Authors: Anne Perry
A Christmas Secret
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright Â© 2006 by Anne Perry
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Clarice Corde leaned back in her seat as the train pulled out of the station in a cloud of steam. Smuts flew and engine roared as they gathered speed on their journey northward. The rain beat against the window; she could barely see the glistening rooftops of London. It was December 14, 1890, ten days until Christmas Eve. She had been married little more than a year, and she was far from used to being a vicar's wife. Neither obedience nor tact came to her except with a considerable effort, but she made that effort for Dominic's sake.
She glanced sideways at him now and saw him deep in thought. She knew he was concerned about his ability to rise to this opportunity they had been offered so unexpectedly. The elderly Reverend Wynter had taken a richly deserved holiday; therefore his church, in the small village of Cottisham in Oxfordshire, needed someone to stand in for him and care for his flock over Christmas.
Dominic had seized the chance. He was a widower who had abandoned a self-indulgent life and embraced the ministry somewhat late. Perhaps no one but Clarice saw beyond his startlingly handsome face and charm of manner to the doubts beneath. She loved him the more fiercely because she knew he understood his own weaknesses as well as the power of his dreams.
He looked up and smiled at her. Once again she was warmed by amazement that he should have chosen her: the awkward sister, the one with the slightly crooked nose that gave her face a wry, individual look, the one with the tactless tongue and the pungent sense of humor, rather than any of the reliable and more conventional beauties eager for his attention.
This chance to go to Cottisham was the greatest Christmas gift they could have been given. It was an escape from serving under the Reverend Spindlewood in the bleak area of industrial London to which he had been sent as curate.
How could Clarice reassure him that they expected only patience, and that he should be there to listen and comfort, to assure them of the message of Christmas and peace on earth?
She reached her hand across and touched his arm, tightening her fingers for a moment. “It will be good,” she said firmly. “And being in the country will be a delight.”
He smiled at her, his dark eyes bright, knowing what she meant to tell him.
They traveled for nearly two hours, most of it through gently rolling countryside, the fields now bare except for the meadows still green. The woodlands and copses were without leaf, and the higher crowns of the hills were dusted with snow. Here in the heart of England winter could be surprisingly fierce, and no doubt there was far worse weather to come.
For the most part the villages lay in the hollows, the first sight from the train windows being the steep spires of the churches, then the huddled roofs.
They reached the station nearest to Cottisham and hired a pony trap to take them the last few miles through winding lanes, up the brow of a long, ridgebacked hill, and down into the sloping valley.
The village was beautiful, even though it boasted little more than a wide green with a duck pond and houses all around it. Many of the dwellings were thatched, their bare winter gardens neatly tidied. Perhaps half a dozen narrow roads twisted away into the surrounding woods and the fields beyond. The church was Saxon: slate-roofed, with a square tower rising high against the wind-torn clouds.
The pony trap drew up in front of the rambling stone vicarage. The driver unloaded their cases onto the gravel and quickly drove away.
Clarice looked at the closed door, then at the fine Georgian windows. It was a beautiful house, but it seemed oddly blind, as if it were oblivious to their arrival, and they would knock on the oak door in vain. This was to be their home, and Dominic's challenge and opportunity would be to preach and to minister without the supervisionâor constant meddlingâof the Reverend Spindlewood. Clarice knew she must behave with enthusiasm now, whatever doubt or loneliness she felt. That was what faith was about. Anyone can be cheerful when she is confident and the sun is shining.
She looked at Dominic once, then marched up to the front door and banged briskly with the lion's head knocker.
There was total silence from inside.
“Stay here with the boxes,” Dominic said quietly. “I'll go to the nearest house. They must have left the keys with someone.”
But before he could go more than a dozen steps a stout woman, her hair piled atop her head in an untidy knot, came bustling along the road. She struggled to hold a shawl around her shoulders against the wind.
“All right! All right! I'm coming,” she called out. “No hurry! It ain't snowin' yet. You must be the Reverend Corde. An' Mrs. Corde, I take it?” She stopped in front of them and looked Clarice up and down dubiously, her blunt face skeptical. “I s'pose you know how to care for a house, an' all?” she said in a tone close to accusation. “I'm Mrs. Wellbeloved. I look after the vicar, but I can't do no more for you than a bit o' the heavy work, 'cos I've got family coming for Christmas, an' I need me holiday, too. In't good for a body to work all the days o' the year, an' it in't right to expect it.”
“Of course we don't expect it,” Clarice agreed, although she had in fact expected exactly that. “If you show me where to find everything and assist with the laundry, I'm sure that will be most satisfactory.”
Mrs. Wellbeloved looked more or less mollified. She produced a large key from her pocket, unlocked the door, and led the way in. “Just leave them boxes. Old Will and young Tom'll bring 'em on up for yer.”
Clarice followed her, pleasantly surprised by the warmth of the house, even though the vicar had been gone for a couple of days. It smelled of lavender, beeswax, and the faint, earthy perfume of chrysanthemums. Everything looked clean: the wooden floor, the hall table, the doors leading off to left and right, the stairs going up toward a wide landing. There was a large vase of branches and leaves of gold and bronze on the floor. For all her lack of grace, Mrs. Wellbeloved seemed to be an excellent housekeeper.
“You'll be liking it here,” she said more to Dominic than to Clarice. It sounded something of an order. “Folks know how to behave decent. Come to church reg'lar and give to the poor. Won't be nothing for you to do but your duty. Just keep it right for the vicar to come back to. I'm sure he's left you a list of them as needs visiting, but if he hasn't, I can tell you.” She opened the sitting room door to show them a graceful room with a wide fireplace and bay window, and then closed the door again. “You'll be takin' all services reg'lar,” she went on, walking quickly toward the kitchen. “An' you won't be wantin' the sexton, but if you do, he's first on the right on the Glebe Road. Grave digger's two down beyond.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Wellbeloved.” Dominic avoided meeting Clarice's eyes and answered with as straight a face as he could manage.
“I'll be in reg'lar for the heavy stuff, 'ceptin' Christmas Day, an' Boxin' Day, o' course,” Mrs. Wellbeloved continued. “You'll have enough coal an' coke an' likely enough kindlin', but if you haven't you can go walk in the woods an' pick up plenty. Works best of all, if you dry it proper first. An' you'll walk Harry, too. I can't be doin' that.”
“Harry?” Dominic asked, puzzled.
“Harry.” She looked at him witheringly. “The dog! Didn't the vicar tell you about Harry? Retriever, he is. Good as gold, if you treat him right. An' Etta. But you don't need to do nothin' for her, 'cept scraps and stuff, an' milk. She'll fend for herself.”
Clarice made a quick guess. “Etta's a cat?”
Mrs. Wellbeloved looked appeased for their ignorance. “Right good little mouser, she is. Plain as you like, but clever. Capture 'em all in the end.” She said it with satisfaction, as if she identified with the animal and were in some oblique way describing herself as well.
Clarice could not help being amused. “I am sure we shall get along excellently. Thank you for showing us in. We shall have a cup of tea, and then unpack.”
“There's everything you'll need for today,” Mrs. Wellbeloved said, nodding. “Game pie in the pantry, an' plenty o' vegetables, such as there is this time o' year. You'll need onions. Vicar loved 'em. Hot onion soup best thing in the world for a cold, he said. Smells worse 'n whiskey, but at least you're sober.” She gave Dominic a hard, level look.
He returned it unflinchingly, then slowly smiled.
Mrs. Wellbeloved grunted. A pink blush spread up her face, and she turned away. “Handsome is as handsome does,” she muttered under her breath.
Clarice thanked her again and saw her to the door. She was ready to be alone in her new temporary home and take stock of things. But first she wanted a cup of tea. It had been a long journey, and it was close to the shortest day in the year. Storm clouds were looming up over the trees, and the light was fading.
The house was everything she could have hoped. It had charm and individuality. The furniture was all well used, but also well cared for. Nothing really matched, as if each piece had been gathered as opportunity arose, and yet nothing appeared to be out of place. Oak, mahogany, and walnut jostled together, and age had mellowed them all. Elizabethan carving did not clash with Georgian simplicity. Everything seemed to be useful, except for one small table with barley-twist legs, which was apparently there simply because it was liked.
The pictures on the walls were also obviously personal choices: a watercolor of Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast, rising out of the pale sands with the North Sea beyond; a Dutch scene of fishing boats; half a dozen pencil sketches of bare trees; more winter fields and trees in pen and ink. She found them remarkably restful; her eyes returned to them again and again. Upstairs she found another sketch, this time of the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, bare columns and broken walls towering against the clouds.
“Look at this,” she called to Dominic, who was carrying the last case up to the box room. “Isn't it lovely?”
He put the box away before coming to stand a little behind her, his arm around her shoulder. “Yes,” he agreed, examining the picture carefully. “I like it very much.” He peered at the signature. “It's his own! Did you see that?”
“His own?” she asked.
“The bishop told me he painted,” he replied. “He didn't say how good he was, though. That has both power and grace to it. At least I think so. I'm looking forward to meeting him when he comes back.”
She caught the edge of ruefulness in his voice. Those three weeks would go by too quickly, and then they would have to return to London, and the Reverend Spindlewood. Before that time he must somehow show that he was wise enough, gentle enough, and patient enough in listening to care for the village alone. He must be passionate and original in his sermons, not only to hold interest but also to feed the heart with the special message of Christmas. She knew this mattered to him intensely, and that his belief in himself wavered. Only the total upheaval of his life had made him consider religious faith at all.
Empty words of assurance from her would not help. He already knew she believed in him, and took it for granted that it was born of her love more than any realism.
“I wonder if he'll do any more drawing while he's away this time,” she said aloud. “I don't even know where he's gone.”
She awoke the next morning to stand shivering in her nightgown and drew open the curtains onto a glistening white world. The vicarage garden was surprisingly large and backed onto the woods. The trees were dusted with snow in wildly intricate patterns like heavy lace against a lead-gray sky, and the pale light gave it an eerie, luminous quality. She breathed out slowly in amazement at its beauty, momentarily forgetting to shiver.
She stared at the scene in rapture until suddenly she remembered there was housework to be done: grates to clean out, fires to be laid and lit, and breakfast to be cooked. And of course Harry and Etta to be fed. She could not afford to wait for Mrs. Wellbeloved to come.
A little after ten o'clock, when Dominic was in the study reading some of the vicar's notes and trying to familiarize himself with the parish, there was a noise outside in the gravel drive. Harry came trotting out of the kitchen, where he had been asleep by the stove. His nose was in the air and his plumed tail was waving; however, he did not bark.
Clarice snatched off her apron and went to open the door just as the knocker sounded. She pulled it wide to see a man standing just back from the step. He was a little above average height and apparently slender, although under the weight of his winter coat it was hard to tell. His face was fine-boned, not exactly handsome, but full of intelligence and a wry, sad wit. His complexion was deep olive, and his eyes had the liquid darkness that comes from the East. When he spoke, however, his voice was as English as her own.
“How do you do, Mrs. Corde. I am Peter Connaught.” He gestured vaguely behind him. “From the manor house. I wanted to welcome you to the village.” He held out his hand, then glanced at the smooth leather glove and apologized, pulling it off.