Redemption of a Fallen Woman (Chapter Three)
She had carefully reconnoitred the property as far as she had been able, making a note of all doors and windows. Concha had filled in the gaps, assessing those areas frequented by the servants.
'All the downstairs windows are barred, Dona Elena. The only possibility is to use one of the bedrooms, preferably the one that looks out over the lane yonder.' Concha jerked her head towards the garden wall that bordered the narrow roadway in question.
'My thought exactly.'
'A pair of knotted sheets should serve. After all, it wouldn't be the first time, would it?'
'The only problem is that the Englishman is currently using that bedroom.'
The Englishman! Elena bit her lip. Heaven knew she had met enough of them, but this man was different somehow. Everything about him proclaimed noble birth and education, but it was more than that. He lingered in the mind, conjuring all manner of unexpected and disturbing thoughts. Of course, such a man would attract the attention of women. It shocked her to find that she was not immune, after all. With an effort she forced herself to concentrate on what Concha was saying.
'We'll find a way. We have to.'
Elena nodded. 'Yes, we do.'
'I made sure to pack all the necessary clothing before we came. I put it in the bottom of my own box. I thought it less likely to be searched. The weapons are concealed in the usual place.'
'Well done. What would I do without you, Concha?'
The maid regarded her steadily. 'I think the boot is on the other foot. But for your honoured father my mother would have hanged and I would have perished. His compassion saved us both and gave us the chance of a future.'
'Some future,' said Elena. 'Look where your loyalty has brought you. Your mother is dead and you…'
'We have been through many trials together, you and I, and we will come through this. After all, we have escaped captivity before, and we have been threatened by experts, no?'
'Remember El Lobo and his bandit thugs, to say nothing of the French?'
'How could I forget?'
'Well, then, how should your relatives intimidate you now?'
Elena grinned. 'You're right, of course. I…'
She broke off as her companion gave her arm a warning squeeze. Darting a glance along the path, she fully expected to see one of her aunts approaching. Instead it was a very different figure that hove into sight, a lean and virile figure whose presence caused her pulse to quicken. She drew a deep breath, collecting herself. Then she rose to greet him.
'Lord Henry. What a pleasant surprise.'
Surveying her now Harry thought he could say the same. The blue morning gown became her well, emphasising the curves of her figure and enhancing her warm colouring and the lustrous coils of dark hair. This close proximity did nothing to abate the admiration he had felt at their first meeting, on the contrary. London had its share of beauties, but none who held his attention and certainly none who had such a very kissable mouth. She aroused sensations he'd imagined long dead. He caught himself there. This woman had no interest in him and anyway she was destined for a convent. All thoughts about her physical charms were completely inappropriate. Feeling distinctly guilty now, he adopted an expression of polite attention.
'It seemed too fine a day to remain indoors. I hope I'm not disturbing you.'
'Oh, no, not at all.'
'This is a pleasant garden,' he went on. 'I don't wonder that you should choose to sit out here.'
'I prefer to be out of doors as a rule.'
'So do I.' He paused, unwilling to lose her company but not wishing to overstep the bounds of propriety either. He was well aware that the place was visible from the house and that if he invited Elena to sit with him it might well be misconstrued. Something more subtle was required. 'I wonder if you would care to walk a little way.'
Elena hesitated but then inclined her head in acquiescence. 'As you wish. Concha, you will accompany us.'
Harry hid a grimace. The maid was entirely de trop but, under the circumstances, an inescapable encumbrance.
As they set off Elena was careful to keep a foot of clear space between them. Concha fell in behind at a discreet distance. If anyone were to observe them from the house it was all above reproach. They strolled a little way in silence, though from time to time Elena shot a sideways glance at her companion. His proximity made her feel self-conscious – aware of his closeness to her fingertips, a feeling so unaccustomed that she felt unwontedly awkward.
'I regret the need for a chaperone,' she said then. 'It isn't because I don't trust you.'
He smiled. 'I'm glad to hear it.'
'It's just that I must be seen to observe the required forms of behaviour. My aunts…'
'You don't have to explain. I understand perfectly.'
She gave him another sideways look. 'Do you?'
Unwilling to reveal his knowledge about her past, he slid over it. 'Your admission to the convent is to take place very soon, I collect.'
She nodded. 'My uncle has arranged it.'
The words jarred and aroused a sense of impotent anger. Suddenly he wanted to find out more, to hear Elena's side of the matter.
'And how do you feel about the new life you are about to enter?'
'As a man might feel on learning that he is to be imprisoned for the rest of his life.'
The words confirmed what he had suspected from the conversation at table the previous evening. It made the implications all the more unpalatable.
'Then you have no vocation?'
'No vocation, or even a belief in God any more. However, that makes no difference to my family.'
He heard the suppressed anger in her tone, saw it in her eyes. He could well understand it too. More than ever the whole business seemed criminal.
'I'm truly sorry. Is there nothing that can be done to change their minds?'
'They are quite resolved and will not bend.'
'They might show some compassion.'
'They have none. I am twenty-three years old, unmarried and with no prospect of being so. I am therefore a liability they mean to be rid of, and a convent is the ideal place. The method is respectable, discreet and permanent.'
He knew she was right and, even though it was none of his affair, he could not help but feel pity for her predicament and disgust for the perpetrators.
Elena lifted her chin. 'I think that you have heard quite enough of my woes. Let us speak of something else.'
'Tell me about your brother, the one whose death has occasioned this visit. I think you must have been very fond of him to travel so great a distance.'
'Jamie was the brother I looked up to most. He was a hero to me when we were younger. I wanted to be just like him.' He smiled wryly. 'It always seemed like a big pair of shoes to fill.'
The smile, albeit transitory, suggested hidden warmth behind the cool English reserve. She sensed there was more here than met the eye and was intrigued.
'Have you other brothers and sisters?'
'Two sisters and three brothers, although Jamie is gone now and the youngest, Edward, died at Waterloo.'
'It was a terrible blow to all the family, but our father took it hardest. He'd already lost Jamie, you see, and when he received the news of Edward's demise…well, it affected the balance of his mind.'
'It must have been a terrible time for all concerned.'
He sighed. 'It was. Because his body had not been found there was always a little gleam of hope that, somehow, a miracle might happen and Jamie might come back but, as time went on, hope began to fade. Eventually we had to face the facts, of course.'
'But you have not given up hope of obtaining the proof you need.'
He shook his head. 'No, I have not. As for the rest, it's still hard to accept. I always thought I would know if he were really dead, that I'd feel it in my heart. I suppose that was just a form of denial. A foolish one at that.'
'Not foolish at all, only human. There is not a day goes by that I don't think about my father.'
The empathy evident in her look and tone touched something deep inside him. These were things he had never discussed with anyone, until now. Being accustomed to keeping his stronger emotions out of sight this unwonted openness made him feel exposed and yet, paradoxically, comforted too. It also felt like dangerous ground. He needed to return to a surer footing.
'I hope I haven't come on a wild-goose chase.'
'I think you will discover the truth eventually.'
'I hope so.' Harry sighed. 'Besides, it is only just that the estate should pass to the rightful heir. I need to establish who that is.'
Discovering the facts relating to Jamie's death was only part of the problem, but Harry knew it would not be fitting to discuss such intimate details here. All the same, it was surprisingly easy to talk to Elena. Disarmingly easy. It behoved him to be careful. Whatever his view of the matter she was forbidden fare in every way. What might be regarded as acceptable attentions to a lady in England might well be regarded as familiarity in Spain where interpretation was much stricter. When marriages were arranged here it was not unusual if the bride and groom didn't meet until their wedding day.
That thought engendered others and he wondered what manner of man Elena's betrothed had been that he would abandon a woman in that way. Did he know what he was losing? Had they even met? He could hardly ask her, but all the same his curiosity increased.
'Tell me about your home,' she went on. 'In what part of England does it lie?'
'The family seat is at Castonbury Park in Derbyshire. That's roughly in the middle of the country.'
'The Montague name is an old and respected one, I think.'
'Our line goes back to the Norman Conquest. One of our ancestors came over with Duke William and was rewarded for his service with lands in England.'
'Do you live in a castle, then?'
'No, although there has been a house at Castonbury since the Middle Ages. The original one changed over time as bits were added to provide more living space. Eventually it was demolished to be replaced with the present house.'
'It must be very grand.'
He smiled faintly. 'Grand enough, I suppose.'
'Do you live there all the time?'
'No, I reside in London for the most part. My work requires it. I visit Castonbury only occasionally now.'
'Your work is with the diplomatic service.'
'That's right. It's how I was able to obtain letters of introduction to your uncle and so begin my investigations about Jamie.'
'I wish you good fortune with that.'
'Thank you. I…' He broke off, seeing the familiar figure of Dona Inez advancing down the path towards them.
Elena followed his gaze and her smile faded. Her aunt's face suggested stern disapproval, but then it was habitual for her to look that way. Composing her own expression to impassivity, Elena waited.
Dona Inez acknowledged Lord Henry with a curt nod and then turned to her niece. 'You must come into the house directly, Elena. Sister Maria and Sister Angela are come to give you instruction. They have received special dispensation to do so and should not be kept waiting.'
Elena's jaw tightened and she fought down the urge to refuse point blank and consign both the holy sisters and her aunt to perdition. However, to do so would be a serious mistake. She must continue to play along for now.
'Very well,' she replied. 'I will come.' Turning to her companion she added, 'I hope you will excuse me, Lord Henry.'
'Of course.' He bowed politely, then watched the two women walk away. More than ever he felt sorry for Elena's predicament, but unfortunately there was nothing he could do about it.
Elena maintained her impassive expression for the next hour as the two elderly nuns schooled her in preparation for entry into the convent. She kept her gaze lowered lest they should read the anger in her eyes. This wasn't going to happen. Concha was right. Somehow they would find a way out.
Meanwhile, the nuns would almost certainly report back to her aunt so a meek and quiet demeanour seemed the best policy for now. If everyone thought she was becoming resigned to her fate, so much the better. Thus she sat without comment through a homily about the sins of pride and disobedience and the need for repentance and reparation through a life of abstinence and prayer. When at length it ended there was a detailed explanation of what would be required on admission to the holy order. That was followed by a period of compulsory prayer in which the nuns expressed the hope that she might be guided back to the path of righteousness for the salvation of her immortal soul. Elena bit her tongue. They knew, because her aunt had evidently told them, that her niece had no vocation for the religious life, but it seemed not to trouble them a whit. So far as they were concerned Elena was a fallen woman. All that mattered now was that she should comply with the wishes of her family and quietly disappear from public view. If they ever got her within the convent gates that would most assuredly happen. She gritted her teeth. Over her dead body…
When eventually it ended and she returned to her room she sent for Concha. The maid eyed her sympathetically.
'I thought they'd never let you go. What could the old crones find to say that took so long?'
'Don't ask. I don't want to insult your intelligence by repeating it.'
'What now, Dona Elena?'
'Can you get out of the house on some pretext or other?'
'We need to purchase horses and have them in readiness somewhere close at hand. When we make our escape it will have to be fast and we daren't risk taking the animals from my uncle's stable.'
Concha grinned. 'Leave it to me.'
'All that remains, then, is to choose the hour. By the time these pious hypocrites realise what has happened we will be long gone.'
When Don Manuel returned home later that afternoon he sought Harry at once and found him ensconced in the library. On seeing his host enter, Harry laid aside the book he had been reading and got to his feet. Don Manuel smiled.
'I have news which I hope will help you, Lord Henry.'
'You have word of my brother?'
'His name was indeed known to the Intelligence Service here. It seems that he was highly regarded by those with whom he had contact.'
Harry was quite able to believe it. Whatever Jamie had done, he had done well. 'Did your contact know anything about my brother's mission?'
'Only that it was highly sensitive. However, I did discover that the Spanish cell at that time was run by a man called Pablo Garrido. Among those who worked for him was Xavier Sanchez.'
'The person who was with my brother when the accident occurred. He must know exactly what happened. I should like above all things to speak with him and Garrido.'
'The whereabouts of Sanchez are not known,' replied Don Manuel. 'As for Garrido, he retired from the service after the war and returned to his home in Seville. If you seek him you will have a long and dangerous journey.'
'No matter. It's a chance and I must follow it.'
'Then I think you will wish to depart quite soon.'
'Tomorrow,' said Harry. 'The sooner I set off, the sooner I may learn what happened to my brother and obtain the proof I need.'
'I anticipated as much. For that reason I have prepared this.' His host took a small packet of documents from his coat pocket. 'It contains a map which I think you will find useful, and a list of the most reputable inns in the larger towns along your route.' He gave a deprecating smile. 'I fear I cannot vouch for any of the other establishments you may find.'
Harry accepted the packet gratefully. 'I can't thank you enough for your help in this matter.'
'It is my pleasure,' replied Don Manuel.
'I shall travel faster if I ride. My manservant will accompany me and we'll take only the essentials with us. As for the rest…'
'I shall arrange for your carriage and the rest of your luggage to be returned to Santander. From there it will be a simple matter to arrange the necessary transportation to England.'
'That would be most kind. My driver and footman are reliable fellows but they don't speak Spanish.'
'I will provide all assistance to expedite the matter,' said Don Manuel.
'One day I hope to be able to return the favour.'
His host smiled. 'If ever I need a favour I will know where to come.'
After his companion had left him, Harry paced the library floor and tried to order his thoughts. The evidence he needed was out there somewhere. Garrido would be able to shed light on Jamie's mission and might even know where Sanchez could be found. That alone would make the journey worthwhile. Before he left he must write a letter to Giles and apprise him of developments. He resisted the urge to write to their father; it would be wrong to raise hopes in that quarter until he knew more. Given their parent's fragile mental state it would be downright cruel. It might unbalance him even further, something Harry didn't want to be responsible for. He knew he could trust to Giles's discretion. He too might judge it better to keep quiet until Harry had spoken to Garrido. In spite of the obstacles still in his path, Harry experienced a sense of optimism. As Don Manuel had said, the journey to Seville would be long and arduous, but now that there was even a particle of hope, it must be undertaken.
Glancing around his attention fixed on a large desk across the room. He could already see ink and blotter so the chances were good that there would also be notepaper. A swift search revealed it to be the case. Accordingly he sat down and began to write his letter.
He was so preoccupied with his task that he failed to hear the door open. It was only when he heard a familiar voice that he realised he wasn't alone.
'I hope I'm not disturbing you, my lord. I just wanted to return this book but I can come back later if…'
He turned quickly to see Elena standing on the threshold. Her presence was so completely unexpected that it took him aback. Moreover, she had changed her gown for an elegant sprigged muslin creation which looked particularly fetching. Privately he thought she looked good enough to eat. With an effort he gathered his wits and rose quickly.
'No, you're not disturbing me.' He gestured to the shelves along the walls. 'Please, feel free.'
'Thank you.' She crossed the room and replaced the volume, then turned towards him. 'I saw my uncle return to the house earlier. Has he made any progress in his enquiries about your brother?'
'He brought good news.' He gave her the gist of the conversation.
Her heartbeat quickened and, as she listened, the germ of an idea began to grow. 'Then you will be leaving very soon, my lord.'
Harry regarded her steadily. 'I wish that you had news as good to tell me.'
'Alas, I do not.'
'When do you…'
'In two days' time.'
'My family is eager to see the matter concluded. I will do what I must, my lord.'
'Yes.' He didn't make any attempt at consolation; nothing he could say would be of comfort to her now, given what was about to happen, and she certainly didn't need platitudes. It sickened him to think of any young woman being forced into something so contrary to her desire, and saddened him to know he was powerless to prevent it.
'I am glad that you have some news at last,' she said. 'I hope your journey will prove to be worth the effort.'
She smiled and he felt his throat tighten. In two days' time she would be lost to the world for good, her youth and beauty shut away. He could only hope that, in time, she might somehow become reconciled to her lot, but no matter how hard he tried he couldn't imagine how. His gaze followed her to the door. Then it opened and she was gone.
He sighed and returned to his letter. When it was finished he sanded and blotted the page and then sealed the document before writing the direction. His driver could take it back when he left. It would doubtless be just as fast as sending the missive any other way.
Having dealt with that, he directed his thoughts into other channels. First he needed to speak to Jack and make arrangements for the journey. They could lead a spare horse apiece to carry what they required. Saddlebags and a couple of small boxes would suffice. They'd need provisions, of course. Where possible they could make use of inns along the way; where it wasn't they would camp. After years in the army it wouldn't be any hardship. If it meant that he would finally learn the truth, Harry was prepared to take on whatever came.
* * *
Elena hurried off to her room, her mind buzzing with the details of that last conversation. As Lord Henry outlined his plans her own had finally taken shape. The result was mingled hope and excitement. If it worked she would be free. It had to work; she couldn't afford doubt or fear. If she hoped to have a future, then this opportunity must be seized. On reaching the safety of her chamber she lost no time in communicating her plan to Concha. Her companion listened with quiet and smiling approval.
'We have the opportunity now, Dona Elena. The rest is up to us.'
Elena nodded, feeling anticipation rising. For the first time since entering this house she felt real hope. She was more than ready for the coming adventure. Goodness alone knew what her unwitting accomplice was going to say when he found out; she would cross that bridge later. All that mattered now was escape and she knew exactly how it was to be done.