The Captain and His Innocent(4)

By: Lucy Ashford

 Ellie had told Miss Pringle at their very first meeting that she understood English perfectly well; but Miss Pringle insisted on speaking slowly and enunciating every syllable with the greatest care. And Ellie was being driven to the limits of her patience.

 Lord Franklin had announced that although the journey to Kent could be achieved in one day, he felt Ellie would be more comfortable with an overnight stop at the Cross Keys in Aylesford. Ellie had hoped that the evening meal they took in the private dining room there might silence her companion a little, since Miss Pringle keenly enjoyed her food. But somehow, Miss Pringle managed to eat a substantial amount and also produce as many words as ever at exactly the same time.

 ‘Of course,’ Miss Pringle pronounced, ‘Lord Franklin has always honoured my family with his esteem, Elise.’

 Elise was Ellie’s French name, the name she’d been christened with. Her French father and English mother had always called her Ellie; but she didn’t trouble to correct those who preferred to call her Elise, since they were strangers, who knew nothing of her life or her past.

 ‘My dear father,’ Miss Pringle went on through a mouthful of ham and peas, ‘was the vicar of Bircham parish, you know, for many years. And since my papa’s sad death, Lord Franklin—well, no one could have been kinder, or more considerate! It was a great sadness for me to have to leave the Vicarage on Papa’s demise—but Lord Franklin understood perfectly. He said to me, “My dear Cynthia, we cannot have you leaving Bircham, when you have been such a valuable part of its life for so many years.” Those were his exact words! And in the end, Lord Franklin found me a cottage—the very best of cottages, I might add!—in a most superior part of Bircham village. I have really been more than comfortable there, and of course I have had my many charitable works to keep me busy.’

 Miss Pringle leaned closer. ‘But when I heard from Lord Franklin that he wanted me to come up to London to accompany you to Bircham Hall itself and to live there as your companion—well, I was so very honoured. To think, Ellie, that he is your long-lost relative! And as you’ll know, he is off travelling again very shortly. Taking advantage of the end of this horrid war with France to go and observe the art and classical buildings of Paris. Lord Franklin is forever travelling and enlarging his wonderful collection of artistic treasures. Which is, of course, how he met you. In Bruges, was it not?’

 ‘In Brussels,’ Ellie replied tonelessly, pushing aside her plate. ‘If you have no objection, Miss Pringle, I am rather tired and would like to withdraw to my bedchamber now.’

 * * *

 But the next morning, at breakfast, the inquisition started again.

 ‘So...’ Miss Pringle began, over her toast and marmalade, ‘Lord Franklin came upon you in Brussels. But to think, that he should turn out to be your mother’s second cousin—you could not have wished for a luckier stroke of fate!’ Suddenly her eyes fixed on Ellie’s shabby travelling cloak and dowdy bonnet and she said, a little more hesitantly, ‘You know, I was led to understand that Lord Franklin generously furnished you with a quantity of new clothes in London.’

 ‘He did,’ Ellie answered. ‘But I prefer to travel in more practical clothing.’

 ‘Very wise.’ Miss Pringle nodded. ‘Very wise, since you will find, I think, at Bircham Hall that practicality is of the utmost importance.’

 Ellie wanted to ask her what she meant. Was it chilly there? Was it uncomfortable? But it couldn’t, surely, be as frugal or cold as some of the dire places she’d taken shelter in during the last year or more. And then it was time to go out to where the carriage stood in the yard of the inn.

 There, the ostlers, under the careful eye of the coachman, were harnessing up four beautiful greys, and Miss Pringle saw Ellie gazing at them. ‘Lord Franklin keeps only the best, of course,’ she declared, ‘at each posting house. This is our next-to-last change, I believe, and by this afternoon we shall be at Bircham Hall. How my heart lifts at the thought! And there you will meet Lady Charlotte, who is sure to give you a wonderful welcome...’

 Was it Ellie’s imagination? Or did Miss Pringle’s confident tone falter just a little at the mention of Lord Franklin’s widowed mother?

 ‘My mother,’ Lord Franklin had told Ellie, ‘used to come to London occasionally, but never does so now. I have sent word to inform her that you will be arriving at Bircham Hall and have asked her to ensure you will be happy there.’

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