Afterwards Yasmin recalled with some surprise how happy she had been on that glorious autumn afternoon, with no premonition of the disaster that was to strike before the day was out. She and Aunt Georgiana, and Yasmin always thought of her as that, despite what she later discovered, were busy picking apples. There were a mere dozen or so fruit trees grouped at the far end of the cottage garden, not a sufficient number to be dignified with the title of orchard, but providing enough fruit for the simple needs of the two women.
Yasmin, her guinea gold hair tied back with a bright green ribbon that matched the ribbons on her dress, was perched somewhat precariously on a ladder, and was holding down a branch so that Aunt Georgiana, on the ground, could reach up and pluck the ripe, rosy apples. They were both laughing at the antics of Snow, their six months old kitten, who appeared to take decided exception to their invasion of what he considered his domain, and was clutching wildly at the swaying branch as he frantically attempted to move along it towards the spot where Aunt Georgiana was removing the apples.
Suddenly she gasped and put a hand to her side, closing her eyes and biting her lips in agony. For a moment Yasmin did not notice her aunt's distress, absorbed as she was in watching Snow, but then she turned towards her aunt, to see her doubled over with pain, her face pale and her brow glistening with beads of perspiration.
'Aunt Georgiana! What is amiss?' Yasmin cried, descending the ladder as rapidly as the clinging skirts of her simple muslin gown permitted.
The older woman straightened slowly, trying to hide her distress from the girl.
'It was nothing – a touch of cramp, merely,' she said in a low voice. 'It grows easier every moment. I must have reached up too far. Pray, Yasmin, do not look so concerned.'
'Will you not go inside and lie on your bed?' Yasmin asked anxiously. 'A dose of hartshorn may help.' She regarded her aunt worriedly, for she was normally the healthiest of women, never suffering from the slightest ailment, or complaining of any of the aches or discomforts that seemed to afflict most of their acquaintances with tedious regularity.
'Nonsense, my dear – you must not refine too much on it. A momentary pain, soon gone. I will sit down for a while in the shade and watch you. I would so like to finish this tree today, and lay them out in the apple store.'
Yasmin complied, and after settling her aunt on a cushion which she insisted on fetching from the cottage, returned to her apple picking. She cast anxious looks towards her aunt from time to time, but she soon appeared completely recovered, the colour restored to her cheeks, and began to help Yasmin again. When Yasmin protested, she replied she did not wish, or indeed have any reason to be coddled.
They dined early as usual, and then went to the apple store to begin laying out the apples on the slatted shelves, putting aside the bruised and damaged ones to be used in preserves. Yasmin had gone to carry in another of the baskets they had left in the garden when Aunt Georgiana had her second attack. Again she crumpled with pain, and Yasmin, coming in with the basket, dropped it so that the disregarded apples rolled all over the floor, and ran to support her aunt. It was a minute or so before Aunt Georgiana was able to reply to Yasmin's frantic queries, and to the girl the time seemed an eternity.
'It eases,' she gasped eventually, 'but I think I had best go to bed now.'
'I will fetch Doctor Brownlow,' Yasmin suggested, but her aunt would not hear of it, rejecting the notion firmly.
'It is nought but a cramp or a stitch. We cannot fetch the good man out at this time, for he will be dining. He works so hard and is so conscientious, let him relax with his family while he can.'
Yasmin pleaded with her, but she was adamant, and at last Yasmin had to be content with her promise that if she had not improved by the morning the doctor should be called. With the help of Fanny, their elderly maid, Aunt Georgiana was put to bed, and despite her protests Yasmin made up a truckle bed for herself in the same room. Yasmin dozed fitfully until around midnight, when she was roused by heavy breathing from the big bed. Hastily rising, she moved across the room to find her aunt writhing with pain, endeavouring to stifle the cries that came unbidden to her lips.
This time Yasmin did not attempt to argue. Pulling on her gown in frantic haste, she called to Fanny who slept in the little room above, telling her she was going for the doctor. She dragged on her light kid slippers, and not waiting to take a cloak, for the night was warm and the doctor's house lay only a short distance away across the village green, ran out of the cottage.
Fortunately the moon was full, and Yasmin could see her way easily. She ran to the doctor's house and hammered on the front door, heedless of the noise she made, caring only to bring help to her aunt.
'What's to do?' a voice called from above, and Yasmin stepped backwards out of the porch to look up at the good doctor, his night cap awry, leaning from an upstairs window. Swiftly Yasmin explained, and he bade her return, saying he would follow with all speed. He was quick, but to the girl's tortured imaginings it seemed hours before he was bending over her aunt muttering soothing words Yasmin could not hear.
He made Aunt Georgiana drink some potion, and soon her painwracked tossing ceased, and she became drowsy. Doctor Brownlow nodded in satisfaction, and turned away from the bed.
'That will enable her to sleep, my dear. I will come to see how she goes on first thing in the morning.'
'What ails her?' Yasmin asked fearfully, but he would not reply, merely placing his fingers on his lips and tiptoeing from the room. Yasmin accompanied him to the front door and he repeated he would return early in the morning. With that she had to be content.
Aunt Georgiana was asleep when Yasmin returned to the bedroom, but the girl sat anxiously beside her all night. Towards the dawn the effects of the drug wore off somewhat, and she appeared to be in great pain once more, but Doctor Brownlow soon arrived and administered another dose. In the next two days he came frequently, but could do nothing for her apart from bleeding her twice and increasing the doses of laudanum. Despite these she suffered immense pain which did not abate until the morning of the third day, when it seemed to decrease.
Yasmin, who had slept only intermittently, was sitting beside her when Aunt Georgiana's eyes opened, and she looked vaguely about her. She attempted to speak, but the laudanum had made her so drowsy and confused she could not frame the words she wanted, and Yasmin, hopeful she was recovering, tried to persuade her to sleep. Later Yasmin was convinced she had been trying then to reveal to her the secret of her birth, but this she did not understand until much later, having discovered it by other means.
Aunt Georgiana died that evening. After sleeping relatively peacefully for most of the day, her pain apparently lessened, she awoke towards dusk and lay smiling gently at Yasmin, but not speaking. Yasmin asked if she would drink, but she shook her head almost imperceptibly and stretched out her hand towards the girl. When Yasmin held it she sighed contentedly and closed her eyes. Only gradually did the girl come to realise she had, peacefully and without fuss, slipped over the threshold of death.
* * * *
The following few days passed in a blur for Yasmin. She was put to bed herself, drugged to oblivion with laudanum, and only permitted to recover her senses in time for the funeral. Everyone was exceptionally kind to the bereaved girl, for she and her aunt had been liked and respected in the village. Mrs Grey, the rector's wife, had her carried to the rectory and nursed her during those first dreadful days, and in the calm surroundings she knew well, for she had shared lessons with the rectory children, Yasmin recovered sufficiently to greet the mourners with outward calm when they came back to the rectory following the interment. Afterwards she was again sent to bed, and only gradually allowed to take part in the normal life of the household. Then one morning, several weeks later, the rector called her into his study.
'My dear Yasmin, we must begin to think of your future.' he said without preamble. She had been wondering increasingly about this problem herself, and was grateful to him for his lack of prevarication. She had not known how to introduce the subject herself without appearing heartless.
'I shall have to earn my own living,' she said calmly, and he nodded slowly.
'Your aunt had little apart from her personal possessions to leave you,' he said gently, but Yasmin was already aware of this. 'Her cottage was rented, and the small income which came to her from her family ceased at her death. I understand the capital reverts to her brother now, and as you may know she had been estranged from him for many years. Unfortunately it cannot pass to you, for you were only her adopted niece. Naturally my wife and I will be only too pleased for you to remain here until you have secured a situation,' he went on warmly, but Yasmin shook her head quickly.
'It is most kind of you, and truly I am deeply grateful, but why should I be a burden to you?'
'You are no burden, child, but consider, what else can you do?' he reminded her quietly. 'Already the owner of the cottage is asking when your possessions can be moved, for he has a new tenant.'
Yasmin was silent, realising that however violently her own life had been disrupted, the business of others could not wait.
'I will impose on you as little as possible,' she said at last. 'While I am here perhaps I can earn my keep in some way. But what kind of situation do you suggest I had best look for?'
He sighed. 'I would suggest that of a governess, for you were clever with your lessons, and exceptionally talented with your painting and music. But you are overyoung, and it would be near impossible to find a place for you.'
'I shall be seventeen soon after Christmas,' Yasmin protested.
The rector shook his head. 'Too young for a governess. Perhaps later it would be a possibility. I think for the moment it would be best for you to seek a post as companion for a few years. An elderly person would not object to your youth – it might indeed be an advantage – and you could gain experience and perhaps contacts which would serve you well later.'
Yasmin nodded, for she had reached the same somewhat dismal conclusions herself. The prospect of living with an elderly and possibly querulous woman after life with her lively and young aunt depressed her exceedingly.
The rector was looking at her consideringly. 'I collect,' he said tentatively, 'Miss Boswell told you nothing about your family? Did she herself know them?'
Yasmin shook her head. 'I cannot think so. She did not say anything to me, in any event.'
'I was hoping there might have been some connections who would have assisted you.'
'No, and I do not imagine she could have known of any. All she told me was that when I was six years old she adopted me. I had been living with the gypsies, as you must know, but she bade me try to forget that part of my life, and she never herself spoke of it. She would never allow me even to go near the gypsy encampment when they came here.'
'I believe she suspected you had been stolen as a baby, and they might take you back. I have no notion by what method she originally contrived to persuade them to let you go, but perhaps she did not trust them to honour any agreement. You certainly cannot be a gypsy child with golden hair! And had you been, they would never have permitted you to leave the tribe. But I thought your aunt might have endeavoured to discover where you came from. I hoped she might have had some success.'
'She never said anything of that to me, and I know nothing of any such attempts,' Yasmin said slowly. 'She rarely left the cottage, and had very few letters.'
* * * *
The rector said no more on the subject, and Yasmin, who had long ago become accustomed to her strange beginnings, forgot it, and tried to be as useful to Mrs Grey as she could to earn her keep. Mrs Grey arranged for a corner of the barn which belonged to the rectory to be cleared, and had Miss Boswell's possessions moved into it, then she helped Yasmin in the sad task of sorting out those she wished to keep, and disposing of the rest. They discovered a few letters, but nothing that provided any clue towards solving the mystery of Yasmin's birth or how she came to be with the gypsies.
Amongst the papers Yasmin found a locket with a miniature portrait of her aunt, painted when she was about sixteen, and Yasmin wore it beneath the black gown Mrs Grey had provided for her. It showed Georgiana's delicate features, and the fair hair, so very much paler than Yasmin's own that in some lights it appeared almost white. The expression in the portrait was a sad one, such that she had never worn during the time Yasmin had known her. The girl puzzled over this for a time, but it fitted so well with her own mood these days it seemed appropriate.
About a week after their first talk about Yasmin's future, the rector again called her into the study.
'I have what I trust will be good news,' he said bracingly, and Yasmin smiled dutifully. 'Do you recall Mrs Forbes?'
Yasmin nodded, her heart sinking as she realised what was to come.
'Ah, yes, the late rector's widow. She still lives in the house she bought when her husband died, and I came here to the living. It is several miles distant from here, but she still contrives to take an interest in parish affairs.'
He paused, and Yasmin risked a glance at him. Mrs Forbes is far too busy about what should be his affairs, she thought, remembering the many occasions when she had encountered Mrs Forbes. The old lady had frequently descended on the rectory, demanding in peculiarly strident tones to be told why something was not being done as in her husband's day. The children in the schoolroom had often mocked her, while taking care to keep out of the way of her sharp tongue.
'She is growing old and her eyesight is failing. She needs a companion, someone to do her errands, and read to her, and write letters. She has agreed to give you a trial for a month. I think you ought to accept the offer. She is old,' he added, reading accurately Yasmin's dismayed expression, and intending consolation. Then realising the interpretation that could be put on his words, he added quickly, 'and she needs understanding and help.'
'Does she wish for an immediate answer?' Yasmin asked, wanting to delay the decision, while knowing hesitation could bring no relief.
'I will send an answer tomorrow, that will be time enough.'
Thankful for so slight a reprieve, Yasmin escaped, and the rector was as relieved to see her go as she was to leave him. He was such an understanding man he realised fully the dismay with which Yasmin or any young girl would face such a life, but there was no alternative and he could offer little consolation.
* * * *
Avoiding the rest of the family she wandered out into the woods that surrounded the village. Already the leaves were turning russet and gold and red, and the riot of colour comforted her a little, for she had always been responsive to beauty, especially out of doors. Yasmin walked on, wandering deeper into the woods, trying to forget the decision she had to make that was no real choice, for what alternative had she? For the first time since Aunt Georgiana's death Yasmin consciously tried to recall her and their life together. Until now she had shied away from such memories for they had been painful, but there in the solitude of the woods she began to realise they could bring healing too, for the memory of the happy times could sustain her in the times to come which were likely to be far from happy.
Though life had been quiet for the two of them, they had been merry and contented. They had lived in the present, and Aunt Georgiana had told Yasmin nothing about her family or her life before she adopted the child, and had tried to persuade Yasmin to forget her own early years before she had been adopted. Yasmin had obeyed her wishes in so far as she did not talk of her life with the gypsies, but she had been unable to stop thinking about them, and wondering how she had come to be with them, for like the rector she could not believe she had belonged to them. Sometimes, in the dead of night when she had been unable to sleep, she wove fantasies that made her a stolen princess, eventually discovered and rescued by a handsome prince who married her and carried her off to his castle. Such romantic nonsense had been replaced as she grew older by more prosaic theories as to how she had come to be living with the gypsies, but Yasmin had respected Aunt Georgiana's wish not to talk of them, and had never confided these speculations to her. Now, however, she began to wonder about her lost family. Who and what were they? Was there any way in which she might find them again after so many years?
Yasmin was so wrapped up in her thoughts she almost stumbled over the child that lay huddled in the path. As she dragged her thoughts back to the present reality, she wondered for a horrified moment if he were dead, but then the small body heaved with a loud sob, and she bent down to him.
'Are you hurt?' she asked anxiously, putting her arm about him. She noticed he was clean, and his clothes, though poor, neatly mended.
He started up, a frightened look on his face, and muttered something. At first it was unintelligible to Yasmin, and she wondered how a foreign child could be lost here in the woods. Was he one of the poor French émigrés, she at first thought, though it did not sound like the French she had learned at the rectory lessons. It might, of course, be a dialect, yet she had heard nothing of any French people in the area. Then a word he used awoke memories. For a moment Yasmin believed she was still dreaming about her early life, for he used a word she had been familiar with amongst the gypsies. She listened more carefully when he repeated what he had said, and her smile evidently reassured him. The language was coming back to her and hesitantly she repeated some of the words. He seemed to understand her, for he nodded eagerly and gabbled back at her.
'You are lost? You have wandered away from the camp?'
'I was picking blackberries,' he said, holding out a small bowl which was stained with the juice of the berries, but had none still in it.
Yasmin had not realised the gypsies, as they always did at that time of year, had returned to the area. They could not have been there long, or she would have heard of it. Even with Aunt Georgiana's dislike of mentioning them, she had always known when they had arrived. But she had never been allowed to go near them, and had never been to the fair which the gypsies had always attended in the next village. Once she had caught a glimpse of their gaily painted vans passing along the lane, but Fanny, who had been with her, had whisked her away before she could see much.
Yasmin smiled down at the child who, she estimated, was about four years old.
'I will take you back,' she told him, and he smiled confidently up at her.
She knew where the encampment was, for she had always been instructed to avoid that area during the time the gypsies were in the district. It was scarcely a mile away. Yasmin took the child's hand, and they walked along slowly. He was chattering happily now, though she only half listened, for not only was his rapid speech difficult to understand, but she was consumed with a tremendous excitement, partly apprehension, that she would at last be meeting the gypsies. She had no idea whether they were the same ones that had kept her as a child, but it did not matter. As if in a dream she walked on, and at length came to the edge of the wood where there was a treeless hollow between the wood and the lane.
As they emerged from the trees Yasmin looked eagerly about her. There were a dozen or so gaily painted vans arranged neatly about the hollow. A space in the centre was occupied by a fire, and a couple of women were busy beside it tending cooking pots while small children played beside and under the vans. Occasionally the women threw a remark to an old woman seated at the door of one of the vans, and their laughter and the cries of the children echoed around the hollow.
The child released Yasmin's hand and ran swiftly towards the women. As he came near they espied him, and one of them ran to meet him and swept him up into her arms.
'Where have you come from? Where are your sisters?' she demanded, and looked past him towards the strange girl who stood so still at the edge of the clearing.
* * * *
The gypsy stood silently for a moment, then slowly put the child to the ground, staring all the while at Yasmin. She approached slowly, and they all regarded her silently, even the children who had been playing about the encampment a few moments before.
'I found him in the woods, he was lost,' Yasmin explained, and then they all seemed to come back to life. The two younger women overwhelmed her with thanks, explaining eagerly that the boy's sisters had been in charge of him, and he must have eluded them. They drew Yasmin towards the fire, begging her to take some of their own wine. She glanced uncertainly at the older woman, who had remained motionless all this while. She was staring at Yasmin, a curiously satisfied smile on her face, her dark, still-bright eyes gleaming.
'So you have returned to us. I knew you would before I died.'
Startled, Yasmin looked at the two younger ones, but they had withdrawn slightly to one side, and were looking curiously from her to the old woman.
'Sit beside me, child. Rosa, get wine, and then, both of you, attend to the cooking.'
They sped to do her bidding and Yasmin, bemused, approached and sat where indicated on a small stool.
'Yasmin,' the old woman breathed softly, and Yasmin was not surprised she knew her name. It was all happening with an inevitability that seemed utterly natural and right. Yasmin nodded, and the old woman looked at her closely, then sighed.
'You are very like your father, even though you have your mother's hair,' she commented.
Yasmin was by now in such a dreamlike state this sudden mention of her unknown parents did not in the least startle her.
'Please tell me about them,' she replied quietly.
The crone sat for a while, silently regarding her.
'What do you know of them?' she countered.
Yasmin shrugged. 'Nothing at all. I was adopted when I was six. I know that before then I lived with gypsies, but nothing else.'
'Who adopted you?'
'My aunt,' she replied without thinking, then she shook her head. 'I do not know, a lady I called "aunt". Georgiana Boswell. I took her name.'
The old woman smiled at her. 'It is your own name,' she said softly. 'I am glad she did not reject that.'
'My name? But it was hers!' Yasmin protested.
Without realising what she had been doing, Yasmin had pulled the locket out from her dress, and now she opened it and looked at the portrait. The old woman held out her hand and Yasmin passed it to her.
'Yes, this is precisely as she looked when she first came to us, except then she was happy, not sad as she appears here.'
'Tell me,' Yasmin asked, knowing she was on the verge of important revelations. At last she would hear about herself.
'Boswell is my name too,' the old woman began in a sing-song voice. 'I am your grandmother. Georgiana was your mother, not your aunt. She was not a Romany, but she fell in love with my son, and ran away with him. She had been very unhappy at home, and was being threatened with a marriage to an old man. She could not bear the idea and took her chance of happiness with my boy. They married, and she travelled with us for two years. You were born, but then her father discovered her and forced her to go away with him. My son was killed trying to rescue her, and she was ill-treated until she promised to remain at home. She sent a message to us asking us to care for you until she could claim you. She dared not admit to your existence for fear her father would put you into a foundling's home. Then when he died she moved away from her former home, took you with her, and I have seen nothing of either of you since.'
Yasmin had listened enthralled. 'Why did she not tell me I was her daughter?' she asked. 'She never even said she had been married.'
'I believe her brother had power to stop her income and she feared he would do so if he knew of your birth. Also because she and her children would be his heirs if he died childless, and so far his wife had proved barren, so she feared what he, too proud a man to accept you, and as hard as his father, would do to you. She told me some of this when she came to take you away, and that she would henceforth communicate with him only through lawyers so he could not discover where she lived.'
'Tell me about my father,' Yasmin asked, and the old woman very willingly did so, for she had adored her son Michael. Then she asked about Yasmin's life and heard how her mother – and strange it seemed to the girl to think of her beloved aunt as her mother – was dead, and Yasmin herself about to find work as a companion.
'You will not like that,' Mrs Boswell declared at once.
'There is no alternative.'
'There is one, if you dare take it,' she said softly. 'You could return to us, your father's people. You belong to us as much as to your mother's folk.'
* * * *
Yasmin stared. This had never occurred to her, and the idea both frightened and fascinated her.
'Would the others accept me?' she asked slowly, looking across at the women who still worked beside the fire.
'They will do as I say,' Mrs Boswell said proudly, 'but you need have no fear. Your mother adapted to us and our ways, and so will you. It is for you to decide. Take your time. We remain here for a week, and in that time you can get to know us. I would not wish you to come against your will, but I do wish to have my son's child beside me in my last few months of life.'
They sat and talked for a long time, and Yasmin heard about her new family. The other members of it gradually reappeared from their various tasks and gathered round the fire, and Yasmin was introduced to them and made welcome. Utterly forgetful of the rector, who would be concerned at her long absence, she stayed and ate with them. Then her grandmother sent her home with Leon, a man some ten years older than herself, and a cousin, for escort.
Long before the week was up, Yasmin knew she wanted to go with the gypsies. It offered a way of escape from the dreaded life of a companion, but more than that she was drawn to be with her own people. She had told the rector of her strange encounter on the following day when he had asked for her answer to Mrs Forbes. He had been astounded, and Yasmin begged him to keep her confidence for the time being.
'I will delay sending your answer to Mrs Forbes,' he said at last, reluctantly. 'It will give you time to make up your mind.'
She did not wish for this time, for her mind was almost made up, but she agreed. Fanny had found herself a job with the new tenant of her aunt's cottage, and was pleased to keep Snow, the kitten, so there was nothing to hold Yasmin. The rector spent a long time with her expounding on the many disadvantages of the step she contemplated, but they did not weigh with her. Seeing this, he went himself to talk with Mrs Boswell, and came back satisfied Yasmin would be in good hands.
The poor man was in a quandary. He had no legal rights over Yasmin, whom he had housed from pure charity. He later admitted he had considered approaching her mother's brother, whose name he had discovered from Mrs Boswell, but had accepted that if anyone had a claim on Yasmin it was her grandmother rather than an uncle who did not know of her existence, and who would in all probability have rejected her if he had.
'But if he still has no children, you would be his heir, and from all I hear he is a warm man,' he said worriedly. 'We ought at least to write and tell him about you.'
'I have no desire to inherit anything from someone who could so ill-treat my mother,' Yasmin declared vehemently.
'But you have his direction. Promise me that if, at any time in the future, you need help and I cannot give it to you, you will approach him?'
Unable to envisage such an unlikely contingency, Yasmin happily promised, and it was arranged she would join her grandmother on the day before the gypsies left the district. The rector had sent to tell Mrs Forbes Yasmin had accepted another post, and she suspected that was what he told everyone else, for she was certain he was dismayed for her and regretted his part in arranging her future. Yasmin had no feelings of dismay, only an intense excitement, and the first happiness she had known since her mother's death, as she took her most precious belongings and joined her father's people.