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Authors: Mary Stewart

Wildfire at Midnight

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WILDFIRE
AT MIDNIGHT
by Mary Stewart

A FAWCETT CREST BOOK Fawcett Publications, Inc., Greenwich, Conn. Member of American Book Publishers Council, Inc.

All names, characters, and events in this book are fictional, and any resemblance which may seem to exist to real persons is purely coincidental.

A Fawcett Crest Book reprinted by arrangement with M. S. Mill Company, Inc. This book contains the complete text of the original hardcover edition.

Copyright © 1956 by Mary Stewart.

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce

this book or portions thereof.

Eighth Fawcett Crest printing, January 1967

Published by Fawcett World Library,

67 West 44th Street, New York, N. Y. 10036.

Printed in the United States of America.

To F. H. S.

"Wildfire at midnight. In this heedless fury He may show violence to cross himself. I'll follow the event."

Tourneur: The Revenger s Tragedy

Chapter 1

IN THE FIRST PLACE, I suppose, it was my parents' fault for giving me a silly name like Gianetta. It is a pretty enough name in itself, but it conjures up pictures of delectable and slightly overblown ladies in Titan's less respectable canvases, and, though I admit 1 have the sort of coloring that might have interested that Venetian master, I happen to be the rather inhibited product of an English country rectory. And if there is anything further removed than that from the bagnio Venuses of Titian's middle period, I don't know what it is.

To do my parents justice, I must confess straightaway that the bagnio touch was there in the family—nicely in the past, of course, but known nevertheless to be there. And my mother is just sufficiently vague, artistic, and sentimental to see nothing against calling a red-haired daughter after the Vixen Venus, the lovely redheaded Gianetta Fox, who was once the rage of London, and a Beauty in the days when beauties had a capital B, and were moreover apt to regard beauty and capital as one and the same thing.

She was a nobody, the lovely Gianetta; her mother, I believe, was half Italian, and if she knew who her father was, she never admitted to him. She simply appeared, Venus rising from the scum of Victorian Whitechapel, and hit London for six in the spring of 1858. She was just seventeen. By the time she was twenty she had been painted by every painter who mattered (Landseer was the only abstainer), in every conceivable allegorical pose, and had also, it was said, been the mistress of every one of them in turn—I should be inclined here, too, to give Landseer the benefit of the doubt. And in 1861 she reaped the due reward of her peculiar virtues and married a baronet. He managed to keep her long enough to beget two children of her before she left him—for a very "modern" painter of the French school who specialized in nudes. She left her son and daughter behind in Sir Charles's scandalized care; the former was to be my maternal grandfather.

So my nice, vague, artistic mother, who spends her time in our Cotswold rectory making dear little pots and bowls and baking them in a kiln at the bottom of the garden, called me after my disreputable (and famous) great-grandmother, without a thought about the possible consequences to me when I hit London in my turn, in 1945.

I was nineteen, had left school a short eight months before, and now, fresh from a West End training course for mannequins, was ingenuously setting out on a glamorous career with a fashion house, modeling clothes. I had a share in a bed-sitting room, a small banking account (gift from Father), two hand-thrown pots and an ash tray (gift from Mother), and an engagement diary (gift from my brother Lucius). I was on top of the world.

I was still on top of the world when the Morelli Gallery acquired the Zollner canvas called "My Lady Green-sleeves," and Marco Morelli—the Marco Morelli—decided to make a splash with it. You remember the fuss, perhaps? Morelli's idea was, I think, to stage a sort of comeback of art after the austerities and deprivations of the war. He could hardly have chosen a more appropriate picture to do it with. "My Lady Greensleeves" has all the rioting bravura of Zollner's 1860 period: the gorgeous lady who languishes, life-size, in the center of the canvas is the focus of a complicated shimmer of jewels and feathers and embroidered silk—I doubt if any material has ever been more miraculously painted than the coruscating damask of the big green sleeves. As an antidote to austerity it was certainly telling. And even Zollner's peacock riot of color could not defeat his model's triumphant vitality, or drain the fire from that flaming hair.

It was Gianetta Fox's last full-dress appearance in canvas, and she had all the air of making the most of it.

So had Morelli, and his cousin Hugo Montefior, the dress designer, who happened to be my employer.

And there really was nothing against the idea that Montefior should re-create the dress with the lovely green sleeves, and that I should wear it at the showing, and that there should be a sensation in the right circles, thereby doing the cousins a lot of good. And, possibly, me too, though this honestly didn't occur to me when Hugo put his idea in front of me. I was merely flattered, excited, and terribly nervous.

So I wore the Greensleeves gown at the show, and Morelli got his sensation, and I was so scared of the fashionable crowd that when I spoke at all, it was in a tight, flat little voice that must have sounded the last word in bored, brittle sophistication. I must have looked and sounded, in fact, like a pale copy of that arrogant worldling behind me in Zollner's canvas, for that is what Nicholas Drury undoubtedly took me for, when at length he elbowed his way through the crowds and introduced himself. I had heard of him, of course, and this in no way increased my self-confidence: He had at that time—he was twenty-nine—three terrifyingly good novels to his credit, as well as a reputation for a scarifying tongue. I, for one, was so thoroughly scarified that I froze into complete stupidity, and under his sardonic look stammered some meaningless schoolgirl rubbish that, God help us both, he took for coquetry. We were married three months later.

I have no wish to dwell on the three years that followed. I was wildly, madly, dumbly in love with him, of course, a silly little star-dazzled adolescent, plunged into a life completely strange and rather terrifying. And Nicholas, it became very quickly apparent, wasn't on his own ground either. What he had meant to marry was a modern Gianetta Fox, a composed young sophisticate who could hold her own in the fast-moving society to which he was accustomed; what he'd actually got was only Gianetta Brooke, not long out of school, whose poise was a technique very recently acquired in Montefior's salons and the Mayfair mannequin factory.

Not that this initial miscasting was the cause of our little tragedy; love is a great builder of bridges, and it did seem at first as though what was between us could have spanned any gap. And Nicholas tried as hard as I. Looking back now, I can see that; if I did achieve sophistication, and a little wisdom, Nicholas struggled to rediscover tenderness. But it was too late; already, when we met, it was too late. The times were out of Joint for us, the gap too wide—not the ten years' gap between our ages, but the thousand-year-long stretch of a world war that to me was only an adolescent memory hardly denting the surface of my life, but to Nicholas was a still-recurring nightmare agony leaving scars on the mind which were then only precariously skinning over. How was I, untouched nineteen, to apprehend the sort of stresses that drove

Nicholas? And how was he to guess that, deep down under my precarious self-confidence, lurked the destroying germs of insecurity and fear?

Whatever the causes, the break came soon enough. In two years the marriage was as good as over.

When Nicholas traveled, as he often did, in search of material for his books, he more and more frequently found reasons for not taking me with him, and when at length I found he was not traveling alone, I felt no surprise, but I was hurt and humiliated, and so—1 have red hair, after all—blazingly outspoken.

If I had wanted to keep Nicholas, I should have done better to have held my tongue. I was no match for him on a battlefield where love had become a weakness and pride the only defense against a cynicism both brutal and unanswerable. He won very easily, and he cannot have known how cruelly. . . .

We were divorced in 1949. For the sake of my mother, who is so High Church as to be verging (according to Father), on Popish Practices, I kept Nicholas's name, and I still wore my wedding ring. I even, after a time, went back to London and to Hugo Montefior, who was angelically kind to me, worked me to death, and never once mentioned Nicholas. Nor did anyone else, except Mother, who occasionally asked after him in her letters, and even, on two occasions, wondered if we were thinking of starting a family. . . .

After a year or so I even managed to find this amusing, except when I was run-down and tired, and then the gentle timelessness of Mother and Tench Abbas Rectory became more than I could bear.

So in mid-May last year, when London had been packed to suffocation for weeks with the Coronation crowds already massing for the great day, and Hugo Montefior one morning took a long look at my face, took another, and promptly told me to go away for a fortnight, I rang up Tench Abbas, and got Mother.

"A holiday?" said Mother. "The beginning of June? How lovely, darling. Are you coming down here, or will Nicholas find it too dull?"

"Mother, I—"

"Of course we haven't got television," said Mother proudly, "but we can listen to the whole thing on the wireless. . . ."

I spared a glance for Montefior's salon windows, which have a grandstand view of Regent Street. "That would be lovely," I said. "But, Mother dearest, would you mind if I went somewhere else for a bit first?

Somewhere away from everything . . . you know, just hills and water and birds and things. I'd thought of the Lake District."

"Not far enough," said Mother promptly. "Skye."

Knowing Mother, I thought for one wild moment that she was recommending heaven as suitably remote.

But then she added: "Your father was talking about it at the Dunhills' garden party the other day. It rained all the time, you know, and so we had to be indoors—you know how it always rains for the Dunhills' garden party, darling?— well, it did so remind Maisie Dunhill. They were there a fortnight once, and it rained every day."

"Oh," I said, as light dawned. "Skye."

"And," said Mother, clinching it, "there's no television."

"It sounds the very place," I said, without irony. "Did Mrs. D. give you an address?"

"There are the pips," said Mother distractedly. "We can't have had three minutes, and they know how it puts me off. What was—oh, yes, the Dunhills ... do you know, darling, they've bought a new car, a huge thing, called a Jackal or a Jaeger or something, and—"

"Jaguar, Mother. But you were going to give me the address of the hotel where the Dunhills stayed."

"Oh yes, that was it. But you know Colonel Dunhill never drives at more than thirty-five miles an hour, and your father says—what, dear?"

I heard Father's voice speaking indistinguishably somewhere beyond her. Then she said: "Your father has it, dear, written down. I don't quite know how. . . well, here it is. The Camas Fhionnaridh Hotel—"

"The what hotel, Mother?"

"Camas—I'll spell it." She did. "I really don't think—I don't remember—but this must be the one. What did you say, dear?" This to Father again, as she turned away from the receiver, leaving me listening in some apprehension for the pips, which always reduce Mother from her normal pleasant abstraction to a state of gibbering incoherence. "Your father says it's Gaelic and pronounced Camasunary," said Mother, "and it's at the back of beyond, so you go there, darling, and have a lovely time with the birds and the—the water, or whatever you said you wanted."

I sat clutching the receiver, perched there above the roar of Regent Street. Before my mind's eye rose, cool and remote, a vision of rain-washed mountains.

"D'you know," I said slowly, "I think I will."

"Then that's settled," said Mother comfortably. "It sounds the very thing, darling. So handy having that address. It's as if it were meant."

I am glad to think that Mother will never appreciate the full irony of that remark.

So it came about that, in the late afternoon of Saturday, May 30th, 1953, I found myself setting out on the last stage of my journey to Camas Fhionnaridh in the Isle of Skye. Mother, I found, had been right enough about the back of beyond. The last stage had to be undertaken by boat, there being only a rough cart road overland from Strathaird to Camas Fhionnaridh, which the solitary local bus would not tackle. This same bus had brought me as far as Elgol, on the east side of Loch Scavaig, and had more or less dumped me and my cases on the shore. And presently a boatman, rather more ceremoniously, dumped me into his boat, and set out with me, my cases, and one other passenger, across the shining sea loch towards the distant bay of Camasunary.

Nothing could have been more peaceful. The sea loch itself was one huge bay, an inlet of the Atlantic, cradled in the crescent of the mountains. The fishing village of Elgol, backed by its own heather hills, was within one tip of the crescent; from the other soared sheer from the sea a jagged wall of mountains, purple against the sunset sky. The Cuillin, the giants of the Isle of Mist.

BOOK: Wildfire at Midnight
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