Part Seven of the Christmas Story- Seven Swans a Swimming
'Jack, is that you after all this time?
The young man staggered forward his smile white in his gaunt face. 'Lottie- thank God it is you. I have been hiding in the orchard praying that you would come this way and not Hester.'
'Where have you been all these years and why are you so unkempt?' If there was one thing she abhorred it was an untidy gentleman.
'I am working for the Government but things have not gone according to plan and I am pursued by excise men. You have to hide me until the danger is past.'
Charlotte was tempted to refuse – were there not several formidable gentlemen staying at Henley Court who could take charge of this extraordinary matter far better than she?
'Oh, very well. I suppose you can secrete yourself in the boathouse- no one goes there in the winter.' She stepped forward offering her arm to support her brother.
'Thank you, Lottie, I can manage. I am exhausted from running the ten miles from the coast, but I am not incapable. Who is staying at Henley Court this year?' His voice was little more than a whisper and she noticed that he was constantly looking round to check they were not being followed.
She rather thought she was beginning to enjoy the adventure; it reminded her of the games of hide and go seek they had all played as children. 'Lord Winchester and Lord Waverley….'
'Devil take it! That villain- on no account speak to him about my presence. Winchester is a good fellow- ask him to come down here.'
Charlotte pointed to the long, low, brick building standing bedecked in snow by the frozen lake. 'Here we are, sit on the steps whilst I retrieve the key. It is always secreted behind a loose brick by the door.'
She gathered up her pelisse and skirt hem before attempting to descend the slippery stones. In seconds she had the key and the door was unlocked. Jack joined her and together they pushed open the wooden doors. She shivered. It was dark and cold inside and the water, slapping gently against the punt moored by the door, looked uninviting.
'Will this do, Jack? There are rugs and cushions in the boat and I am certain there is a tinderbox and lantern somewhere on board as well.'
'It is perfect, Lottie. I shall hole up here quite comfortably until the danger is past. But, I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to keep my visit here a secret. Absolute silence is essential.'
'I understand. Shall I ask Winchester to bring you down some food and wine when he comes?' She was stepping aside to allow him to climb in to the punt when she saw something move at the far end of the boat house. They were not alone in the darkness. Ghostly shapes were approaching rapidly. In her terror she forgot the necessity for silence and screamed, so startling her brother that he shot backwards, falling into the water to be attacked by the seven swans a swimming….