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Authors: Diana Norman

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BOOK: Taking Liberties
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While she elaborated on the matter, he turned back to the mail and saw that in their haste they'd overlooked the letter from New York.
Wordlessly, he held it out and she snatched it from him.
Of the many surprising facets to Makepeace Hedley, the one Oliver found most incomprehensible, was her relationship with Philippa, her daughter by her first marriage. Early on, when the child was seven years old, Makepeace had allowed Philippa's American godmother, Susan Brewer, to take the girl home with her to Boston. Philippa hadn't come back; it seemed she didn't want to.
The opening of hostilities between America and Britain had caused a hiatus in news of both Susan and Philippa and this, alongside the fact that most of the fighting was in Massachusetts, had—somewhat late in the day—awakened Makepeace to her daughter's danger.
She'd had to be restrained from sailing off across the Atlantic in one of her coaling fleet's vessels in order to see what was happening for herself. Undoubtedly she would have done, except that word came in time to say that Susan and Philippa had left Boston and were safely settled in British-held New York.
Oliver watched his stepmother flop onto the oriel sill to read a letter that had, from the look of it, undergone a rough passage. She'd taken off the dreadful tricorn and her hair had escaped from the cap beneath so that the sun turned it into a hazy, auburn frame around her head. He felt a second's jealousy on behalf of the mother who'd died giving birth to him. Could she have competed in such variety with this woman?
‘Oh, Oliver,' she said, looking up, ‘they're coming home. Susan don't reckon New York to be safe any longer. They'll be here. Susan sent this by the mail packet but they were going to sail for England right after she wrote, almost immediate.'
Her pleasure demanded his, yet Oliver thought of the Atlantic, the thousands of miles of sea that had become the battleground of two navies, now to be joined by a third.
‘Um,' he said.
‘No.' She shook her head. ‘No, it's all right. Listen . . . “You will remember Captain Strang and the
Lord Percy
. . .” ' She looked up: ‘That's the frigate brought Susan and me and my first husband to England, a sound craft she is, and Strang's a fine captain.
 
‘ “She sails for London on Friday and Philippa and I with her. The
Percy
, you will remember, is a dispatch carrier and Captain Strang assures me he has no orders to give battle but will make for England as speedily as may be so that, with God's mercy, I shall deliver your daughter safely to you in six weeks.” '
Makepeace blew out her cheeks. ‘Phew.
That's
a relief.'
Her stepson saw that happy memories of the
Lord Percy
made the vessel invulnerable as far as she was concerned. ‘Good news, Missus,' he said. ‘When's she due?'
‘Most any day.' Makepeace scanned the last page. ‘Strang'll drop anchor in the Pool like he did before. Maybe I can go meet . . .'
She whimpered. Her face bleached so that her freckles looked suddenly green. Oliver took the letter from her hand before it could drop. Beneath a bold, curly signature, ‘Your devoted friend, Susan Brewer', was a date. ‘March 2, 1778.'
He met his stepmother's appalled eyes, went to his knees and held her against him. ‘It don't mean . . . very well, the letter's been delayed but in that case perhaps so's the
Percy
. There's maybe another letter floundering around the seas somewhere telling us she'd changed her mind, maybe Strang couldn't take the two of them after all, maybe Susan decided to wait for better weather.'
But . . . four months, he thought; Susan should have written again, there should've been news one way or another in four months.
Makepeace didn't hear him. She was being assailed by certainty. God had drowned her daughter. Philippa and Susan had set off from New York and not arrived. Somewhere on the voyage, the
Lord Percy
had gone down.
It seemed inevitable now, as if she had known it in advance and allowed it to happen. Because of all the years she had let pass without seeing Philippa or summoning her home from America, God had chosen the ultimate punishment.
I didn't go to her. I didn't fetch her back. Andra wanted me to, but I didn't.
It was as if her daughter had been calling to her across the Atlantic in a voice that she'd been too busy to hear, allowing it to be subsumed in work, her marriage, the birth of other daughters.
Guilt snatched at a rag to cover itself. She didn't
want
to come back; she wrote she'd rather stay with Susan in America.
The small figure of her daughter at their last interview in London stood in front of her now, as clear as clear, listening to her explain that Aunt Susan wanted to return to America and that Betty, who had been Makepeace's nurse as well as Philippa's, would be going too. They wanted to take Philippa with them—the child was the apple of their eye, they had looked after her while Makepeace was busy—and Makepeace was giving the child the choice.
A plain, grave little girl with Philip Dapifer's long face, his sallow skin and hair, but without the humour that had made her late father so attractive. As she'd considered, she'd looked like a small, studious camel.
‘Would you be coming too, Mama?'
‘No. I have things to do in England. I must go up North again soon.'
So much to do. Well, there
had
been. She'd still been struggling to adapt to the loss of Philip and gain wealth from the coalfield she'd won so that she could beggar the two people, one of them Philip's divorced first wife, whose chicanery had robbed her and Philippa of his estates when he died.
Andra had been merely her business partner in those days, someone in the background. She'd been alone, obsessed with taking revenge on the first Lady Dapifer, which eventually she had, oh, she
had
, and never regretted it.
She remembered, agonizingly now, how she had defined the matter for herself then: did she love her daughter enough to abandon the struggle and go back to America—possibly a better mother but undoubtedly a beaten woman? And the answer had been no, she didn't.
Now, again, she heard Philippa make her decision.
‘I think I should like to go. Just for a visit.'
Don't go. Stay here.
‘Are you sure?'
‘Yes.'
It had been punishing at that moment to experience what the child must have felt every time Makepeace had left
her
. How much greater the punishment now.
So she had let her go. She'd watched Susan and Betty, her best and only women friends, take Philippa's hands and lead her up the gangplank of the America-bound boat, all three of them alienated from the woman to whom they'd been devoted because she hadn't had time for them. And with them had gone another beloved child, Betty's son Josh.
At the last, Makepeace had reached for her daughter.
‘I'll come and fetch you back, you know. If you like America, we might even stay there together.'
The small body resisted. It had been the worst moment then; it was the worst moment now. Philippa hadn't believed her.
The wave that had gathered speed and weight somewhere out in the Atlantic to come rushing at her crashed over Makepeace. She couldn't see; she was thrashing about in a roaring darkness.
Oliver tried to reach her. ‘Don't, Missus, don't. We don't know yet. There's a thousand explanations . . .' She wasn't hearing him. He could only hold her close and wait for the initial agony to subside.
Unmarried and childless, Oliver could only guess at her pain but he suspected guilt was part of it. He'd once asked his father why Philippa had gone away. Andra had said:
‘Weren't my choice, lad. We weren't wed then. I'd have kept the lass, we got on well, her and me, the time she lived at Raby before she went. I'd've loved her like my own.'
And he would have done, Oliver knew; Andra Hedley's reverence for all living creatures was especially for children. Reluctant that his son should think less of Makepeace, he'd added:
‘Weren't her fault, neither. The bairn's birth were a time o' despair for her. Husband just dead, filched of home and fortune that very day by as brazen a pair o' schemers as ever graced a gibbet. Beat dizzy, she was. Took years to get back and by then there'd opened a breach twixt her and little lass they could neither of 'em bridge. Philippa'd become closer to others than to her ma and when they upped sticks for America, she went an' all. Nobody's fault, lad, nobody's fault.'
Oliver neither understood nor approved of those parents, the very rich and the very poor, who sent their children to be brought up in other households; he didn't come of either class. Neither, he thought, does the Missus. Her first marriage to the aristocrat, Sir Philip Dapifer, had been only a temporary elevation; by birth and breeding she was as bourgeois as himself, the daughter of a Boston innkeeper.
Yet he considered that even now, secure and happily married once more, the Missus was not sufficiently attentive to the two daughters she'd had by Andra. Too often, in Oliver's opinion, she stayed overnight in Newcastle through press of work, rather than returning to Raby.
True, the little girls were happy and vigorous children, well looked after by his and their mutual Aunt Ginny, apparently not aware—as Philippa must have been—that they weren't receiving full value from their mother.
Scenting disapproval, his father had emphasized:
‘Oliver, tha marries who tha marries. I wed a businesswoman and knew it afore I wed her. I'd not change her.'
He'd not received full value himself, which is why the matter weighed on him; he'd been motherless with a father working long hours in the mines to keep them both—and, this was the rub, that same father often abstracted during their precious hours together. For if Andra had married a businesswoman, Makepeace had married an engineer, self taught but boiling with invention, his mind bent on lessening the dangers miners faced every day underground. But that was nature; Andra Hedley was a proper man. To be a proper woman, Makepeace Hedley had also to be a proper mother. And she was not. And now suffered because she was not.
Censorious he might be, but it was impossible for Oliver to watch, unmoved, the crucifixion of a woman who'd always been kind to him.
‘I drowned my baby,' she kept saying, ‘I drowned her and Susan.'
‘We don't know,' he kept saying in return, ‘we don't know, Missus. Let's find out afore we give way.'
In the end, he managed to reach her. His words began to penetrate the deluge of despair she was lost in and she grabbed at them as if he'd thrown her a rope.
‘Might not be that, might it?' she begged. ‘Might be something else. Could've been blown off course, couldn't they? Landed in the West Indies, maybe?'
‘Certainly they could.'
‘Who'd know?'
‘The Admiralty,' he said, firmly. ‘
Lord Percy
's a naval vessel, ain't she? The Admiralty'll know what's happened to her. I'll write this very day—'
‘No,' she said. Somehow she'd got herself in hand, even if that hand was trembling, and Oliver saw not just the acumen but the courage that had made his stepmother the woman she was. ‘No more damn letters. We'll go to the Admiralty and we'll go today. I'll get some answers out of their damn lordships or I'll know the reason why. When's the next coach to London?'
Chapter Three
THE Commission for Sick and Hurt Seamen and the Exchange of Prisoners of War, more generally known as the Sick and Hurt Office, was under the direction of the Lords of the Admiralty in London and, as such, reflected their lordships' demand for spit and polish.
The sailor who stamped along its immaculate corridors beside Diana wore dress uniform so stiff with starch and wax she decided he'd been lifted into it by traction. The waiting room he ushered her into had Caroline elegance; even the restrained sun of a muggy day coming through the windows was reflected in an oak floor lethal with over-buffing and the scent of unexpected roses, standing to attention in a centrepiece on the great walnut table, was overpowered by a smell of beeswax and turpentine.
She was asked to wait. ‘Mr Commissioner Powell has been delayed a minute, ma'am.'
She frowned; she was not used to being kept waiting by underlings. However, she was on an adventure and she had nothing more important to do. ‘Very well.'
There were two other occupants of the room, a woman of about her own age and a young man, sitting silently on adjoining chairs at the table. The Dowager lowered her head as she passed them on her way to look out of the window. The young man acknowledged her politely, rising for a slight bow; the woman ignored her.
In one look, Diana had automatically assessed to what social order they belonged. Decent enough young man, neat, well dressed but not quite the
ton
: a professional person from the provinces. The woman was less easy to place. Good clothes, really
very
good, nice silk, but worn without care, distressing red hair escaping from a hat that didn't match the gloves. In misery, from the look of her. A wife of the mercantile class in some distress.
Below the window, in Horse Guards, a Grenadier company was parading in full battle gear to the accompaniment of drummers and fifers. From the Dowager's high viewpoint they looked like pretty squares of tin soldiers. Having attended reviews of the Earl of Stacpoole's Own Grenadiers, she could guess that under their fur mitres and carrying a weight of sixty pounds in knapsack, blanket, water flask, ammunition and weapons, they were not feeling pretty. As she watched, one of the toy soldiers fell flat, fainting, as if flicked over by an invisible child. The roar of the drill sergeant's disapproval coincided with the entry of Mr Commissioner Powell behind her.
BOOK: Taking Liberties
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