one left alive from the accident.
Her father walked all around the outside, and she followed him. There were another two men who had been thrown clear, the driver and another passenger who no doubt had been on top at the front. She looked up back to the ridge where she and her father had seen what had happened, and she thought that the driver must have lost control in the ice and been taken too close to the edge and then had been able to do nothing to stop the accident.
‘I must go back for help,’ her father said.
‘No, let me go. I’m faster than you.’
She didn’t listen any further. It wasn’t much of a choice, she thought, to stay with the dead or run for help which
she knew was beyond them, but it was the only thing to do. She was glad of action even though her legs ached before she had gone half a mile in the depth of snow, and it seemed to her a very long time before she came in sight of the little white town which was her home. She could see the church spire first and it lifted her spirits because she was so tired by then.
She ran up the wide road towards her brother’s house. Laurence and his wife had not been married long. She could not think what else to do. It was Saturday afternoon, just after lunch, and most people were still indoors after the midday meal. He would know what to do, he was reliable, he was a lawyer, a good lawyer she corrected herself, glad to think of something which did not really matter here. The front gate was open, it could not be closed because of the amount of snow. She ran up the path, slipping because it had been cleared only that morning and had set hard. She tried the front door and it gave (nobody ever locked their doors), and she shouted and almost fell into the hall as her brother came out of the dining room, staring at the fuss she was making.
On seeing him Emma felt such relief that she wanted to cry. She was too out of breath to cry and speak, so she poured out the story as fast as she could and he listened. He was a good listener, it was part of his job to do that, and he was tall and solid and sturdy and he was a happy man with all his married life to look forward to, and such things made people strong, Emma knew.
Happiness freed you to meet whatever problems arose.
He didn’t interrupt, he nodded, his eyes grew wide and his expression stern, his mouth went into a line and when the tale was finished he was already putting on his coat and boots and saying to her, because his wife had come into the hall and heard the tale too, ‘Stay there with Verity.’
‘No,’ Emma said. ‘I’m coming with you.’
‘There’s nothing you can do. They’re all dead, you said so—’
‘I don’t know so,’ she argued, ‘and I’m not leaving you and Father.’ There was no logic to this, she felt he was right. She could hardly use tools to break into the coach, she could not pull dead bodies from it, and her brother, as her father, was trying to shield her, and she knew that it made sense; she might even be a burden to the men in some way.
‘Besides, I can show you exactly where it is.’ He argued no more. He was already out of the door and he would go to his neighbours and friends and those who had the ability to determine what happened next: the doctor, the firemen, the police.
Verity too urged her to stay at home. Verity was big with her first child and moved slowly, but Emma ignored her and went back through the front door again. She had the feeling her brother could find the place with a few directions, but she wanted to be there trying to do something useful. The men were ready in a very short time and she ploughed back through the snow, feeling not tired now but glad to be useful.
The light was already beginning to fade. Once darkness had set in it would be a lot more difficult to do anything
at all. Laurence jemmied open the door, but her initial reaction had been right: the four people inside were dead. The six bodies had to be carried back to the town on a big cart. The rest could be left until another day.
‘Are you ready?’ Laurence said when it was so dark that she could not see his face.
‘There’s nothing more to be done and certainly nothing a woman could do here,’ he said briskly to hide his emotions. He even turned away.
Still Emma hesitated. ‘In a moment,’ she said.
He looked at her as he had always looked at her when he was exasperated. As siblings they had so little in common, she thought, and although younger than her, he was forever telling her what to do. The cart left, the men went and she stood. She didn’t know why, Laurence was right as usual, she could achieve nothing here, and yet she could not go. Something which had happened here was still going on. She couldn’t have explained it to him, he would have said it was nothing but old wives’ tales, women’s superstition and ridiculous, but he did not linger any further. He was as tired as the rest.
Emma’s legs ached. She longed to go, but couldn’t. She walked around. She tried not to look at the carriage or the dead horses or the different bits and pieces which had been thrown clear because of the accident. It grew quiet. She was not sure she could find her way back in the darkness. She stood for another moment as she watched Laurence’s tall figure fading away into the night and then
she heard something, or did she? She listened. There it was again. Crying. It could have been some kind of bird or an animal. Whatever – it was something in distress, and in this temperature it would not last the night.
‘Come on, Emma, hurry up,’ he responded, stopping. ‘It’s freezing hard and Verity is all alone in the house.’
He heard the urgency in her voice and did not start walking again. She went round and round the scene of the accident, stopping every few yards, but there was silence. Had she imagined it? Then, but faintly, she heard it again and moved in the direction of the noise. She was getting nearer. It happened once more and she thought if she hadn’t moved closer she would have lost the cry altogether, abandoned it as a figment of her imagination. There was finally a very faint cry and she could see in the shadows a small form.
He was near her now. Emma got down in the hard snow. A cold wind was cutting across the bottom of the valley. She scooped up the form. It was warm, but only just to her touch.
‘Oh my God, it’s a baby. Go back to the coach and see if you can find anything to wrap it in.’
He paused as though he would argue and then he went and came back with some kind of huge blanket and they wrapped the child in it and started for home.
‘You came to us out of the snow,’ she would tell George afterwards. Nobody lied to him, nobody pretended that he had been born in Mid Haven. His parents had been Irish immigrants on their way to who knows where when exhaustion, poverty and an overturned wagon had claimed them and their friends.