Mariah Ellison was very comfortable in her window seat on the train, watching the countryside pass by. Winter in London was miserable. Everything was cold and gray. The ice-laden east wind scoured the pavements and funneled down the open streets. People hurried by, heads down against the icy, stinging sleet. Most of the time Mariah stayed at home and built up the fire in the sitting room of her small house in Kensington.
Out here in the countryside it was different. There was a wide sky with huge patches of blue. The air sparkled. The train passed villages where the trails of smoke were almost instantly blown away from chimneys and dissolved into the air. Here and there, the wind-facing slopes of the hills were white with the first snow. Lower down lay dark, plowed earth, like giant lengths of corduroy draped over the land, all ridges precisely even. They would soon be misted over with a veil of green, when the winter wheat first showed. It was one of the few good certainties of life.
The future was an unknown land ahead, a new century, and certainly a new king. Victoria was old, and she looked as tired as she must feel. It could not be long now. Would things change slowly? Mariah thought not. Everyone had been waiting too long. The new ideas that had been on the horizon all this time would burst forth. She recognized that inventions such as the automobile were useful. So were a dozen other things. It was the ideas, the casting away of old values, that troubled her. But what frightened her was that, now in her eighties, she felt increasingly old and fragile . . . and vulnerable.
And now she was revisiting the past, a thing she very rarely did, for many reasons. In truth, there was little in her past that she wished to remember. But Sadie Alsop had written to her from the village of St. Helens in Dorset, inviting her to spend Christmas with Sadie and her husband, Barton Alsop.
Sadie and Mariah had been friends for decades. Mariah had even lived in St. Helens for a short while. She liked the place, but, for other reasons, it was a time she did not remember with any clarity, nor did she wish to. However, Sadie’s friendship stood out, and at one time or another Mariah had gone back to visit. In all these years of her widowhood, she had been free to go wherever she pleased. And now it was time to see Sadie again.
It was a surprise, this invitation from Sadie. The last time they had parted, about twenty years previously, it had not been with good feelings. Mariah could no longer remember the precise details of the quarrel, but she assumed it was due to her own ill temper. She had changed since then. She had at last faced her demons, the memories of her unhappy marriage and the person she had become because of it that had caused her pain and such a crushing self-loathing that it still hurt. Probably, it always would. But she had discovered that it was better to face the pain than to look away. If she denied it, every dark memory would become monstrous.
At this moment, if she was being honest, she had to accept that she had nowhere else to go, which was entirely her own doing. Her daughter-in-law and grandchildren all had their own seasonal arrangements, and she had not been included.
But that was not the reason why she was sitting here, rattling through the countryside, less than a week before Christmas. It was because she had sensed that Sadie’s letter was a plea for Mariah’s help. She did not know why, or with what, exactly. They had been friends half a lifetime ago, and kept in touch now and then. Only recently had their communication diminished to no more than an exchange of cards once or twice a year. Sadie must be well into her seventies by now. For heaven’s sake, Mariah was over eighty! Exactly how much over she preferred to recall only vaguely.
A little while ago, Mariah would have declined this invitation. Too much trouble for no good reason. And why rake over the details of old grudges, their causes long forgotten? Mariah had been self-righteous, she now acknowledged. It was time to forget it, wipe it out. Her remaining life was too short to be squandered that way. She tired easily, she ached in all sorts of places, and sometimes she lost her balance—she had enough to contend with, and yet she was making an effort.
Mariah had been forced to see herself as others saw her, and it was painful. Not only had she been ill-tempered, but she had been self-absorbed and had frequently seen only the worst in people. She realized now that she had been a coward, too fearful to change—until recently.
She thought back to Sadie’s letter. At first, it had read like a simple invitation to an old friend to visit for Christmas. But when she had read on, she had sensed fear. Even more than that, an undercurrent of despair.
She brought back to mind all she could remember of Sadie. They had liked each other, although they were different in so many ways, physically as well as in character. Mariah was short, and in later years, undeniably heavy. Her hair was thick, even though now it was white, but she was still handsome. Her eyes were dark, as was her complexion. Sadie was taller, slender, fair-haired, and always graceful. Mariah remembered that Sadie smiled a lot, making light of troubles. She was often amused by things that bothered other people.
There was little of that humor in her current letter. In fact, reading it the third time, Mariah could not escape the fact that it was a cry for help. Of course, Sadie did not say so outright. She would never do that, because it would betray the fact that something important had slipped out of her control. In spite of herself, Mariah smiled as memories rushed in, pleasant memories. The two of them had catered parties together, with Sadie never mentioning how many people were coming. She acted as if she were always in command. She baked the lightest sponge cakes, and had an infinite variety of ways to decorate them, or alter the flavor with fruit, cream, nuts, or icing. She knew how to bake flaky pastry. “Cold hands,” she would say, when asked. “Cold hands, warm heart for light pastry.”
Recalling this, Mariah found herself smiling.
She glanced up and saw that the woman seated opposite her, traveling backward, was watching Mariah as she sat there smiling to herself, apparently at nothing.
There were more memories going back to the 1850s and longer, and now here she was, looking at the end of the century. Why did she feel as if they were all sitting in a boat without an engine and racing along the river, driven by wind and current, toward a giant waterfall dropping off the cliff into—what? No one knew.
She asked herself: What did you do with your life?
but then quickly forced the question and its answers out of her mind. Surely, it was a good thing that in Sadie’s time of . . . what, trouble? difficulties? indecision? whatever it was, she had turned to Mariah again, giving her the opportunity to heal some old wounds.
But why had Sadie asked her
to come? Because she was an outsider to the village? Because, for all her faults, which were many, she was brave and stood up to people? Was that true? Yes, at times it was. Perhaps it wasn’t courage so much as it was anger, even outrage, if she saw injustice, but even that was courage of a sort. Generosity could call it that. To those less inclined, it was a quick, hot temper and little tolerance for people who prevaricated because they did not want to commit themselves to an opinion. Or worse, they did not have one.
The train was slowing down. Not only could she see it, she could hear it in the rhythmic clanking every time they passed a joint in the rails. They must be pulling into St. Helens. Heaven knew, they had stopped at every other village since London! But that was the only way to get to the small places. And St. Helens was certainly small. One high street and half a dozen others with shops of all sorts, necessary and unnecessary, and then a wider web of roads out into the countryside. Two churches: St. Helens, which was of course Anglican, and another of some sort of nonconformist religion. And one school.
Copyright © 2023 by Anne Perry. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.