Aurelia Vennaway held her breath as she tiptoed from the stuffy parlor and stole along the hallway. Her mother and aunts had paid her no attention for the past hour but that did not mean she would be allowed to leave. Her mother thought that the weather would keep her inside, that for once she would sit quietly and decorously in the corner as a little girl should.
She jammed her fur hat over fat, drawing-room ringlets and stuck her feet into sturdy boots. Shrugging on her blue cloak as swiftly as she would shrug off her destiny if she only could, she heaved open the door.
It was the kind of day that glittered and beckoned like a foretaste of heaven. The snow no longer fell, but lay thick and silver-white on the ground. The sun dazzled and the sky was a rich, celestial blue. On such a day as this, the whole world might change.
Aurelia sank up to her knees, then squared her shoulders and considered her nonsense of skirts. Gathering them up in great bunches, she lurched like a staggering deer through the snow until her lungs flamed with its cut-glass brilliance.
Last week she had not seen her mother for five days. The metallic smell of blood and the screams that came from the bedchamber were only a memory now, and her mother was back amongst the family once more—but harder than ever to please. Aurelia was not sure that she cared to try. The house was brittle and tense.
Sunlight could find no way into the woods beyond the house. Snow-laden branches of yew and wasted, straggle-thin fingers of oak reached for Aurelia. She laid her hands on them, greeting them like old and comforting friends. Her ringlets had loosened into snakes. Screeching jays made the only sound. She swung herself onto a low branch to listen and dream of the time when she would leave Hatville Court and never come back.
She nearly tumbled into the drifts when she heard an unfamiliar cry. It came in bursts, feeble yet grating, insisting she jump down and follow. She felt as though some otherworldly force were playing catch-me-if-you-can with her. It came again—goblin song—drawing her through the trees and into the sunlight.
Finally, she stood on the breast of a hill. Before her, something blue and hairless wriggled in the snow. For a moment the enchantment of the old woods clung to her and she feared to touch the creature. But curiosity broke the spell and she stepped closer. It was a human child, a tiny baby. She tore off her cloak and snatched the baby from the snow. Its skin was as chill as strawberry mousse. She wrapped it up and hugged it close.
Something was distinctly wrong, Aurelia decided, when a naked infant lay alone at the edge of a deserted wood.
“Hello?” she called, staring all around. “Hello? I have your baby!”
Nothing but silence, and a crow lifting into the air on silky wings. The baby was very cold and weighed almost nothing. Aurelia turned and, as fast as her skirts allowed, she ran.
I know they are watching me go. The road out of the village is long and straight. It will be miles before it bends, carrying me out of sight of the upper windows of the grand house. I know what they see: a nothing, a nobody. A small, staunch figure, lonely in mourning black, stiff skirts rustling about my boots, cloak fast against the cold. A crisp black bonnet settled grim upon my head and ribbons whipped by the wind. What a desolate January traveler I must represent.
Frost on the fields and upon the road, the village empty and forlorn, my boots leaving a trail of prints that peter into infinity. That is what they hope I will do—vanish like a melted footprint. If I can, I will oblige them. My reason for being here, the only person I have ever loved, now lies beneath six feet of earth and thick, shadow-green boughs of yew in a quiet corner of the churchyard. She was laid there yesterday.
The air is so cold that the tears are flayed from my eyes, eyes I had thought to be finished with crying for all time. After the biblical floods I have shed in the last three days, I thought there could be no water left in my depleted form. Yet it seems that life, and grief, and winter go on. My toes are numb as I trudge the miles that lead me away from Aurelia’s grave and from Hatville Court, the only home, grudging as it was, that I have ever known.
• • •
Soon enough, it threatens dark. The sharpest sickle moon I have ever seen hangs razor-edged in a gray sky and ahead I see the silhouette of Ladywell, the next village. I have walked for hours.
I stop there because I know I must, although my needs are not the sort to be assuaged by food, or ale, or fire. The chill in my bones is nothing to the freeze in my heart and no congenial company on earth could compensate me for the lack of Aurelia. But the next village is six miles yet farther and the lanes are awash with shadow. It would be the height of folly to go on; a young woman alone has ever been an easy target for villains. And although I have little faith that my life will ever again feel worthwhile, I still do not wish to throw it away. Aurelia may be gone, but she is not done with me yet. I will carry out her wishes in death every scrap as faithfully as I did when she was with me.
I enter the Rose and Crown. With my second, secret legacy from Aurelia I could afford the White Harte Royal, a hotel of some repute. But news flows between Ladywell and Enderby. If it were heard at Hatville Court that Amy Snow was seen taking a room at the Harte, they would be after me tomorrow in their carriage like the hounds of hell. For then they would guess there is more to my legacy than meets the eye.
The Rose and Crown will suffice. The chat in the lounge may not be the most refined for a young lady with a mind to her reputation, but then I am no lady; this has been made abundantly clear to me.
I hesitate in the hall. What am I? Respectable young woman or guttersnipe? Servant, sister, or friend? My role in the tale of Aurelia Vennaway puzzles no one more than me, especially now that I am called upon to conclude it.
“May I help you, miss?” A soft-spoken landlord approaches, clasping his hands as though anxious that his very presence might cause offense. How well I know that feeling.
“Thank you, sir. A room for the night, if you please, and perhaps a little supper—nothing rich—and a warming drink.”
“Certainly, miss, certainly. BELLA!” His welcoming tone leaps to a bellow and a young maid pops into the hall like a jackrabbit from a hole.
“Bella, light the fire in the Barley Room and take the lady’s bag there,” he instructs, resuming his normal pitch. “Might I recommend, miss, that you take supper in the lounge tonight? I would not suggest it except there is a blazing fire there and it will take a while for your room to reach a comfortable temperature. The lounge is quiet—the cold is keeping many at home—and, if you’ll forgive me, you look frozen to the bone, Miss . . . ?”
He looks at me then, understanding dawning. Bella stands with my bag stretching her skinny arm almost to the floor, gazing with frank curiosity until he orders her on her way.
“Begging your pardon, Miss Snow, if the lounge is acceptable, I will attend to you myself, ensure you are undisturbed. By the time you are fed, your room will be fit to receive you.”
His kindness brings fresh tears to my eyes, and only a supreme effort keeps them there.
I take my supper in the lounge and though I can eat only a little, the warmth and flavor are somewhat fortifying. I do not linger but retire to a small, simple room which is, as promised, tolerably warm. I perform a rudimentary toilette in a daze.
Whilst I walked I conceived the idea to write an account of my time and travels, so as to feel that my life has some substance, some witness. Alone in the silence, Aurelia’s absence presses down upon me, but now is not the time to give in, not so very early on in my quest. I must be as strong as I need to be.
I begin to write. Really, there is nothing else I can do.
It is 1831 when eight-year-old Aurelia Vennaway finds a naked baby girl abandoned in the snow on the grounds of her aristocratic family’s magnificent mansion. Her parents are horrified that she has brought a bastard foundling into the house, but Aurelia convinces them to keep the baby, whom she names Amy Snow. Amy is brought up as a second-class citizen, despised by Vennaways, but she and Aurelia are as close as sisters. When Aurelia dies at the age of twenty-three, she leaves Amy ten pounds, and the Vennaways immediately banish Amy from their home.
But Aurelia left her much more. Amy soon receives a packet that contains a rich inheritance and a letter from Aurelia revealing she had kept secrets from Amy, secrets that she wants Amy to know. From the grave she sends Amy on a treasure hunt from one end of England to the other: a treasure hunt that only Amy can follow. Ultimately, a life-changing discovery awaits...if only Amy can unlock the secret. In the end, Amy escapes the Vennaways, finds true love, and learns her dearest friend’s secret, a secret that she will protect for the rest of her life.
An abandoned baby, a treasure hunt, a secret. As Amy sets forth on her quest, readers will be swept away by this engrossing gem of a novel—the wonderful debut by newcomer Tracy Rees.
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Reading Group Guide
Eight-year-old heiress of Hatville Court, Aurelia Vennaway, finds an infant abandoned in a snowbank and names her Amy Snow. Her parents, Sir Charles and Lady Celestina, reluctantly allow Amy to be raised with their only child. Years later, Aurelia dies and Amy is cast out of Hatville Court, facing an uncertain future. But Aurelia has left Amy a small fortune and a bundle of letters with a coded key, a treasure hunt that only Amy can follow. As she travels around England in pursuit of Aurelia’s messages, a life-changing discovery awaits . . . one that will enable Amy Snow to discover who she really is.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How do the mysterious circumstances surrounding Amy’s birth link her to the Vennaway family? Given Lady Celestina’s tragic history of miscarriages, why do she and her husband prefer to turn Amy over to an orphanage rather than rear her as their child?
2. “What am I? Respectable young woma see more