Alistair had thought (if indeed he had given the matter much consideration) that his rescue of Aeschine from the pirates had in itself resolved a very nasty situation. If anyone had asked, he would have said that there was nothing else that could have been done, and that there could not possibly be any problems arising from his actions.
And how wrong I would have been.
He stares at himself in the shaving mirror. Surely those deep shadows under his eyes had not been there until recently?
Until the advent of Aeschine, in fact.
He sighs, and begins to lather his face.
The first of his many problems began as soon as Aeschine reappeared on the lawn with Eleanor. The young woman was now wearing a gown which he recognised as one which Eleanor herself had worn until a few seasons ago, and was scarcely recognisable as the verminous ragamuffin he had only met a few hours ago.
He began to take his leave.
Eleanor interrupted him.
“You are, I trust, taking your little friend with you?”
It had been many years since Eleanor had had him at a disadvantage.
“With me? I – I thought she could stay with you, Eleanor – that you would offer her a home. She can’t stay with me – I’m a single man and it would be most –“
Eleanor Lansing Purlieu drew herself up to her full height.
“And she is certainly not staying here. Not for a single night.”
Richard said wickedly “Well, there’s always room in my humble abode. Not much room, I grant you, but I’m sure that the young woman and I can come to some arrangement.”
Whatever Eleanor was about to say next was interrupted by the subject of their conversation, who uttered a string of incomprehensible words (the meaning of which was, however, quite clear) and spat at Richard with commendable accuracy.
Alistair would prefer to forget what Eleanor said to him next. In short, the matter was settled. He took Aeschine home with him to The Towers.
Since the demise of his parents, Alistair had lived alone at The Towers, save for McKenzie and his wife, whose services he had appeared to inherit along with the property. McKenzie alternately hero-worshipped and gently bullied Alistair; Mrs Mac (as she had been known since the early days of her marriage) seemed oblivious to the fact that ‘the young master’ was a grown man in his early forties, and persisted in treating him as if he was seven.
It was, in all truth, a situation which suited Alistair perfectly, until the moment when he introduced Aeschine (who of course at that time had no name) as “a young woman who is to live here.”
Mrs Mac burst into tears, sobbing “Oh, Master Alistair, if your poor mother were still alive to see this day!”; McKenzie himself, every inch the archetypal dour Scot, looked Aeschine up and down and said firmly “If that young person sets foot in this house, Mr Alistair, then my wife and I shall be leaving it. We’ll not be associated with such a class of person.”
Alistair glanced at the young woman beside him, and saw immediately where the problem lay. Eleanor was somewhat more developed than Aeschine, and the gown, even on its original owner, had been cut low over the bosom. It had slipped down over the girl’s slender figure, leaving nothing to the imagination. Eleanor had not seen fit to provide any undergarments.
He stepped behind the cause of the trouble and jerked the shoulders of her gown up, muttering “Cover yourself, my dear girl”. As he did so, she flinched as though he had hit her and shouted “I’m nae a whore, I’m nae!” before indulging in a fit of noisy hysterics.
The effect on Mrs Mac was beyond belief. At the sound of the girl’s Scottish accent, her own tears were forgotten. She took the young woman from Alistair, held her close and murmured “Of course you’re not, my dear, and nobody shall say that you are, else they’ll find themselves with me to answer to. You come with me now, and we’ll have a nice cup of tea and you can tell me all about it while I find you something more suitable to wear.”
Her tone of voice suggested that Alistair himself had described the child as a street whore.
If the truth be told, neither Alistair nor John McKenzie would dare to gainsay Mrs Mac. McKenzie looked at his master.
“It would appear, sir, that the matter is settled. May I presume that the – young lady – is to live with us in the servants’ quarters?”
Alistair knew the tone of voice only too well.
“No, Mac. She will live here as – as my ward.”
McKenzie was not used to Alistair being firm with him. He flushed.
“And she is to sleep - ?”
“In the second-best bedroom. Where else?”
McKenzie almost answered the question, but thought better of it.
“I’ll make sure the bed is aired.”
“If you would be so good.”
It was not often that Alistair got the better of his factotum. It was a moment to treasure.
He dined alone that night. Mrs Mac appeared briefly, merely to explain that she had put “the poor young child” to bed and to voice her bewilderment.
“For I don’t know when and where you found her, Master Alistair, and neither, it seems, does she. From what she’s said she has no family – not even a name – and she cannot tell me a single thing about herself. And she has the most terrible burn on her arm –like a cattle brand, almost. When I asked her about it all she would say was ‘They marked me for theirs, but I’ll not go back to them – I’ll not’. And then she started to cry again.”
Those damned pirates.
Alistair sighed, and said gently “And that’s why she’ll have to live here, Mrs Mac. Where else can she go?”
“She’s a terrible tongue on her, Master Alistair. I’ve never heard the like of her language in all my born days.”
Alistair considered for an instant that Mrs Mac must have heard such words before, for how else she would have been known to be offended by them? But this was hardly the time to tease her about it.
“She knows no better. But she’ll learn.”
He awoke suddenly in the early hours of the morning, unsure for a moment as to what was happening.
There was a terrible sound.
He was out of bed, fumbling for his slippers, before he consciously realised.
It was the girl, screaming.
When John McKenzie ran into the blue bedroom, it was to find his master, clad only in his nightshirt, sitting on the bed, holding the sobbing girl to him, gently rocking her.
“Hush, hush, little one. No-one is going to hurt you. You’re quite safe. No-one is going to harm you. Hush now. No need to be frightened.”
He glanced up at McKenzie.
“A nightmare, I think. Hot milk, if you would, with perhaps a splash of brandy. Hush now, my dear, you’re quite safe.”
He continued to rock the girl back and forth.
Hot milk and brandy for two, thought McKenzie, on his way to the kitchen. At this time of the morning. Screaming as though she were being attacked, and clinging onto the master. And the master sitting on her bed in nothing but his night attire. A fine state of affairs. Best fetch his dressing robe – some proprieties have to be satisfied.
During the days that followed, Alistair began to wonder quite what he had taken on. The nightmares continued sporadically and he began to visit the blue bedroom each evening once Aeschine was abed, reading to her until she fell asleep, sitting with her for some time afterwards in case she woke again. John McKenzie considered this to be quite scandalous.
“Whatever your dear mother would have thought – “
“My dear mother would have done exactly the same, Mac.”
“Your dear mother was not a single man, Master Alistair!”
Alistair knew full well what the man meant, but it was such a ridiculous thing to say that he couldn’t help laughing. McKenzie pretended to be offended, but the humour of it struck him as well.
He didn’t mention the number of times that he had taken the young mistress an early morning cup of tea, only to discover that Alistair was still sitting on the bed, fast asleep and with the girl held close in his arms. On those occasions John McKenzie tiptoed away, taking the cup and saucer with him, and sat on the top of the stairs listening for the sounds of Alistair going quietly back to his own room before the servant started his daily round of the house as though nothing untoward had happened.
Quite scandalous behaviour.
It was on Aeschine’s first morning at The Towers that she chose her name.
She knew what personal names were; she just had no idea what hers might be. When pressed, she said “I cannae remember. It’s been sae long since anyone called me by name” and Alistair, to his amazement, realised that he was very close to weeping for pity.
So long that she had forgotten what her very name was.
It had been a tiring morning – every possible name that he and Mrs Mac could think of was rejected with a quiet little “Nae” until he had found that book of old Scottish names and suddenly she’d picked out “Aeschine”.
He said gently “Is that familiar to you? Do you think that is your name?” and she’d thought for a moment and said “I dinnae think it’s mine, but I like the sound.”
It was an unusual name for an unusual girl, and therefore appropriate.
Mrs Mac dealt in her own quiet way with the mysteries of Aeschine’s wardrobe, leaving bills on Alistair’s desk at regular intervals.
The costs astounded him, but at least the girl was now decently, if soberly, dressed.
He had no idea what item of clothing caused Aeschine to burst into hysterical cries of “I’ll nae wear it! I’ll nae!”, although he suspected that it could well have been the whalebone corset.
Her figure needed no support or suppression.
The devil take it, why was he even considering whether Aeschine should wear a corset?
He tried to forget that thought.
It refused to go away.
He bought her small items of clothing himself – nothing too personal: gloves, a shawl, the sort of article that could be quite innocently given as a gift - and considered suggesting to Mrs Mac that some brighter coloured gowns might not go amiss. Merely because the girl was his ward, there was surely no need for her to be dressed as drably as if she were being brought up in a convent.
The rest of Aeschine’s education was left to Alistair.
He was astounded by how much she needed to learn. Not merely book learning - he had realised on that first morning that she was completely illiterate – but the social graces as well.
Her language was disgraceful and her table manners non-existent. When he had suggested to her that there was no need for her to eat as though she had not fed for a week, she said (with her mouth full) “If I wasnae hungry I wouldna eat, and when I eat, I eat until my belly’s full.”
She was untidy, uncouth and ill-tempered. At times she appeared terrified of him, as though in expectation that he would attack her (and who could blame her for that?); at times she was quiet and overly anxious to please him.
She was quite unlike any other woman he had ever met. She was tiresome, querulous and at times drove him to distraction.
He and McKenzie taught her to ride sidesaddle – an necessary accomplishment for any young lady in that age – and the sight of her laughing as she gave the old pony its head and cantered down the park made both men smile. McKenzie said quietly “At times like this, Mr Alistair, she’s worth all the trouble” and Alistair, well aware that he ought to reprimand his servant for the comment, could only agree.
She adored small animals. The household rapidly learnt that if she were missing she could often be found in the stables, fussing over the stable cat’s kittens or the terrier’s pups.
She would not, however, walk in the grounds without company. She was terrified of the small passageway which ran between the kitchen and the walled fruit garden and which Mrs Mac found such a handy shortcut; she would give no reason, but Alistair guessed that it reminded her of the passageways through which she had time travelled.
It was his constant fear that one day she would step into a passageway and disappear from his life. The reason, he told himself sternly, was his fear for her safety: as she had no understanding of how she had managed to travel through time, she might return to a time and place where she already was and vanish from history for good.
In truth, he enjoyed her company. He found her both a distraction and a delight, and dreaded the day when she would leave his household, as she must. Somewhere in time and space would be a man for whom Aeschine would leave him, whom she might even marry.
Aeschine, however, whilst confused as to Alistair’s motives for bringing her to his own time and space, and continuing to throw spectacular tantrums, seemed content to stay with him. Whilst seemingly enjoying the few travels that they made together, she showed no inclination to time travel alone, and certainly not by means of her own peculiar talents. He had, one pleasant spring morning, suggested a picnic luncheon in the grounds. All had gone well until he showed her the baroque maze, planted originally by his great grandfather and thereafter the pride of the Wells family, thinking that it might amuse her.
She had refused point-blank to set foot in it. He entered the maze himself, thinking this might reassure her that all was well, and turned to her, smiling and holding out his hand to her.
She burst into tears, wailing “Oh dinnae, dinnae – do ye not know it’s not safe? Can ye not feel it? Oh dinnae go in there and leave me here alone!”
The maze had never held any fears for Alistair, even when, as a small child, he had been lost in its midst. But to Aechine it was a thing of terror, a gateway to a place which she dreaded.
Aeschine – who in all truth he still hardly knew, and understood far less – or the maze which had been his ancestors’ pride and joy. It was not a choice he had to consider for long.
The next morning McKenzie finished uprooting the hedges which had once formed the intricate design of the maze. Once all trace of it had disappeared, Aeschine no longer showed any fear of the site and walked across it quite happily.
So, Alistair mused, it is the passageways themselves, and not the mere place where they are. Once a passageway is destroyed, that gate to another time ceases to exist. Useful to know how to destroy one – but can they be created so easily? And how can I find out ? I can scarcely create a passage and send Aeschine into it just to discover if I’ve created a gateway. I cannot discover a gateway without her, and I cannot ask her to discover one without distressing her.
Or distressing himself, come to that. After the debacle with the maze, he and McKenzie had constructed patterns of winding pathways with coloured stones set in a bed of sand, creating double-backs and dead-ends, false trails and loops. It was, in effect, a maze without walls or hedges.
Aeschine loved it, playing happily for hours, following the patterns determinedly, delighted when she reached the centre. She seemed to have solved the trick of it almost instantly, but enjoyed tracing the blind alleys and discovering where they led. It was, other than the lack of hedges, an exact copy of the original maze; but this one seemingly held no gateways, no entrances to strange lands.
So: is it that a gateway cannot be created? Or does the creation require the presence of both the passageway and the place? And are gateways only of fleeting existence? She told me once “When you need a gateway, one appears” – are they then insubstantial? Do they appear and disappear of their own accord? Or is a third element required: passageway, place and person? Does Aeschine have some particular talent, some natural ability to time travel, that enables her unwittingly to create her own gateways?
The logical answer, of course, would be to create the pattern of stones on the site where the maze had once stood, and send Aeschine along the winding pathways.
The logical answer was, however, not one which he would seriously consider for a moment.
He recalled how terrified she had been by the maze, seemingly convinced that Time would somehow swallow him up and that he would never return.
“Do ye not know it’s not safe? Dinnae go in there and leave me here alone!”
She had seemed as concerned for him as she had been for herself.
He looked across to where she lay on the hearthrug, playing with the half-grown cat which she had smuggled indoors and, upon its discovery, insisted that she be allowed to keep. And how could he refuse her? The cat was in all probability the only thing that she had ever known that loved her as unconditionally as she loved it.
He balled up the sheet of paper he had been scribbling on, and threw it towards the pair. The cat, recognising a new game, batted the paper away and began determinedly to hunt it around the room.
Aeschine rolled onto her side and looked up at him, laughing.
She laughed more often than she cried these days, he realised.
“Your cat has all the making of a good mouser – I think we’ll let her stay. She’ll earn her keep.”
She laughed again, knowing full well that there had never been any question of Cat being banished back to the stables.
“An’ me? Have ye decided to let me stay, or do I have to earn my keep too?”
“You know full well, my dear, that you are welcome to live here as long as you wish. This is your home now.”
She looked at him quizzically.
“An’ why am I here? Ye brought me here, but I dinnae know why. Ye dinnae seem to want me to be your whore, but how else should I earn my keep?”
Dear Lord Almighty.
“Listen to me, Aeschine. I didn’t bring you here to be my whore, as you so charmingly put it, or to earn your keep – I brought you here to keep you safe, and because you needed somewhere to live. You needed to stop running, Aeschine, from whatever it is that you’re running from. You shall live here for as long as you wish; you can leave at any time you wish. You do not have to earn your keep in any way whatsoever. And if there is another Time or place that you want to return to, to live in, you only have to tell me, and I shall take you there. Do you understand?”
Her face crumpled and she said “If I could only remember. I’ve tried and tried, but I cannae. I cannae remember even why I keep running – only that I must. It’s terrible hard, Alistair, to know that ye cannae even remember your own name, much less anything else about yourself.”
Alistair reached out his hand to her.
“Come here, child, and dry your eyes. There’s no need to get upset. You shall stop here as long as you want – until you do remember, and even after that. And I shall look after you. And there is no need for you to run away any more.”
She sniffed. Hoping to avoid a further outbreak of tears, he said gently “Now, I’ve been thinking. It’s about time we told Mrs Mac that you need some more gowns. I’m tired of seeing you in greys and browns. Would you like that – some new gowns in pretty colours?”
She nodded, as readily distracted as a child. She was, he realised, the easiest woman to please that he had ever met, the most frustrating, the most fascinating.
She was both his despair and his delight.