Authors: Susan Barrie
Victoria and the Nightingale
“It’s not your problem,” Victoria told Sir Peter. She knew they couldn't continue to take advantage of his hospitality.
When Victoria had suddenly found herself jobless-and responsible for a small orphaned boy, Sir Peter had generously provided them with a temporary home. But she couldn't accept his plan to adopt Johnny. How could she stay and take care of the boy, knowing that Sir Peter's fiancee wanted her to leave?
Yet she had to think of Johnny, too. She couldn't take her own feelings for Sir Peter into account....
It was very dark on the broad, straight stretch of road on which the accident had occurred. It was dark because as yet
there was no moon, and as well as tall hedges there were towering trees shutting out the fields of shimmering grain and the patches of dense woodland receding into the dim distance on either side of the road.
Victoria prayed for the moon to rise, and wished she could do something about Johnny’s shivering so very close to her side. She could actually hear the uncontrollable chattering of his teeth. The little girl who had remained absolutely tongue-tied throughout all the turmoil and the nightmare, and whose name she did not as yet know, kept such a tight hold of her hand that the small fingers had induced a feeling of numbness in her own, and try as she would she couldn’t release them. She wanted to encircle the child with her arm, but that wasn’t possible unless her hand was freed.
She spoke soothingly to both children, and in between trying to reassure them about the darkness, the silence, the continued absence of the police constable who had gone to hunt for a phone booth and was trying to provide them with some means of transport, made wild and desperate promises.
“It won’t be long now,” she said over and over again. “The policeman will be back any minute now, and there’ll be a car to take us away from here. You’ll soon be cozily tucked up in bed, both of you, with glasses of nice hot milk!”
She recollected that when she was young she had disliked hot milk, but perhaps these two pathetic creatures had a weakness for it. And, in any case, she didn’t really believe what she was saying. . . . For first of all, beds had to be found for the children, and that would mean further delays ... police inquiries, possibly some sort of door-to-door search for people who would take them in. There might be a hotel open that would receive them, and she herself could put up anywhere, even the local police station if there was nowhere else.
But the children must have proper attention, and that as promptly as possible. And more than anything else they required an understanding person to take charge of them, and cope with the shock that had numbed them temporarily.
She could make herself responsible for Johnny. She had enough money to pay for hotel accommodation for both of them. But he was badly shocked ... stunned. He needed hospital treatment. And the unknown little girl who was making dents in the palm of her hand with her sharp nails needed careful handling, also.
It was undoubtedly a case for a psychiatrist when these two small humans were capable of assimilating the fact that an accident had deprived them of their nearest and dearest.
In Johnny’s case, at any rate, that was so. The little girl’s parents had been badly hurt, but it was just possible they would live ... or one of them might survive.
Victoria felt as if the nightmare returned as she pressed back against the hedge, and a wave of horror and nausea welled up over her. The children pressed closer to her. They were terrified of the road, the straight stretch of road on which terrifying scenes had taken shape before their eyes. And why they hadn’t all been killed outright Victoria couldn’t think.
The pileup of cars had been horrible. Johnny’s father’s ... a neat convertible for which he was still paying, and behind the buckled wheel of which he had been pinned while she and Johnny had been flung clear. The car belonging to the parents of the little girl with fair hair who had lost the power of speech, had rolled over and over before it had made a violent noise like an explosion, and only the little girl had been miraculously unhurt on the back seat.
“I’m c-cold. . . .”
Victoria hugged him.
“You’ll soon be warm.” Again she was making wild promises. “There must be a town quite near.”
The policeman’s light came bobbing along the road, but his face looked anxious when he reached them. He answered Victoria’s unspoken query immediately.
“We’ll be picked up in about half an hour. There just isn’t a car available at the moment. It must be a night for accidents.” He sank down on the grass verge beside her, and explained, “Another one over at High End, and Sergeant Buckley away on a course. It means that we’ve been caught off balance, as you might say, and we’ve all got to do double duty. But we will be picked up as soon as it can be managed. It’s just a question of waiting.”
He attempted to relieve Victoria of the little girl who clutched at her, but the child started screaming all at once, and she went on screaming so determinedly that he had to desist. Johnny was violently sick, and Victoria faced up to the indisputable fact that something had to be done about the situation immediately.
“Surely there’s a house somewhere near at hand,” she suggested to the policeman. “A cottage, at least?”
“There’s only Wycherley Park.”
“How far away is that?”
He indicated the dark woods behind them with his flashlight.
“It’s back there in the trees. Sir Peter Wycherley’s place. There are two lodges, but they’re both approached from the other road, and the only way you can get to Wycherley Park is by taking a shortcut through the wood. I’d go myself, but I have my orders, and they’re to stay put where we are now.” Nevertheless, he looked as uncomfortable as a man with two small children of his own, who fully appreciated the desperate urgency of the situation and could do little or nothing about it, could possibly look under such circumstances. “It does seem a bit silly, I know, but orders are orders, and I can’t go against them. However, it’s pretty plain to me that the kids need help. That’s a cut over the boy’s eye, isn’t it?” he asked, and he bent forward to inspect it.
“Yes, but it’s not deep.” In sheer desperation Victoria
rose and at the same time managed to free her hand from the clasp of the little girl. “Why can’t I go?” she suggested. “If you’ll lend me your flashlight, I’m sure I can find my
The policeman looked startled.
“But those woods are deep. There’s no proper track. . . .”
“It doesn’t matter. If you’ll indicate the general direction of the house I can follow what track there is. I’m country born and bred, I won’t get into difficulties.”
“But on your own—”
“Why, are there poachers?”
The police constable looked indignant.
“We do our best to keep them down,” he protested.
Victoria looked impatient.
“In any case, it doesn’t really matter now, does it?” she said. “I’ve got to find this house.”
She received the most concise instructions he could give her as to how to find it, and then she tried to hand Johnny over to his care, but Johnny was the one who now attached himself to her like a limpet. He refused to let her set off without him, and by this time the little girl had fallen into a kind of half-doze, and it was comparatively easy to transfer her to the doubtful comfort of the policeman’s navy blue lap.
He sat cross-legged on the grass verge in the light of the slowly rising moon and hugged her to him a little awkwardly, while her fair hair streamed over his arm, and her small, pale, unconscious face upturned itself to the sky; and he warned Victoria to be as careful as she knew how, and if her effort to penetrate the wood proved too difficult, to come back. He also stated somewhat glumly that if he was severely reprimanded for allowing her to set off on her own—or what was even worse, hampered by Johnny—he would expect her to speak up for him to the superintendent when the opportunity came her way.
Victoria promised that she would do that very thing if
it ever became necessary, and then possessed herself of his flashlight and set off.
At first the going was comparatively easy, for the path through the wood was fairly clear. And then it more or less petered out, and not even the fitful moon finding its way through the spreading branches above their heads helped matters. Johnny stumbled constantly, and all the time he whimpered and appealed to her like a lost soul, and she wished she had the strength to pick him up and carry him in her arms for the remainder of the way. But as he was a fairly well-developed little boy of eight years old she didn’t think she could possibly manage this, and in any case the attempt might have precipitated them both into the underbrush ... and as it was she was being badly scratched and scarred by the latter.
At last, miraculously, there was a clearing, and then the dark bulk of a house. But it was still surrounded by shrubberies, and the trees seemed to close in on it from the rear.
To the accompaniment of owls hooting in a melancholy manner in the depths of the wood behind them, and the occasional faraway bark of a fox, they made their way through a series of paddocks and orchards and a walled kitchen garden to another door in another high wall, and on the other side of that wall a well-cared-for drive swept like a snake around an angle of the house. And from the front of the house, when they reached it at last, lights were streaming forth and the unexpected brilliance illuminated the whole of the first sweep of the main drive.
Under normal circumstances Victoria would have been very much impressed by the tall Corinthian pillars that guarded the front door. She would have recognized that this was a very old house probably added to and extended about the beginning of the nineteenth century, and that inside it was almost certainly capacious and judging by the front of it in the flood of light in extremely good order. She had an impression of creeper-clad walls that received a lot of attention in order that the brickwork should sustain little or no damage, and the centuries-old lawns as smooth as billiard tables that crept close to the house, and dark cedar trees bending to inspect the turf. And although by this time he was in a very bad plight, Johnny was impressed—and also repelled—by the row of gleaming cars parked in the driveway.
He shrank nearer to Victoria, and was all for turning and bolting back into the shadows, only she prevented him. She whispered to him that it was perfectly all right, and he would soon be in bed. . . . And then determinedly she approached the front door.
She had already made up her mind that whoever owned the house—and apparently it was a Sir Peter Wycherley— he should put an end to Johnny’s purely physical miseries. Johnny should have the very maximum amount of attention. That much she would insist on, despite the fact that she was not exactly in a condition to insist upon anything.
The butler who opened the door had a very surprised expression on his face. And the surprise grew as he took in the astonishing details of the pair who stood grouped on the doorstep.
The girl’s corn-gold hair was wild and disheveled, and her face was chalk white. The boy was on the very point of collapse, and his clothing was stained with blood. Without waiting to ask any questions, since he was a man of action when he was not performing his more ponderous duties as a majordomo, the butler picked the child up in his arms and bore him into the very center of the hall, where the white light from a powerful crystal chandelier shone down upon them.
“There’s been an accident, I suppose?” the butler said, looking over his shoulder at Victoria. “Where was it?”
She explained in a thin voice, “On the main road.”
“The main road?” He could hardly believe her. “Then how did you get here? How in the name of—”
“Please.” Her voice was thinner than ever. The white walls and the portraits and the graceful curving staircase with its rose red carpet that flowed upward into a gallery were proceeding to spin around her in a strange, revolving corkscrew-like manner, and the white light from the chandelier was positively blinding her after the infinite darkness of the woods.
“Please, does it matter? I’d like to sit down. . . .”
She groped her way to a chair, and the butler stood holding Johnny and looking down at her as if this really was something rather more than he could cope with; and he didn’t quite know whether to relinquish Johnny and go to her assistance, or continue on his way to the library, which had been his original intention.