Defend and Betray


Chapter 1

Hester Latterly alighted from the hansom cab. A two-seater vehicle for hire by the trip, it was a recent and most useful invention enabling one to travel much more cheaply than having to hire a large carriage for the day. Fishing in her reticule, she found the appropriate coin and paid the driver, then turned and walked briskly along Brunswick Place towards Regent's Park, where the daffodils were in full bloom in gold swaths against the dark earth. So they should be; this was April the twenty-first, a full month into the spring of 1857.

She looked ahead to see if she could discern the tall, rather angular figure of Edith Sobell, whom she had come to meet, but she was not yet visible among the courting couples walking side by side, the women's wide crinoline skirts almost touching the gravel of the paths, the men elegant and swaggering very slightly. Somewhere hi the distance a band was playing something brisk and martial, the notes of the brass carrying in the slight breeze.

She hoped Edith was not going to be late. It was she who had requested this meeting, and said that a walk in the open would be so much pleasanter than sitting inside in a chocolate shop, or strolling around a museum or a gallery where Edith at least might run into acquaintances and be obliged to interrupt her conversation with Hester to exchange polite nonsense.

Edith had all day in which to do more or less as she pleased; indeed, she had said time hung heavily on her hands. But Hester was obliged to earn her living. She was presently employed as a nurse to a retired military gentleman who had fallen and broken his thigh. Since being dismissed from the hospital where she had first found a position on returning from the Crimea - for taking matters into her own hands and treating a patient in the absence of the doctor - Hester had been fortunate to find private positions. It was only her experience in Scutari with Florence Nightingale, ended barely a year since, which had made any further employment possible at all.

The gentleman, Major Tiplady, was recovering well, and had been quite amenable to her taking an afternoon off. But she was loath to spend it waiting in Regent's Park for a companion who did not keep her appointments, even on so pleasant a day. Hester had seen so much incompetence and confusion during the war, deaths that could have been avoided had pride and inefficiency been set aside, that she had a short temper where she judged such failings to exist, and a rather hasty tongue. Her mind was quick, her tastes often unbecomingly intellectual for a woman; such qualities were not admired, and her views, whether right or wrong, were held with too much conviction. Edith would need a very fine reason indeed if she were to be excused her tardiness.

Hester waited a further fifteen minutes, pacing back and forth on the path beside the daffodils, growing more and more irritated and impatient. It was most inconsiderate behavior, particularly since this spot had been chosen for Edith's convenience; she lived in Clarence Gardens, a mere half mile away. Perhaps Hester was angry out of proportion to the offense, and even as her temper rose she was aware of it, and still unable to stop her gloved fists from clenching or her step from getting more rapid and her heels from clicking sharply on the ground.

She was about to abandon the meeting altogether when at last she saw the gawky, oddly pleasing figure of Edith. She was still dressed predominantly in black, still in mourning for her husband, although he had been dead nearly two years. She was hurrying along the path, her skirts swinging alarmingly and her bonnet so far on the back of her head as to be in danger of felling off altogether.

Hester started towards her, relieved that she had come at last, but still preparing in her mind a suitable reproach for the wasted time and the inconsideration. Then she saw Edith's countenance and realized something was wrong.

"What is it?" she said as soon as they met. Edith's intelligent, eccentric face, with its soft mouth and crooked, aquiline nose, was very pale. Her fair hair was poking out untidily from under her bonnet even more than would be accounted for by the breeze and her extremely hasty progress along the path. "What has happened?" Hester demanded anxiously. "Are you ill?"