Authors: Joan Smith
Tags: #Regency Romance
Someone is trying to kill me. That much I think is clear now. The attack outside the chapel and the drugged coffee—no accidents or misadventures, but attempts by the same hand to do away with me. Why? Surely of all the harmless people in this great big world, no one could be more harmless than a girl who doesn’t even know her own name.
Maybe if I lie still in the dark it will come back to me. ‘What’s your name? ‘I’m . . .’ ‘Allow me to introduce Miss . . .’ ‘Of course you know my daughter . . .’ Nothing. Ever since that night in the snow I have been Miss Nobody, or possibly
Nobody, though I have no recollection of a husband or beloved children clinging to me. Surely one would remember such precious possessions, more precious even than a name. Being without a name is no more than an inconvenience, really. It is the lack of a past that bedevils one, and the uncertainty of a future after these ‘accidents’ that cause the blood to run cold.
As cold as the wind that night. How cold it was, but then it was December. And it was snowing. When I awoke lying in the ditch, there was snow falling on me, soft white flakes, so lovely they looked, each with a little yellowish-blue iridescent halo around it, caused by light striking them from behind. Moving, bobbing lights they were, like two small moons come to earth to frolic down this road. Like a fool I lay cowering silently in my cold ditch and let them go by, those two carriage lights, and felt very cunning doing it, too. Only after the sound of the wheels had receded well into the distance did it occur to me there would have been help in the carriage. I tried to stand up then, to shout after the fast disappearing shadow, and then I nearly passed out again. Sunk down on to the cold blanket of snow while the world spun around me. Black limbs nude of leaves scarcely visible through the swirling snow began wheeling in crazy circles, becoming fuzzy, then completely invisible as a purple curtain fell over them, then back into focus again, sharply etched in outline now like a charcoal sketch, except that they swayed slightly with an occasional creak as they strained against the trunk.
I felt a sudden compulsion to run as fast as my wobbly legs would carry me, away. But where was away? Was it down the lane after the carriage, or behind me, in the other direction, down the black, empty road? Where was I, and what was I doing here? It did not yet occur to me to ask the other great unanswerable. Who am I?
That came a whole hour later, after I had taken the arbitrary decision to follow the carriage. Actually, I rather enjoyed that walk through the darkness. It was black as pitch, with the white flakes swirling against my face, so I felt safe. No one could see me in the dark. It was necessary that no one see me. I wore a good warm cape with a hood and serviceable woolen gloves, but my feet were numb with no galoshes. For an hour I trudged on, taking great gulps of the cold, clean air, looking behind me and straining my eyes forward through the snow, always with a trembling fear that someone would come. Someone would find me. No one did. After an hour, I had walked roughly four miles, and found myself at a place called Wickey, pop. 324, Winchester, 10 miles. I felt able to walk on the ten miles and see the cathedral, despite the cold.
Wickey had a church of its own. Not a cathedral, but a pretty little building of gray stone with a deeply recessed doorway. There appeared to be carvings in bas-relief around the arch of the main door, and pillars, in the Norman style. I stood there in the dark admiring what I could see of it, all alone. No one would harm anyone right in front of a church. Why did I have this uneasy feeling someone wanted to? I shook my head. I would sleep in the church. I tried the door, and it didn’t move an inch. Locked. Naturally a church would be locked in the dead of night! But they were sometimes left open in Spain and France, the Catholic countries. Never mind, my lady, you’re in good old Anglican England now, and it is locked. Well then, get the minister to open it, and let you spend the night on a wooden bench. Pilgrims have done it before in other countries. I peered around to discern a small brick cottage set back to the right of the church, but it had no lights on. The Reverend must be in bed, I thought. I would have to wait till morning. Where should I wait?
I realize now I was in a state of shock. I am not usually so foolish as this past recital would indicate. It took me full ten minutes to come to the conclusion the open street was a poor place to spend a night, in the middle of what turned out to be a blizzard, though it was only beginning then. I decided what I ought to do was go to an inn. I retained that much sense, knew, too, it would look odd for me to go without my woman, but this seemed not to distress me. What did bother me, however, was to find my pockets to let—no money, no sign of a reticule to my name. Nothing, barring the clothes on my back.
I looked up and down the deserted street, where no one stirred but myself and a mutt, a mongrel who sniffed twice at my feet, then turned his tail
to me and trotted off. The lucky dog seemed to know what he was about. I didn’t.
Back to the church. A church was safe—maybe a rectory was safe, too? It was becoming bitterly cold, the wind rising and finding its way under the folds of my cape.
I stepped cautiously to the door of the rectory and tapped timidly at the brass knocker. Nothing happened. Why was I standing here shivering while an unfeeling housekeeper slept snugly in her bed? I tapped louder, and still nothing happened. Impatient, I gave the brass knocker a couple of resounding crashes that rattled the door on its hinges. At length a lamp appeared within, jiggling towards me. The inner door was opened by a little lady in a cap and dressing gown, holding her lamp high now, looking through the storm door. She appeared frightened, but when she saw it was a lone female seeking entrance, she undid the lock and stuck her bead out.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I want to come in.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m . . .” That’s when I discovered I didn’t know who I was. Till that moment it had not occurred to me to wonder. I was me, that’s all.
“I’m cold,” I said, shivering and with my teeth chattering. My voice, she told me later, sounded strange, weak. It incited her to pity, but then Miss Wickey, whose family history was likely wrapped up in the village whose name she bore, was full of pity for everyone. She let me in, built up a hasty fire in the grate, made tea, all without a single question, but only a calming string of inconsequential chitchat about the storm. She was mouse-like, gray, small, twitching nervously. A dear woman. Not till I had had two cups of tea and was warm enough to remove my cape did she repeat the question.
“I didn’t catch the name, dear,” she said, smiling expectantly.
“I didn’t throw it, ma’am,” I answered pertly, then giggled. She must have thought me a regular hoyden. What induced me to say such a bold thing, and to this old sweetheart?
“But what is it?” she repeated, unoffended, but looking puzzled.
Then, when I was nice and safe and warm, I dissolved into tears. Suddenly the fear returned. I found myself trembling in front of the fire, with the woman’s arms around me, cradling me as though I were a baby. I wanted to stay forever safe and warm in her small arms that didn’t go half way around me. I also wanted to run away, and break into sobs, and do I hardly knew what. Kill someone I think, for there was anger rolled up with all my other confused emotions. Outrage perhaps was more like it—a sense of definite outrage about something.
It was in no way directed at Miss Wickey, however. She was my refuge. She got me into a nightdress of her own, much too small of course, scarcely past my knees. She frowned as I removed a very plain navy bombazine gown, well worn, too, to reveal fine silken petticoats, with dainty blue ribbons threaded through a lace flounce, the whole well bespattered with mud from my walk. My hose too were of silk, though my shoes were plain in the extreme, and didn’t fit any too well. It was too difficult to think about. I was suddenly exhausted.
“Stay with me,” I begged her as I crawled into the spartan little cot, without a canopy or any protection of any kind. She put down the candle and brought a chair to my bedside, sat there by me till I fell into a sleep. It didn’t take long.
“Thank you, Kitty,” I said, yawning.
“That’s Wickey, miss,” she replied gently. They were the last words I heard that night.
* * * *
By morning the snowfall had turned into a storm of major proportions. I suspect I was a nuisance of the same dimensions in the little rectory. I had a fever, a splitting headache, and a wretched cold. I also had a black hole where a memory should have been. Miss Wickey brought me bread and tea on a tray—such a skimpy little breakfast, I thought. A meal for a prisoner. Where was the hot cocoa, where the freshly-baked baps, the eggs? Why did the cup weigh half a pound, a thick, ugly thing with no adornment on its plain gray glazed exterior? I drank the tea, ate the bread, and slept again, still hungry.
Later she sent the Reverend Mulliner to me. He was a windbag. What is it in the ministry that attracts inveterate rashers of wind? The chance to stand up with a captive audience and prose on forever without interruption, I suppose. One would think a stray woman, straggled in in the middle of the night like a cat, and one who had lost her memory into the bargain would be of sufficient interest that he would care to listen, but no, he talked instead. He had heard my story from his housekeeper, Miss Wickey, he informed me. He stood at my bedside, a tall, dark-haired gentleman in ecclesiastical garb of a very good cut, better than one would expect in the rector of such a small parish. He could not be a man of independent means, living so meagerly, so I surmised he was vain, spending an inordinate amount of his stipend on his wardrobe. He was somewhere in mid-thirties, not bad-looking but for the air of self-consequence he wore.
“Well, well, so we are honored with a guest today! In the ministry we consider housing the afflicted not only a duty, but an honor, ma’am. Whatsoever you do unto the least of my . . .’ Not to say you are the least, I’m sure! Heh heh,” he apologized as his eyes alit on my silken petticoats drying on the back of a chair. Not before a fire, alas! There was no cozy fire for the afflicted.
“You must not feel because the accommodations are small and the fare humble that the hospitality is strained. Share and share alike.” But there was an aroma of bacon seeping through the open door hinting at some unshared victuals, nevertheless.
“Many’s the time this humble abode has offered shelter to one in trouble. When the late Reverend Wickey was in residence—you met his daughter, my housekeeper—not very capable but a good woman with the parishioners. Ah, as I was saying, when the late rector resided here there was a hostel attached to my little cottage. A wretched ramshackle thing it was of clapboard. It fell down from age. Well, well, and how do you go on?”
“My head is a little . . .”
“I’ll have the doctor in. A veritable good Samaritan, our Dr. Fell. Don’t worry, he’ll bill you. All part of the hospitality, heh heh. The mind is a strange thing. Not the least of God’s mysteries. If it is playing this stunt on you, you may be sure there is a reason for it. Such things have happened before, but Fell will sort it out.”
He was a roamer. Even in a chamber less than ten feet by ten, he could not stand still. As he preached—and I think he was rehearsing Sunday’s sermon featuring himself (not Fell) as the good Samaritan—he roamed, glancing at my cape hung on the closet door, my shoes under the one chair, a faded print of the Last Supper on the wall, the window.
“What a day it is! The McCurdles were right to prophesy a storm. It has snowed for ten hours straight. There’s six inches of the stuff outside. There will be no one at the service this morning,” he repined.
“Oh, is it Sunday?”
“It is the Lord’s Day. The McCurdles will be there, of course. They always can make it, only a hop across the road. All the villagers, in fact, could make it, but folks won’t come in from the countryside. There will be less than half a congregation this morning. Sir Ludwig won’t attempt it from Granhurst.”
“Don’t let me detain you, Mr. Mulliner. You will be busy this morning,” I said, in an effort to be rid of him. He smiled a cold smile that tried very hard to be warm, but he was rueing the loss of Sir Ludwig, I think, to his flock that morning. “I shall look in on you after lunch,” he threatened, and left, with a last hopeful glance to the silken petticoats. I took the notion he hoped he had a lady of consequence gracing his spare room. It would flatter his self-importance no doubt if I could he found to be an aristocrat or something of the sort.
With less than half a churchful to hear the sermon on the Good Samaritan, Dr. Fell was forced to attend before being allowed to come to me. He entered soon afterwards, carrying a black bag with him. He was an elderly man, fiftyish, stooped in shoulders, with all the kindness and charity that ought to have belonged to the Reverend. He tended first to my physical ills, discovering a bump on the back of my head, a congesting lung, and of course the fever. An ill-tasting draught was ordered, then he drew up a chair and sat down beside me.