The Secret Woman



When my Aunt Charlotte died suddenly many people believed that I had killed her and that if it had not been for Nurse Loman’s evidence at the inquest, the verdict would have been one of murder by some person or persons unknown; there would have been a probing into the dark secrets of the Queen’s House, and the truth would have come out.

“That niece of hers obviously had the motive,” it was said.

The “motive” was Aunt Charlotte’s possessions which on her death became mine. But how different everything was from what it appeared to be!

Chantel Loman, who had become my friend during the months she lived with us at the Queen’s House, laughed at the gossips.

“People must have drama. If it isn’t there they invent it. Sudden death is manna from Heaven. Of course they talk. Take no notice of them. I don’t.”

She did not have the same need to do so, I pointed out to her.

She laughed at me. “You’re always so logical!” she said. “Why, Anna, I do believe that if those wicked old gossips had had their wish and you had stood in the dock you would have got the better of the judge as well as the jury and counsel for the prosecution. You can look after yourself.”

If only it were true! But Chantel did not know of those sleepless nights when I lay in my bed making plans, trying to work out how I could dispose of everything and start a new life in a new place and so free myself from this haunting nightmare. But in the morning it would be different. Practical considerations forced themselves on me. I could not go away; it was not financially possible. Little did the gossips know the true state of affairs. Moreover I was not going to be a coward and run away. As long as one was innocent what did it matter what the world thought of one?

A foolish paradox, I told myself immediately, and an untrue one. The innocent frequently suffer when they are suspected of guilt, and it is necessary not only to be innocent but to prove that one is.

But I could not run away; so I put on what Chantel called my mask and turned a face of cold indifference to the world. No one was going to know how deeply I cared about the slander.

I tried to see everything objectively. In fact I could not have endured those months if I had not looked upon what happened as an unpleasant fantasy like a drama being played out on a stage, the chief characters being the victim and the suspect — Aunt Charlotte and myself — and in the minor rôles, Nurse Chantel Loman, Dr. Elgin, Mrs. Morton the cook-housekeeper, Ellen the maid, and Mrs. Buckle who came in to dust the cluttered rooms. I was trying to convince myself that it had not really happened and one morning I should wake up to find it was nothing but a nightmare.

So I was not logical but foolish and even Chantel did not know how vulnerable. I dared not look back and I dared not look forward. Yet when I saw my reflection in the mirror I was aware of the changes in my face. I was twenty-seven and looked it; before, I had appeared young for my age. I imagined myself at thirty-seven … forty-seven … still living in the Queen’s House, getting older and older, haunted by the ghost of Aunt Charlotte; and the gossip would go on, never to be entirely forgotten and those not yet born would one day say: “That’s old Miss Brett. There was some scandal long ago. I never heard quite what. I believe she murdered someone.”

It must not come to that. There were days when I promised myself I would escape, but the old stubbornness returned. I was a soldier’s daughter. How many times had my father said to me: “Never turn your back on trouble. Always stand and face it.”

That was what I was trying to do when once more Chantel came to my rescue.

But the story begins before that.

* * *

When I was born my father was a Captain in the Indian Army; he was Aunt Charlotte’s brother; there was a great deal of the soldier in her. People are unpredictable. They appear to conform to patterns. Often you can say he or she is such and such a type, but people are rarely types, or not completely so. They conform up to a point and then they diverge wildly. So it was with both my father and Aunt Charlotte. Father was dedicated to his profession. The Army was more important than anything in the world; in fact little else existed for him. My mother often said that he would have run the household like a military camp if she had let him and treated us all as though we were his “men.” He quoted Queen’s Regulations at breakfast, she said mockingly; and he would grin sheepishly at her for she was his divergence. They had met when he was on his way home on leave from India. She told me about it in what I called her butterfly way. She never kept to the point and she would stray off so that one had to guide her back to the original theme if one were interested in it. Sometimes it was more intriguing to let her run on.

But I was interested to hear about my parents’ meeting so I kept her to it.

“Moonlit nights on deck, darling. You’ve no idea how romantic … Dark skies and the stars like jewels … and the music and the dancing. The foreign ports and those fantastic bazaars. This heavenly bracelet … Oh the day we bought that …”

She would have to be led back. Yes, she had been dancing with the First Officer and she had noticed the tall soldier, so aloof, and she had made a bet that she would make him dance with her. Of course she had and they were married two months later in England.

“Your Aunt Charlotte was furious. Did she think the poor man was a eunuch?”

Her conversation was light and frothy — racy even. She fascinated me as she must have fascinated my father. I was far more like him, I feared, than like her.

In those early days I lived with them though I was more often in the company of my ayah than in theirs. There are vague memories of heat and brilliantly colored flowers, of dark-skinned people washing their clothes in the river. I remember riding in an open carriage with my ayah past the cemetery on the hill where I was told the bodies of the dead were left out in the open that they might become part of the earth and air again. I remember the wicked-looking vultures high up in the trees. They made me shiver.

There came the time when I must return to England and I traveled back with my parents, and myself experienced those tropical nights at sea when the stars seemed to have been placed like jewels on dark blue velvet as though to show off their brilliance. I heard the music and saw the dancing; and for me everything was dominated by my mother, the most beautiful being in the world, with her long draperies, her dark hair piled high on her head, and her incessant, inconsequential chatter.

“Darling, it will only be for a short time. You have to be educated, and we have to go back to India. But you’ll stay with Auntie Charlotte.” It was typical that she should call her Auntie. Aunt Charlotte was always Aunt to me. “She’ll love you darling, because you’re named after her — well, partly. They wanted Charlotte for you, but I wasn’t going to have my darling daughter called that. It would remind me of her …” She caught herself up sharply, remembering she was trying to put Aunt Charlotte in a good light. “People always like those who have their names. ‘But not Charlotte,’ I said, ‘That’s too severe …’ So you were Anna Charlotte to be known as Anna and so avoid having two Charlottes in the family. Oh, where was I? Your Auntie Charlotte … Yes, darling, you have to go to school, my precious, but there are holidays. You can’t come all the way out to India in the holidays can you? So Auntie Charlotte will have you at the Queen’s House. Now doesn’t that sound grand? Queen Elizabeth slept there, I believe. That’s where it gets its name. And then … in no time … my goodness how time flies, you’ll be finished with school and you’ll come out to us. I can’t wait, my darling, for the day. What fun I shall have launching my daughter.” Again that attractive grimace which I believe is called a moue. “It will be my compensation for getting old.”

She could make anything sound attractive by the way she spoke of it. She could dismiss years with a flick of the hand. She made me see not school and Aunt Charlotte but the days ahead when the ugly duckling I was would be transformed into the swan, looking exactly like my mother.

I was eight years old when I saw the Queen’s House for the first time. The cab which had brought us from the station took us through streets very different from those of Bombay. The people looked sedate, the houses imperious. Here and there was a touch of green in the gardens, such green as I had not seen in India, deep and cool; there was a light drizzle in the air. We caught a glimpse of the river for the town of Langmouth was situated on the estuary of the River Lang and it was for this reason that it had become the busy port it was. Scraps of my mother’s chatter lived on in my mind. “What a big ship! Look darling. I suppose that belongs to those people … what’s their name, darling? — those rich and powerful people who own half Langmouth and half of England for that matter?” And my father’s voice: “You mean the Creditons, my dear. They do in fact own a very prosperous shipping line but you exaggerate when you say they own half Langmouth, although it is true that Langmouth owes a certain part of its growing prosperity to them.”

The Creditons! The name stayed with me.