Mist of Midnight
LATE APRIL 1858
Dusk had begun to smother daylight as we walked down the cool street, peering at the numbers above the doorways, one after the other, skirts gathered in hand to keep them from grazing the occasional piles of wet mud and steamy horse muck. It was with some relief that I finally located the right building just before closing time and opened the creaking door. I let Mrs. MacAlister in first.
“May I assist?” An older woman stopped bustling as we entered the Winchester office of Mr. Walter Highmore, Solicitor. She peered at us from beneath thick pelts of white eyebrow.
“I am Miss Rebecca Ravenshaw,” I introduced myself. “Here to see my father’s solicitor.”
“Oh!” She drew her breath and steadied herself on the back of a worn upholstered chair. “Why, that can’t be. That’s not right of you to claim, neither.” Her mouth grew firm, a notable contrast with the loose flesh of her cheeks and chin. “Miss Rebecca Ravenshaw, why, she’s late.”
“Late?” I blinked. “I don’t understand.”
“Passed on.” She gave me a hard look, the look one offered a ne’er-do-well. “Deceased.”
Deceased? Ah! I now understood and rushed to reassure her. “Oh, no. You must have had word from the London Missionary Society; there has been a misunderstanding. Alas, my parents were killed in the Mutiny, but I was able to escape. I’ve been in northern India these many months, waiting for transport out, and I boarded one of the first ships bringing survivors from Bombay. My chaperone and I have just arrived.” I offered a warm smile and expected, fruitlessly, as it transpired, one to be offered in return.
She gripped the chair back firmly enough to leach the blood from her fingertips, pinched by well-bitten cuticles. “I suppose you’ve read the published details in the paper then, young lady, as much as anything,” she replied. “Available for any quick and clever charlatan. Miss Ravenshaw is gone. There is no misunderstanding, though she died here, of course, not in India. It’s cruel of you to suggest different.”
What did she mean? I had just explained the situation to her and yet she pressed more resolutely into her mistake, questioning my character in the process. I pulled myself up to my full height and spoke calmly. “I assure you, I am quite alive, standing here before you. Would you please have Mr. Highmore call upon me at his earliest convenience?”
She wouldn’t meet my eye but she looked over my thin, threadbare dress. “Where shall I tell him he may find you?” she sneered. “Will you be staying at the Swan? After all, Captain Whitfield has once again taken up residence on the estate.” She lowered her voice and muttered more to herself than to me, “Though not all hereabouts believe he came by it rightfully.” I in
clined my head but she rushed forward into the next sentence, speaking louder, perhaps to cover her earlier indiscretion.
“Dear young Miss Ravenshaw, buried there at the chapel, at peace, one hopes, though given the cause of death . . .”
“Buried at Headbourne?” If what she was saying was true, there was only one explanation—an imposter had come, claiming to be me, and then had died. How very distressing for all involved. My stomach quickened as I began to realize that the easy, warm welcome I’d hoped would be put forward might not be offered. I tried to grasp the circumstances. “What did the woman die from?”
“That’s not for me to say.”
“Well, who shall tell me, then?” My voice rose beyond ladylike but I was tired and frightened. I held my jaw together to keep my teeth from chattering in dread. What had happened to my home? It, and my father’s accounts, were the only things left me.
Her lips remained pursed, her eyes veiled. That someone had posed as me, and was now dead, was truly startling, but I had been through much worse in the Uprising and I must not be deterred on this last leg of my journey or all would be lost. “I do not know Captain Whitfield or why he is in my home”—I steadied my voice—“but perhaps I should make his immediate acquaintance.”
“You’ll find him at home.” She sniffed and wiped her nose on a dusty sleeve. “Headbourne House.”
Headbourne House was our family home. My father’s home. My home! Who was Captain Whitfield? Perhaps a second imposter claimant. The husband of this recently deceased young woman who had been posing as me.
“When he returns, I’ll inform Mr. Highmore you called.” She all but shooed us out the door and shut it tightly behind us, snapping down the blind.
Mrs. MacAlister gave me a sidelong look and tightened her bonnet against her brow. “How very strange.” She stepped a foot farther away from me. How little I had left to prove who I was. Nothing, in fact. Anyone who knew me was thousands of miles away by sea in a country currently rent with strife and faulty communications.
I steadied my hands, which I’d just noticed were shaking, by clasping them together. “We shall soon put it right.” I said it, but I wasn’t sure I believed it. This situation was not only wholly unexpected, but completely unimaginable. I should think, later, upon how to deal with it, but I was still so very, very tired and needed my wits about me.
The hire carriages, which had swarmed the streets only minutes before, seemed to have been engaged to the last and none were to be found. I finally caught a glimpse of one, much farther down the rain-slicked way, and waved. It rolled, rickety, toward us. One wheel wobbled drunkenly and another had a noticeable chip in the frame along with a missing spoke. The coachman soon brought his team to bear. As the horses came closer I shied back from them but they, unlike most horses, did not shy away from me. Rather they seemed to lean in toward me so I leapt back from their hot breath and peglike teeth.
There were no other carriages in view. The night mists had begun to cause a light sheen on Mrs. MacAlister’s face and she shivered. “Headbourne House,” I instructed the driver without further consideration.
“That be quite costly,” he said. He looked at me straight on; his eyes were milky and one wandered so that I was unsure upon which I should fix my gaze. I opened my purse and anxiously put a piece of silver into his hand. He kept it open and I reluctantly added another.
He didn’t move, but I clasped my purse shut anyway. Mrs. MacAlister did not proffer a coin of her own, as might be expected, but turned her face from me. The driver nodded for us to get in but did not offer a hand. I hefted Mrs. MacAlister in first, then followed her. She was unusually quiet as the team jerked and clopped away.
“Are you quite well?” I asked. I was weary from the journey, still ill from months of internment, and had little patience to pry forth whatever hesitancy had suddenly overcome her.
“Certainly.” She did not look up, but her forehead cleaved in a deep line of concern. Her voice was abnormally cool and uninvolved.
The coachman cracked his whip toward the team and they sped up. Mrs. MacAlister, who had known me and understood the suffering I had borne, no longer trusted me. Perhaps she, too, thought I was a pretender, learning of the Ravenshaw family’s death before making my way to the Residency with the other survivors. It was true, no one there had known me; they’d simply trusted me to be who I said I was.
All the while, someone here in England had also claimed to be Rebecca Ravenshaw. She, too, had simply been believed.
“Ye have a deep knowledge of Scripture, certainly, as one would expect from the daughter of missionaries,” Mrs. MacAlister murmured, reassuring herself, I guessed, before doubt over my identity snatched such guarantees away. “But then any well-brought-up young lady would. I didn’t know much about ye when we first met among the survivors, naught but what you told me. Told everyone.”
“I am the well-brought-up daughter of Sir Charles and Constance Ravenshaw, missionaries in South India these many years and, as you know, am returning to England. And you are . . . a Scottish doctor’s widow?”
She scowled. “Ye know that I am.”
And I am who I say I am, too. I looked out of the small carriage window at the street and town; the tall, narrow buildings made of stone and brick belched black smoke, smutting everything in sight. The cobbled streets were so different from the sunny yellow, compacted dirt boulevards I was used to. Melancholy and night dropped heavily one after the other like twin carriage curtains as we traveled out of town and into the deepening green of the countryside, receding into ivy and oak. Soon all colors bent to brown and I grew increasingly fearful. Did he know the way? Was he taking us to the right place? I shook myself to clear the gloom. Silly. Why wouldn’t he be?
The air sharpened to cold and a collection of birds warbled weakly in the distance. An unwelcome thought shadowed my mind. If it had been so easy to plant a seed of doubt in the mind of a woman who, surely, must know who I am, how difficult would it be to convince those who had already known the pretender Miss Ravenshaw that I was, actually, who I said I was?
I clenched my hands so the nails would lightly pierce the flesh, keeping me fully present. The one and only thing I had assured myself of, with certainty, was that upon docking in England I would have a safe and permanent harbor. How could this now be at risk? I forced myself to take slow and steady breaths in time with the clopping of the horses to bring calm to my spirit.
“We’ll be there soon, miss,” the coachman called back. “Ten minutes.”
I tugged at my cuffs to make certain they were straight. Who was Captain Whitfield? Some crusty old naval man, perhaps, with an eye patch and leathered skin, who had found a way to capitalize on my family’s misfortune.
Dark had now entirely fallen. I rearranged my hair and awk
wardly tightened my careworn bonnet, nearly tearing off one fragile string in the process.
How soon would I run out of money? Too soon, no matter how late it came.
“We should have gone to the inn first.” Mrs. MacAlister’s lips thinned and primmed. I did not respond because, truthfully, I agreed with her. The carriage bounced along up a lengthy, uneven drive that beckoned in my memory, though I recalled it as being wide and bright, not overgrown and rutted, as it was now. I felt, more than remembered, that this was my home. My homecoming, which should have been marked with joy and relief, was instead conspicuously concerning.
The house loomed in the distance, to the right of the drive, of course, which arced in front of it and then slipped off into a spur leading to the stables. I recalled the carriage house tucked behind and to the side. If it were daylight, I should be able to see the soft downs that thickly ribboned the property like a wrapped gift. As the carriage slowed, I saw the guesthouse farther in the distance.
I believe my grandmother Porter once stayed there.
Well beyond the guesthouse was the chapel and the family graveyard.
Where she was now interred. “Dear young Miss Ravenshaw, buried there at the chapel, at peace, one hopes, though given the cause of death . . .”
We pulled to a halt and the carriage rocked for a few seconds on old springs.
“Will I be waiting for you then, for a return trip?” the driver asked.
I nodded. “Yes, if you please.”
He held his hand out once more and I plunked down another precious coin.
“I’ll wait in the carriage,” Mrs. MacAlister said. “Do be quick.” She was perhaps contemplating abandoning me here and returning to the safety of town and inn. Her anxiety and mistrust traveled through the miasma and settled on my shoulders.
“Please don’t leave until instructed.”
The coachman nodded and this time, he helped me down. I began to walk slowly, wincing slightly, as my foot had not completely healed from the injury sustained as we’d fled the Mutiny. I passed through two stone lions on my way up the pathway, crumbling and partly obscured by moss. I suddenly recalled Peter and me roaring at them, and then laughing as they looked back, silently. Now, perhaps because of the angle of the moon, I saw only their toothy, menacing smiles. We’re still here, but you are not welcome.
Rebecca! Take hold of yourself. Stone animals do not talk.
Scaffolding surrounded some parts of the house, but there were long portions completely ignored and shrouded in shadows. Lamps, like eyes finally opening, began to be lit in the front rooms. Whoever was inside certainly must have heard our arrival on this still, damp night. I walked up the many steps, but before I reached the door and could knock, it opened.
There stood an imposing middle-aged gentleman with a short tuft of gray hair.
“Captain Whitfield?” I asked.
“Indeed no,” came the unsmiling response. He stepped aside and there, in the hallway, stood a tall man, perhaps five years older than I, with a close-cropped dark beard, his clothing well tailored, his boots highly polished. I looked up and caught his eye and as I did, he caught mine. He was young. Attractive and well cared for, I admitted, a steady contrast to the state of the property itself. Perhaps it was my fatigue or my shock at finding him to be so unlike my expectations, but I did not look away, nor did he.
“I am Captain Luke Whitfield,” he said, as there was no one present who could properly introduce us to one another. “And you are . . . ?”
“I am Miss Rebecca Ravenshaw,” I said, and as I did, I heard murmuring from the small assembly of servants in the great hall behind him. Captain Whitfield’s countenance did not waver, although a tiny flicker of surprise crossed his face. “I have heard that some have said that I have died, but I assure you, I have not.”
Captain Whitfield stepped aside and ushered me in. “All can see that you are clearly, vibrantly, alive.”
Was he being forward? Or mocking me? My strength drained, my nerves twitching, I did not feel up to parrying either just then.
“Whether you are actually Miss Ravenshaw, however, that is, at best, unlikely, at least for those of us who do not believe that phantoms can be summoned. Landreth, please show the . . . lady into the drawing room.”
I closed my eyes for a second and rocked back on my feet to keep from fainting. Whitfield didn’t believe me, either. Of course, why would he? They all thought I was recently dead!
Who could assist me in righting my claim? My family had been gone from Headbourne House for twenty years, and before that we’d attended a sparsely populated dissenting church. There might be no one left living who would even remember me or recall what I looked like as a child, much less recognize me as a woman.
I opened my eyes and looked again at the captain, his straight back, his guarded smile. I froze for a moment, genuinely frightened for the first time that I might not be able to prove my claim.
I shall not allow it. I simply cannot because that would leave me homeless. . . . I cannot return to India. I have no fare for passage, nor support to live there.
He glanced out of the front door. “Has someone accompanied you?”
I nodded. “My chaperone, Mrs. MacAlister, waits in the carriage.” She should have come inside with me.
A young woman carried a silver tea urn into the sitting room. I glanced after her, and at the sofa, and then remembered sitting on that very sofa as a child, feet kicking well above the ground.
“Miss?” Captain Whitfield called my attention.
“Forgive me, yes.” I returned abruptly to the present. “My chaperone is waiting for us to return to town, after you and I have had a chance to speak together briefly. We’ll be staying at an inn.”
He nodded. “You’ve made arrangements?”
I shook my head. “We arrived late. But it has been suggested that we might stay at the Swan.”
The young maid dropped a platter and the butler, Landreth, looked at her sternly.
Captain Whitfield responded. “That won’t do. I’ll send Landreth to ask Mrs. MacAlister to join us and you may spend the night in the guesthouse.”
“Thank you. I appreciate your offer, but the Swan will suit us admirably.”
He nodded, and I exhaled, relieved for the first time that evening. My father had often said that I could trust an English military man and Father seemed to have been correct.
I took the teacup, its blue-and-white pattern faintly familiar. I stared at my hand, which held the cup delicately by the handle, and blinked back tears. It looked so like my mother’s hand, unexpectedly. Perhaps it was the china pattern that brought it all back. She had not left the teaching of taking tea to an ayah; as with all English customs Mother was keen to pass along, she’d seen to it herself. I steadied myself and affected a calm voice. “I hope to
speak to Mr. Highmore, my father’s solicitor, at his earliest convenience, and the situation will be resolved, of that I am certain.”
“I shall ask him to visit with all speed,” Captain Whitfield said. “I expect you will be tired. Cook will prepare some supper for you and my housekeeper, Mrs. Blackwood, will show you to the guesthouse.”
“But . . .” I began, bewildered. And then Mrs. MacAlister appeared in the doorway, holding her small satchel in one hand and mine in the other. Before the front doors were firmly shut I caught a glimpse of the hired carriage retreating down the long, uneven drive and looked at the captain. I swallowed hard. “I thought I’d made it clear that we would return to Winchester for the night.”
“I insist you remain here as my guests,” Whitfield replied. “Until Mr. Highmore is able to, as you said, resolve the situation. At that point, the next step will become obvious to us all.”
He spoke in a most gentlemanly way, but there was no doubt that his rounded words blunted a threat. Ideas ran through my mind. We were miles away from any other house, and even if I had the means and direction to make it to one of them, what should I say? I’m the long-lost daughter of the house along the road, thought dead, but truly not, slinking around in the countryside after dark with an elderly Scottish widow?
There was no possibility of posting a letter or a telegram, save through Captain Whitfield. But this was my house. I would not let him see the fear that coursed through me. I took myself in hand and tucked that fear deep inside, hoping it would eventually dissolve.
“That’s very kind of you.” I summoned a confident tone. “I’m certain we shall find it more welcoming than the Swan.”
“I am relieved to hear that,” he replied with a teasing smile and a focused gaze; to my dismay, I blushed at his attention. He
took my gloved hand in his own and held it for the briefest of moments, warming me through as he did. I noticed the pause before the release. “I shall look forward to learning more about you soon.” This time his words were softly spoken and I knew enough about human nature to maintain that he meant them sincerely. I let down my guard a little, too.
Later, as Mrs. Blackwood settled us into the guesthouse, I took time to thank her and then, before she left, to ask, “Why was Captain Whitfield relieved when I replied that we’d be better accommodated here than at the Swan?”
She busied herself with the candleholders, ensuring that the smallest drip of congealed wax was removed by her nail before responding. “The Swan is a brothel, miss. Good evening.” She blew out all lamps but one and closed the door behind her.
A brothel! The audacity of that woman at Highmore’s office.
I blew out the last lamp and settled into bed, knees drawn up to my chest; they knocked with chill and fear. What should I do if the situation was not able to be resolved? I had nowhere to go. How would I live? I had no profession. There was no charity available to returned missionaries; family was expected to care for them so that all new funds could be put toward fresh fieldworkers. But I had no family; my mother’s mother and sister, of Honiton, had died some years previously. And my father’s line had ended in a thin branch . . . or so I’d thought.
Did Captain Whitfield have a claim to Headbourne House through Father? How had he ended up here?
I sighed. Captain Whitfield, resident jailer; his insistence we remain put me ill at ease. And yet, there was something soft and genuine in his last smile. He had seen to it that our meal was not cold, as might have been expected, but warm and of the highest quality. I did not know what to make of him.
The moonlight filtered through the window. I was afraid to sleep lest I be visited by my loved ones in haunting dreams, so I got up to peer out of it. I found I could not see but two feet ahead of me for the mist, which obscured all. Was it possible for someone to come close enough to look in the window without my seeing them? I pulled the curtains shut and then chided myself for entertaining such a foolish notion. I must be tired. Of course I was tired.
I returned to bed and listened to the creaking of the house. After some time, I thought I heard footsteps. They grew louder and closer, seeming to approach my door. Then they stopped. I waited, barely breathing, for them to resume. Had I truly heard them at all or were they, too, foolish notions? Was my mind giving over to imaginings?
After some minutes of quiet, I quietly slipped from the bed and pushed the elephantine walnut dressing table in front of the door.