I first glimpsed Carlisle Manor by flashes of yellow lightning through a broken window of the old mill in which I had taken refuge to escape the pelting rains that lashed this comer of the Yorkshire moors. Thunder burst overhead; it rolled and crackled as it shook the rotting floorboard upon which I stood. It was as though Thor were smashing his hammer against the very earth. The raindrops drummed on the warped roofing of the mill; they pounded down in a maddened torrent of water that deafened me to everything but the thunder even as they awed and terrified me.
I cowered there, clutching my traveling cloak, happy to be in out of that downpour, feeling pity for the coachman and his assistant who had to labor on the rutted, puddling road where the coach had cast a wheel. Yet always my eyes were drawn to that black shape that was the home of the Carlisle family, seen indistinctly by those lightning flashes, for that house was to be my future home. Half-fearfully I stared at it, already dreading what lay in store for me.
There seemed to be no lights on in Carlisle Manor, though the steady rain may well have hidden them from my stare. The manor loomed black and ominous on the broad moor, revealed only by the golden flashes that scratched the sullen sky, hidden by the darkness and the downpour.
I felt pity for myself, shivering in the rain-soaked pelisse that covered me. What was I doing here, alone and frightened? I was a stranger to these moors, this bleak and desolate land that was the home of the Carlisle family. I was far more familiar with London and the town house that had been mine before my father died.
My father! I sighed to the quiver of my lips when I thought of him. He had been so tall, so handsome! Always, he had given me everything that I had ever wanted; he had showered me with gifts and the gracious living that had been exemplified by the town house in St. James Square. I had had friends without number, both men and girls, when my parents were alive.
Father had been a. trial lawyer, a member of the King’s Bench. He had been famous, sought-after by clients willing to pay large fees for his services. His golden voice had swayed many a jury and his caustic wit and sharp cross-examination had ranked the name of Derwent Perrine with those of the finest barristers of England.
My mother had died some five years before my father. She had been a beautiful woman; some say that I take after her with my looks, though I feel that I have none of that beauty in which she was blessed. My hair is brown, as are my eyes, and my features are attractive enough, though they lack what I consider to be the necessary qualifications for real beauty.
While mother was alive, we were a closely knit family. We had many happy times together. Father was devoted to mother and she to him, and I basked in their happiness. Father spent much time in court, for it was a necessity in his profession, but we often went for the summer months to Brighton by the sea or to Margate.
But when mother died, a change came over father. Oh, he was always sweet and thoughtful to me, but there was a haunting sadness in his eyes which I could not bear to see. He had loved mother very much. They had lived for one another, so much so that at times even I felt like a stranger to him.
He spent less and less time at home. I was left to my own devices, managing the household which consisted of an upstairs and downstairs maid and Mrs. Hartnett, who was the housekeeper, and to shopping for his needs. I was not quite twenty, but I felt mature for my age, since I had fallen into the habit of taking charge of domestic affairs since mother died. There were not as many fetes and parties as there had been when I had both my parents, but I did not miss them because I was happy caring for my father.
Sometimes Mrs. Hartnett would stare at me and shake her head, sniffing in that way she had that spoke of her disapproval, and I would smile at her, and ask what it was that troubled her.
“It’s not for me to say, Miss Beatrice. Still!”
“Go on, Mrs. Hartnett. Something is bothering you.”
“It’s your father.”
“The way he stays away from home, as he does. Off to St. John’s Wood with—”
She caught herself in time. I do not know what revelations she had for me, but she broke off and shook her head and glared daggers at the wall above my head. At those moments, I was aware of a tremor inside me, as though a hidden part of my mind knew that the housekeeper was telling the truth, that my father should have spent more time with me, ought to have found the opportunity to give more of himself than he did.
St. John’s Wood. I wondered what it was.
Yet I loved my father so dearly! He could do no wrong, in my eyes. There was a charm about him, in the manner of his smile and the lighting-up of his eyes, that could twist me about his pinkie finger. He affected most people this way, including the gentlemen who filled his juries.
I found myself making excuses for his conduct. When he finished a trial that might have lasted for a month, he was in desperate need of relaxation. During the days of those trials, he spent his nights at his club, where he slept over to be nearer the courtroom. I rarely saw him at such times. And when the trial was at an end, he went to St. John’s Wood.
He was becoming almost a stranger to me, I ruefully admitted, despite those excuses I made. He needed his rest, I told myself. His mind was constantly under the severe strain of a lawsuit. It was only right that he have his relaxation in whatever way he sought it. And yet I accounted myself deserted.
Sometimes, as though he remembered that he had a daughter, he would send one of his law clerks to the house to say that he would be home for dinner and would appreciate it if I could have roast beef. He was a great meat-eater, my father.
Those occasions more than made up for the days and weeks when I did not see him. We would have wines with our meals—red claret with the roast beef, white sauteme with the dessert—and he would be, as always, suave and polished and a marvelous entertainer. He made me laugh, he held me in thrall with his descriptions of his latest trial.
And sometimes he would grow serious.
“Bea, I worry about you,” he would say, studying me with his head tilted to one side, as he had often looked at my mother.
“Why, I’m the happiest girl alive,” I would protest.
It was not the truth, but I would not hurt my father for the world. He would shake his head and look sad, and toy with a sterling silver spoon or perhaps a dessert fork.
“You’re cooped up here, you keep house for me, and I’m rarely here now to enjoy it. It isn’t fair to you.”
“But father, I don’t mind. Truly I don’t.”
“That’s because you’re my sweetheart,” he would smile. “And because you know very little of the world. No, no. It’s a problem I must put my mind to, and find an answer.”
His eyes would go over me, studying my features, my brown hair and whatever dress I had chosen especially for the occasion. I read approval in his stare, and admiration. He would nod his head and smile.
“I must get you married,” he declared.
I was shocked. I sat up straighter and knew that my mouth was open. I said, “Married! I’m not in love with anybody.”
His neatly manicured hand waved away any protest I might make. “You will fall in love with your husband once you’re wedded. It’s the way things are.”
“But—but I don’t want to get married.”
“Of course you do. Every girl does. I must find you a suitable match. A rising young barrister. Markham, perhaps. Or Ralph Faversham. Those men are going places. You would be an ornament to their homes, you would be able to entertain their clients as your mother entertained mine when I was rising in the legal world:”
My lips quivered. The mere thought of marriage to some stranger terrified me. “I’d rather stay here and do for you, father.”
“And when I’m gone?”
“Oh, please! Don’t talk about it.”
His face was sad as he studied me. “We must talk about it, pet. All men die. One must be prepared for this eventuality. I’m not a young man. Sometimes I have sharp pains here.” His hand tapped his chest.
When he saw my agitation, he exclaimed, “Oh, now. Don’t fret yourself. I’ll live to be eighty, perhaps. But if I do, and you still aren’t married, who will want you then?”
“I—I don’t care.”
“Then I must. Yes, I’ll have a ball here, a party to which I shall invite both Markham and Faversham. I’ll introduce you to them and let you make your own selection.”
I laughed, though I wanted to cry. “And suppose they don’t take to me?”
“How could they not? You’re a beautiful girl, Bea.”
We would never decide anything. Always it was in the future, that ball we were to have, when I would meet those youthful barristers who were to ask my hand in marriage. There were moments when I dreamed about that ball and made arrangements in my mind for it, considering the wines to be served and the meal itself, even the dessert and the after-dinner liqueurs. We would have an orchestra, naturally, and dance in the large front parlor, with the chairs lining the wall for the guests to be seated in. They would be served sherbets and cookies.
It was fun to think about, even though I did so with some trepidation, knowing that the result of the ball must be my engagement. Suppose these young men did not like me? I knew, from talking with such girl friends as I had, that young men were rather choosy about the girls they married. Indeed, I was the innocent my father named me.
Life went on for me in this fashion for about three months, with father coming home to eat and sleep every once in a while and mentioning that ball, and even making plans between the two of us. It was almost the beginning of summer and I was worrying for fear our friends would go away to spend the season elsewhere in London before we could have our fete, when my little world came to an end.
One of father’s law clerks came to the door. The downstairs maid summoned me from the music room where I was playing the harp, at which I had become rather proficient, I liked to think. I saw the young man’s face and a stab of fear ran through me.
“What is it?” I called as I hurried toward him.
I knew even before he blurted it out. “It’s your father, Miss Beatrice. He’s had a heart attack. He. . . .”
He could not bring himself to say it. I found myself whispering, “Is—is he dead?”
The young man nodded, flushing in embarrassment. I thought I might faint. I even felt a little guilty that I did not: the hall swirled about me for a moment, then I was myself again.
“Did he suffer?”
“No. At least, I don’t believe so. It was so sudden.”
It had happened in court, as he rose to cross-examine a witness. He had clutched at his chest, his face had twisted into a grimace of pain, and he had collapsed across the counselor's table which was strewn with his brief and his notes. A doctor had been called, and father had been pronounced dead.
The young man left and I called Mrs. Hartnett and told her the tragic news. She put her arms about me and held me tightly.
“You poor darling! Oh, my dear! I never thought it would come like this. And you—alone in the world.”
I was not thinking of myself, I was too concerned with my father. There would be no ball now, I thought dazedly, no young men to ask him for my hand in marriage. Our little dinners, when he sat at one end of the long table and I at the other, were finished forever.
They brought him home in a coffin, and put him in the front parlor. Instead of a ball, I was holding a funeral for him. As I had no mourning clothes, Mrs. Hartnett and I had to shop for them. I walked through these days without crying—not a tear would come to my eyes. I believe that I was so shocked, so unprepared for my father’s death, that I could not accept it.
Friends came in a great multitude, my father was so famous and well-liked. I greeted them all, listened to their sympathetic words. I even met Gerard Markham and Ralph Faversham. How different a greeting was this from what I had anticipated in my dreamings!
Father’s partner was very solicitous. He had a will in the office safe; he would read it to me in the backroom parlor when I felt up to it, though he told me confidentially that everything had been left to me.
His face was grave as he added, “But there isn’t very much, I am afraid.”
“Not very much? But I understood that my father did very well. I—I don’t understand.”
He caught my hands in his, held them as he said, “Your father spent the fees he made, my dear. He lived high. When your mother was alive, it was a different matter, but since her death. . . .”
He shrugged. I had always liked Andrew Effingham, he was like an uncle to me. He stood now beside the coffin in which my father lay, and there was a sadness on his face, which was framed by a set of Dundreary whiskers. He was an older man than my father—he was in his sixties.
“This house? There is no money to maintain it?” I asked.
“Not much. Of course, the house can be sold, but first we must find a buyer, and in the meantime, you must live.”
I stared up at him. “You mean, I shall have to find work?”
In these Victorian times, a young woman of a good family did not go to work. Oh, there were some jobs she might have, that of governess to young children, or as a ladies’ companion. I wondered what I was fit to do.
Andrew Effingham patted my hand. “I may be able to help you, there. I have many clients who need young ladies to help out in their homes.”
Was I to be an upstairs maid? After what I had known?
My lips quivered. Father’s partner put an arm about my shoulders, brought me to a chair, and made me sit. He said softly, “When this is all over, I shall visit you with a few suggestions. Until then, I beg you not to worry your pretty head about this matter. I’ll arrange everything.”
It was easy for him to tell me not to worry. But as I lay sleepless in my bed that night, staring sightlessly up at the ceiling, dappled in shadows from the moon, I told myself that the house that had been my home all my life would have to be sold. I could not keep it, not without a size-able legacy from my father, and Andrew Effingham had been quite clear about that fact. I was a penniless young girl, with no one but myself to look after me.
I wept that night as I had not wept before.
I was so alone in the world. I had no one to turn to, no one to listen to my troubles. There had always been my father, even when mother had died. Now he was gone from me, too.
I was a pauper.
The funeral was almost a public spectacle. Father had been very well known in London, so there was a host of people there, and many came in the cortège to the burial ground. It rained a little as the coffin was being lowered; I thought, The heavens are crying, just as I am. Through my blurred eyes I stared around me at the men and women.
One woman in particular caught my notice. She was by herself, a little to one side of the others. She was very fashionably clad, in a dark-blue dress with mauve bands, rosettes and zouave, a feathered hat sat high upon rich black hair. She was breath-takingly beautiful; she reminded me vaguely of mother as she might have been, long ago.
The men glanced at her, then looked away quickly. I thought no more of her except when Mrs. Hartnett jostled my elbow and coughed discreetly.
“That’s the one,” she said under her breath. Her eyes touched the woman in blue.
“Who is she, Mrs. Hartnett?” I asked in my innocence, “I’ve never seen her before, that I can remember.”
“And you wouldn’t, my dear. She was his fancy woman.”
She nodded determinedly. “Your father’s. If he left you nothing, it was because of her. He spent lavishly on her. He maintained a house in St. John’s Wood for her.”
I flushed, but my eyes followed the languid walk of that other woman down the flagstone path until she disappeared behind a clump of bushes. A flood of anger rose inside me, and I might have broken free of Mrs. Hartnett’s clasp to run after her if Andrew Effingham had not chosen that moment to make his appearance.
The housekeeper signaled to him with her eyes, I believe, because he caught hold of my other arm and between them led me down another walk away from the one that woman had taken. He was very grim, but very solicitous. Questions trembled on my lips, but his manner and that of Mrs. Hartnett forbade them.
I rode back to the town house sandwiched between them. The lawyer was sympathetic. He held my hand during most of the trip and offered me his arm when we were about to enter my home.
I asked Mrs. Hartnett to send one of the maids with tea and sandwiches and I led the older man into the front parlor which had been put to rights during my absence.
He made me sit down as he read the will which left everything to me. He cleared his throat as he folded the document, frowning as though to pick and choose his words.
“There are some few hundred pounds that you will inherit, my dear,” he said at last. “And the monies you will derive from a sale of this house. There is, however, a mortgage on it. You may come into two or three thousand pounds as a result of that sale, when it takes place.”
I tried to smile at him, but my lips quivered. “In the meantime, I must live. And I know no way of earning that living.”
Andrew Effingham coughed, a hand to his lips. “In that regard, I hope to be of service. Some days ago, I mentioned certain clients of mine that have occasional need of young ladies to serve as governesses or companions. I believe I have such a client who is anxious to meet you.”
My heart hammered nervously. “As a—a governess?”
“As a companion to the Lady Ione Carlisle.”
I frowned, never having heard the name. The lawyer smiled faintly at my expression. “The Carlisles are an old Yorkshire family. Once they were very well-off. Today—well, at least they can afford a young woman to go about with Lady Ione .”
“To go about with her? Does she travel abroad?”
“No, indeed. But her two sons are anxious that she have someone who will look after her needs. Not that she’s an invalid—she isn’t. But they desire someone who will sit and talk with her, read to her, that sort of thing.”
I tried to smile as bravely as I could. “That doesn’t sound too difficult. Frankly, sir, my background doesn’t fit me for anything more than that, really. I should be grateful, I suppose.”
His eyes were kindly. “I think you should, Beatrice. It’s true the position doesn’t pay very much, but there’s food and shelter to consider. You’ll be like one of the family. You won’t have any expenses to speak of.”
He made it sound so encouraging, my heart picked up a hopeful beat. “Indeed, I may even be able to save.”
Andrew Effingham bowed his graying head in agreement. “Yorkshire will be a vast change from London and the south country. I feel it will help you to forget your recent loss.”
“A change of scenery should be beneficial.”
“You will have very little to do, actually,” he went on. “The Lady Ione is active, she takes an interest in many things. I am confident that you will grow to love her, in time.”
Thus encouraged, I could hardly do anything but agree to take the position offered me, and to thank the lawyer for having secured it. I found I was excited by the prospect: I had been cooped up in this town house for the past five years—it would be an adventure.
“Am I to call upon the Lady Ione ?”
“It would be advisable. Tomorrow at two in the afternoon would be acceptable.”
The realization came to me that I was no longer my own mistress, but was at the beck and call of someone who would pay me money. My cheeks burned at the thought. It was humiliating. I remembered the old adage that beggars could not be choosers, and I was a beggar, thanks to the improvidence of my father. I felt the sting of shame at my disloyalty, and put that idea from my head.
Next day I dressed in a lemon muslin and carried a matching parasol against the sunlight. I hired a hansom cab to be driven to the house where Lady Ione was staying. I was admitted to its front hall by a mob-capped maid who told me Lady Ione was expecting me.
She ushered me into a front parlor and told me to be seated, that Lady Ione would be with me in a moment. I was very nervous. I clasped my hands against that emotion and hoped my face would not show how frightened I was, deep inside me.
Then a light, firm tread caught my attention and I turned. I did not know what I had expected of Lady Ione , but certainly the reality was far removed from any preconceived notions I might have had. She was small, almost tiny, and seemed as young as myself at first glance. She wore a mauve dress with a pin-watch at her bosom, and her hair, black with gray streaks in it, was coiffed high upon her head.
My face must have mirrored my surprise because a smile touched her lips. “I seem to have taken you unprepared,” she said softly, standing before me with folded hands.
“You’re so much younger than I expected,” I blurted.
Her laughter rang out and her eyes flashed with pleasure. “Was that the impression Andrew Effingham gave you?”
“Oh, no. No! It’s just that when he said you needed a companion. .”
I was only making it worse, I realized, but she did not seem to mind. My words trailed off and she nodded, still laughing lightly.
“You assumed I was a decrepit old fusspot who should have to be coddled and cosseted and be made the center of your universe. Confess it! You did.”
My blush was an answer. Lady Ione nodded her head, turned and walked toward the high windows that overlooked the street. She stood there a moment, staring out, presumably at the hansom cab that awaited my return.
“I want you, my dear,” she said at last, “to help me save my sanity.”
I could not believe my ears, but sat there thunderstruck. Lady Ione turned and stared at me and I felt the full force of her lovely, intense blue eyes. At one time she must have been a beauty, with that rich black hair and those deep blue eyes.
“I’m not mad,” she whispered.
“I can see that!”
“But someone wants me to think I am.”
“Who would do such an awful thing?”
I had risen to my feet in my agitation. I walked toward her and stood close beside her. She wore a lilac perfume, I noticed, even in that moment of tension.
Lady Ione shook her head slowly, staring deep into my eyes.
“Things have been happening,” she whispered so only I could hear. “I have seen . . . ghosts. Or someone wanted me to see ghosts. Once, I was almost killed. Someone wants me dead. Or adjudged insane. Either one, it makes no difference.”
I tried to order my thoughts into some semblance of common sense. “Who would profit by such a crime?”
“My sons. I have two of them, you know. Dunstan and Godwin. They are forever fighting, forever quarreling.”
“Can’t their governess restrain them?”
She beamed at me, putting a hand on my arm. “Child, Dunstan is thirty years old, Godwin twenty-eight. They are grown men. They run Carlisle Manor for me in my name. They collect the rents from my tenantry, from certain business interests my husband had and that I own. Oh, they aren’t children, believe me.”
“But you—you’re so young!”
She embraced me, still laughing. She did not seem more than thirty herself, as I told her. Lady Ione leaned back and studied me, eyes brimming with amusement.
“I am more than fifty,” she admitted.
“You certainly don’t look it.”
“We are going to get along famously, you and I,” she exclaimed, patting my hand. “I simply eat up such flattery.”
“I didn’t mean it as flattery,” I hastened to explain.
No, I know you didn’t, that’s why I appreciate it so much.” Her merriment fled, to be replaced by a look of concern. You will accept the post? Please say you will.”
“I think I shall enjoy—working for you.”
“No! No, don’t consider it as work, my dear. Let’s say that you’re the child of an old friend who has come to visit Carlisle Manor. And that isn’t any lie, I have known your father and mother a long time. Indeed, your father was my husband’s lawyer in London, many years ago.”
“It’s very kind of you.”
“It’s the unvarnished truth. We’ll talk about it, some day. But right now, I want to make arrangements for your trip to Yorkshire. I’m afraid you’ll have to go without me.”
“But if I’m to be your companion—”
“I need a companion at Carlisle Manor, not in London.” She hesitated, seemed about to offer an explanation, then shook her head. “No matter. Look, I have a ticket for the Great Northern that will stop at Leeds. A branch railroad will carry you on to Darlington, where a coach will meet you. I myself shall follow in a day or two.”
I would much rather have traveled with her because I was not used to moving about by myself, but she insisted that she had business in London which could not possibly be put off, and assured me that they would be expecting me at the manor, where I was to be treated as one of the family.
“It serves my purpose to have you go without me, believe me. I want your reactions to Carlisle Manor and the countryside without my presence to influence you.”
She was my employer; I would have to do what she ordered. And it was an order, no matter how sweetly put. I told her I would be on the train at the proper time. My bags were already packed, there was nothing in London to keep me.
We parted at her front door, she walking with me, an arm about my waist, telling me that we would be chums rather than employer and employee. We should have good times at the manor, there was much to do and many things to enjoy. She spoke so winningly of her home that I could not help but become most eager to see it.
When I arrived home, it was to tears and sobs from the two maids and Mrs. Hartnett. Andrew Effingham had sent a clerk with envelopes for them containing a month’s wages for each. They had not expected such generosity. I told them I had insisted upon it, and begged them to keep me in their thoughts.
“It was the least I could do after the years you have spent here working for father and me. I am going to a fine position in Yorkshire. I do not want you to worry about me.”
They wept and I wept with them, and Mrs. Hartnett insisted that she stay the night in the house and leave only when I departed for Waterloo Station in the morning. We had dinner together in the downstairs kitchen. We sipped many cups of Bohea tea and chatted and laughed as we had when I was a little girl and my parents had gone to a party.
She was going to leave London herself, she informed me. She had a son in Birmingham who was doing well and wanted her to come and stay with him.
“It will be different, not managing the household,” she admitted with a sad look in her eyes. “A house is no place for two grown women. I’ll stay in the background, I won’t interfere with Molly—that’s Jim’s wife—and do nothing to give any offense.”
My heart went out to her. I knew how hard it was for me, a young girl, to make this change circumstances had forced on me, and guessed at how much harder it must be for her, an older woman, to meet such a challenge.
“We’ll write,” I promised. “Perhaps when we do that, it won’t seem so Lonely for either of us.”
“I’d like that,” she nodded.
Next morning she was off early to make her train, leaving me alone in the house that held so many memories for me. Soon it would be sold. It would be like tearing a part of me from myself. Here I had been born, grown from child to the young woman I was, here I had shared Christmas joys, I had laughed and wept at the varying incidents of my life, and buried my mother and father.
I wept unashamedly for a little time, sitting in the front parlor. There were none to hear my sobs nor see the tears that reddened my eyes. I could indulge my fears and fancies to my heart’s content, without interruption.
My watch, which I wore pinned to my jacket, told me that the hansom cab would soon arrive to carry me to Waterloo Station. I dried my eyes and composed myself, walking about the room, touching the big sofa or the ormolu clock lightly with my fingertips, as though bidding them farewell.
When the bell sounded, I went to the front door where my baggage had been piled and admitted the driver, who carried the bags to the cab. My trunk had been sent on ahead. I went out and closed the door, locking it. My feet carried me onto the sidewalk and into the cab.
I think it was then, even as the horse clop-clopped his way along the London streets, that an apathy came upon me. What difference did it make what happened to me now? I was no longer the Beatrice Perrine who had enjoyed the best that life might offer. I was a nearly penniless girl, on her way to a new life.
I knew I must accept that new life, but I felt that I need not enjoy it. I had no other choice—the right to make decisions had been taken from me. I was like a leaf in a gale, borne willy-nilly, unknowing and uncaring.
Somehow I found the right train, making my way through the hordes of people at the vast station with the help of a porter who carried my bags. He saw me seated in the proper compartment, accepted my tip with a smile and a knuckling of his brow, and was gone. I sat with my “hands folded in my lap, frightened and bewildered, paying no heed to the men and women who went past my compartment door.
The train pulled out of the station on time. I found myself fascinated, almost against my will, at the passing scenery as the train chugged along through the city and then out into the country. I had never been far from London except in the summer months when my parents had taken me to the seashore, and my eyes could not take in enough of the cottages and houses, the streets and the people on them, as the locomotive carried me along.
In time, I slept. When I woke, I ate of the sandwiches Mrs. Hartnett had made for me. I soon discovered that the farther I traveled from London, the less I thought of the city and the memories it held for me. I was oddly content to be whisked along, as though on a magic carpet, to my unknown fate.
In Leeds, I changed with my bags to a branch train that would deposit me at Darlington. I was tired by this time, despite the fact that I had slept and dozed for much of the trip. I assumed it was because I was cooped up in the compartment that I was so wearied.
At Darlington, a man in the uniform of a coachman came up to me, tipping his hat, asking me if I might be Miss Beatrice Perrine. He beamed when I informed him I was, and laid hands on my valises.
“It be about to storm, miss,” he said as he handed me into the coach that had a crest on its door consisting of a swooping falcon on a blue field, which I knew to be the emblem of the Carlisles.
My eyes went to the lowering sky, dark and ominous. “I’m afraid so. It looks very threatening. Will it be bad?”
“Bad enough,” he muttered gloomily.
The thunder began before we were out of Darlington, heading east toward the Cleveland Hills and the North York moors. Lightning flashed against the dark sky, and the thunder grew more deafening at each mile. I sat huddled in a corner of the coach, wondering if this were some omen warning me about my future.
The rain commenced when we were out in the countryside traversing a road that skirted the hills and carried us toward the vast stretch of empty moorland. A few drops at first, that made a kind of sweet music to my ears when they hit the coach roof, soon changed into a steady downpour. The sound grew overpowering in that enclosed coach, for the rain beat against the roof as though some demented spirit sought entrance.
I was being bounced back and forth along the leather seat, bumped and jounced until my hat slipped over my eyes. I put it to rights and glanced out the window, seeing nothing but gray rain, except for the splashes of water that deluged the side of the coach when the wheels hit deep puddles.
When I thought of the coachman and his assistant, perched on the front seat and being drenched to their skins by water, I felt pity move me. True, this exposure to the elements was a hazard of their occupation, but I wished I could have invited them into this interior which, though damp and close, was at least dry.
We went on, and now we were on the moors themselves, those wide tracts of empty land where nothing grows but gorse and heather. I saw rocks when the rain permitted, and a tor or two upraised against the sullen sky and the lightning that flashed around them, as though defying anything to touch them.
I wished I could be like those rocky hills, secure in themselves and fearful of nothing. The rain on the coach roof grew even louder, drumming down as though it knew I sat huddled there and sought to deafen me. I shivered to my imaginings.
Then the coach lurched and I was flung headlong.
I screamed—I could not help that burst of terror inside me that came out in a piercing shriek. I lay limp, fearful of broken bones, vaguely aware that the coach had stopped and was canted over to one side.
The door opened and rain came in.
“Be you all right, miss?”
The coachman dripped water; it ran down from his hat and along his face, it formed pools on his greatcoat. He made so pitiful a sight that my heart went out to him and I forgot my own troubles.
“I th-think so,” I panted, struggling to right myself.
“Off rear wheel’s come loose. Hit a stone in a rut that was hidden by a puddle. Nowt to do now but fix it.”
His face went away, then came back. “There’s an old mill yonder, about a quarter of a mile. Not much of a place to take refuge in, but it will shelter you from the storm while Joe and I put the wheel back on. Might you care to go there?”
“I’ll be drenched!”
He chuckled and showed me an over-sized umbrella. “Dry enough you’ll be, under this. I’ll take you myself.” He hesitated, then added, “Your shoes won’t be fit to wear after the walk, but the ground’s rocky so perhaps they won’t get so muddy.”
There was nothing I could do, I realized. I would have preferred to remain inside the coach where it was dry, but I understood that my added weight might make it impossible for the coachman and Joe to lift it and prop it high enough to slip the errant wheel back on.
I slid out under the umbrella and caught the coachman’s arm. He brought me through that flood of falling water at a fast walk, cautioning me from time to time to watch my step here, to avoid that puddle there. He was a stout man, so he panted after a time and spoke no more.
Through the rain I saw what had been a mill, long ago. The building was in a collapsed state—I could see between its boardings, and the roof appeared incapable of keeping out the downpour. Still, it was a harbor of sorts against the storm.
His hand pushed open the door, it creaked loudly, and I stepped inside onto rotted floorboards. The coachman bobbed his head at me, turned and ran back the way he had come, leaving me alone in the darkness.
I looked about me, saw an empty space where a window had been, long ago, and moved toward it. The lightning flashes showed me the moor, flat and desolate, and in the far distance the dark bulk of that house known as Carlisle Manor.
I stared at it, remembering that the coachman had told me I could see it from the old mill, if I looked closely enough. It seemed very Lonely, very grim, against the background of the stormy moor.
To this day I don’t know how long I stood at that window, brooding. I only roused from my reverie when rusted door-hinges creaked again, and I turned to see a man silhouetted against the lightning beyond the doorway.
It was not the coachman—this man was tall and lean, menacing in the way he stood and stared at me.
“So you’ve brought the letters, have you?” he asked harshly.
I gaped at him like a ninny.