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Jane looked with distaste and a cringing fear at the chair Jacob Atkins would have her bend over so he could beat her with the thin cane which he was casually slapping against his booted right leg. His one remaining eye held a strange pin-prick of light that Jane, with a sinking heart, knew boded ill for her. It would not be the first time she had felt the sting of that cane. Red welts usually criss-crossed her back for days following a whipping. He seemed to take special delight in marking her bare flesh.
'Please do not use that on me.' Her voice quavered. 'I have done nothing so terrible that deserves a beating.'
'It is a punishment you will receive, Jane, and as usual you are being impertinent.'
Jane hesitated, then, her terror bolstering her courage, though she was sadly aware that it wouldn't make any difference to what was about to happen, she raised her head bravely. 'There is nothing wrong with trying to defend myself. Thesethese punishments have to stop,' she said haltingly. 'I am not one of your daughters. I will not be beaten into submission.'
Jane watched with dreadful, terror-filled fascination as his face turned a dangerous crimson; the colour of it appeared to leak into his eye. She held his gaze with something like defiance, her proud nature rebelling against compliance to this man. She just hoped he wouldn't notice how violently she trembled, the fear instilling uncertainty of what form of punishment he'd use on her if she openly defied him. While her lovely face seemed almost without expression, her eyes betrayed her inner fear as she stared back at him.
When he moved to stand directly in front of her, her heart sank and her blood ran cold when he raised his hand and she felt his fingers brush her neck. On a gasp she struck at his hand, only to find her own as quickly imprisoned. He seized a handful of her long, thick hair, pulling her head back with spiteful force.
'Oh, no, Jane. You have much to learn,' he hissed, his mouth close to her ear. 'If I want to touch you, touch you I shall.'
She stood rigid and silent, his touch making her skin crawl. A violent shivering shook her from head to foot when he released her hair and his grip tightened around her neck with ever-increasing brutality. With helpless fury she looked into his eye.
Jacob gave a slow, satisfied smile. How he craved to run his fingers over the white skin beneath the dress of this girl while she trembled before him, to look on her nakedness and see her proud, complacent smile turn into a grimace of terror as she cried and pleaded for mercy. Just as suddenly as he had touched her he pulled himself together. The smile faded from his face and his hand released her.
'How dare you question my authority, Jane, my judgement. I would advise you to obey me immediately or go to your room until I give you permission to leave it. I have to go out and will not be back until tomorrow afternoon, at which time we shall continue this discussion and I will consider the punishment you deserve.'
'By all means lock me in my room,' she uttered tremulously. 'I would rather that than be beaten by you for merely riding out alone. I am nineteen years old and what I have done does not deserve a thrashing.'
Jacob watched her closely. As she stood before him, he felt a certain satisfaction in knowing how much she feared himhated him. She was quite magnificent as she held her head high and her eyes shone with bravely held tears. But she had defied him and he would not have it. He would make a show of his authority. The girl, his late sister's stepdaughter, was full grown, a strong and healthy girl with too much pride, and he would not rest until he had thrashed that pride out of her.
Jane Lucas was a beauty. Her sun-warmed flesh and peach-coloured lips and her warm dark eyes were accentuated by the midnight blackness of her hair.
'Do not think you can escape, Jane. Do you remember what happened the last time you ran away from me?' He laughed, delighting in the horror that suddenly appeared in her eyes, for she had tried to escape himtwiceand each time he had found her and brought her back. Her punishment had been severe, and she had been kept in her room until she was fit to be seen. 'You will take your punishment,' he said, smacking the palm of his hand with the cane. 'I promise you that.'
He stood directly before her, and Jane could clearly see the huge bulge that filled the front of his breeches. He was breathing rapidly, his face suffused with colour. A horror so great, so overwhelming, a thought so preposterous, so disgusting, was running through her mind like quicksilver. Surely he would not subject her to Dear God, no, but then Yes. Jacob Atkins was perverted and he could and he would if he had his way.
At fifteen years old when she had come to live in his house, she had been wise enough to recognise that he enjoyed the spectacle of degrading a gently nurtured girl even more than he would enjoy the physical act of ravishing her. Now, one glance at his flushed features laid bare the lascivious nature of his private thoughts, and the humiliation that those thoughts were directed at her was too dreadful to contemplate, but they told her that he intended the second pleasure to follow the first.
All their lives his daughters had suffered pain and fear at his hands. They had always been afraid of him, even when their mother had been alive and she had done her best to interpose between her rage-filled husband and cowering children. Now grown women, they were still meek and obedient and punished for the slightest transgression. The youngest, Elizabeth seventeen and Anne a year older, were vulnerable and weak, whereas Hester could withstand his indifference, his cruelty, for, apart from the beatings, which seemed to give him some perverse pleasure, he barely infringed on their daily lives.
He had made them what they were. They were fed and clothed and slept in warm beds, but they were nervous and terrified of their own shadows, always looking over their shoulders to see if their father was watching them. Nobody could stand against Jacob Atkinsnobodynot even Jane. But somehow, some time, she would make good her escape. She would leave his house for ever and go back to
There was a place she knew where time went by on widespread wings, a place where she had known nothing but happiness and love and been allowed to grow and flourish as every young woman should be able to do. But here in Jacob Atkins's house time plodded wearily on, slowly, painfully on calloused feet. With her stepmother dead and finding herself now quite alone and increasingly the target for her step-uncle's unwelcome attentions, she knew it was time to leave his houseto go home to Bilborough Hall.
Jacob turned his back on her to show his absolute contemptor so he would have her believe, but the truth was that he would not be content until he had accomplished what he had set out to do, which was to make her understand the rules she would have to live by in his house, and by the time he had finished with her he was certain she would obey those rules. Moreover, his body's almost uncontrollable desire for her had to be slaked, which was why, when he had triumphed over her flimsy defences, he had decided to take her for a wife.
'You are disobedient, Janeindeed, you seem to enjoy openly defying me. If you do so one more time, I shall be forced to take further measures.' He turned to face her. 'You have no idea how cruel I can be.'
He was wrong. Jane knew the cruelties he was capable of inflicting on people. The pain his punishments elicited had heightened her dread of him. So great had been her ordeals during these years at his hands that she likened his house to a torture chamber.
Looking at Jacob Atkins now, that was the moment she realised that he had slipped over some invisible line between cruel viciousness and into madness. His eye flickered at her and a fleck of white frothed at the corners of his mouth. Perspiration beaded on his forehead and his face was scarlet with some inner rage.
Repulsed, Jane whirled about and fled the room. Hester met her on the stairs. Her usual pleasant smile was not in evidence as she looked at Jane with concern, seeing not for the first time the signs of distress.
'Are you hurt?' she enquired softly.
Jane shook her head. 'No, Hesterat least no more than usual. I've been ordered to go to my room.' Through the mists of shock and fear she darted a nervous look around to make quite sure no one was listening. 'I think it's time I left this house,' she whispered fiercely. 'I fear for my safety if I remain here any longer. Your father will not be satisfied until he has beaten me into the ground. He is to be away until tomorrow afternoon. Enough time for me to prepare. I intend to be away at first light. This time I am determined, Hester.'
Picking up her skirts, Jane carried on up the stairs. Hester hurried after her.
'But is that wise?' Hester asked, on entering Jane's room, her concern evident. 'He will come after you. He caught up with you the last time you tried to fleeandand he hurt you so much, Jane.'
'I know, but last time I had nowhere to go. This time I shall go to Bilborough.'
Hester stared at her and paled. 'Bilborough? Butyou can't go back there. Do you forget the reasons why you had to flee your home? The villagers accused Gwen of being a witch. They wanted to see her hangedand they accused you of conspiracy. You will be in as much danger there as you will be if you remain here. People have long memories, Jane.'
Jane paled. What Hester said was true. 'You are right, Hester, but with no family of my own I have nowhere else to go. It's the only place I can go. I truly am between the devil and the deep blue seabut I think I would rather take my chance at Bilborough than remain here with that man another day.'
'But witches are associated with all that is evil. It is dangerous to be accused of being a witch, as the most common punishment is death.'
'I know. No one liked Gwen. In their ignorance the inhabitants of Avery thought the woman my father married was unnatural. Their prejudice was an emotion that ran deep, twisting their reasoning until they believed she really was a witch. Gwen was just a herb woman and known as a healer. Many benefitted from her carefully mixed potions. She also possessed great beauty and charm. Men's heads were turned when she passed by; driven by jealousy, the women maliciously pointed her out to the witch finder who came to Avery one day in the summer of '48, falsely accusing her of poisoning a woman and her unborn child.'
'I thank God she managed to escape their vindictive-ness before she was examined,' Hester said. 'My only regret is that she did not live long when she reached Northampton. Things might have been different if she had. She was the only person I knew who could stand up to my father. If you are set on going back there, Jane, I shall pray you do not have to bear the brunt of the malicious hatred that might still fester in the breasts of those who consider they have been cheated out of hanging a witch.'
'So do I, Hester. But it's a long time ago and I'm hopeful that things will have changed.'
'Then if you're set on leaving, I'm sure I can be of help in some way.'
Jane smiled and clasped her hand. She was deeply touched by the sincerity in Hester's voice. With her soft blonde hair and pale blue eyes, Hester was a modest young woman, with a retiring and wary nature, which was hardly surprising considering the harsh treatment meted out to her by her father.
'Dearest Hester, ever practical and always kind. Ever since Gwen brought me here you have been a pillar of strength. As for helping meyou shouldn't. You know your father will find out. He always does and then you will be in trouble as well as me.'
Hester smiled. 'I'm prepared to risk it. Sometimes I fear what will become of usbut it's right that you go. At least you have somewhere to escape to, whereas we will have to stay under his authority until he finds us husbands,' Hester retorted, in a voice made harsh by the hostility of her thoughts. 'Indeed, Jane, I cannot wait. Nothing could be as bad as thisno man as cruel as he is. His behaviour is abnormal, deranged. I believe his mind is twistedin fact, there are times when I am sure he is quite mad. How else can his cruelties by explained?' Tears were glistening in her eyes and on her lashes when she asked, 'Is there always a man to be found behind women's suffering?'
Her words were met by silence, then Jane took out a handkerchief and handed it to her. Jane was worried about what would happen when Jacob Atkins discovered she had left. 'It certainly looks that way, Hester. God help us all,' she whispered. 'I believe there is.'
With her few possessions secured to the back of the horse and Scamp, her little dog, curled up in front of her, with the end of her journey in sight, Jane focused her eyes on the road ahead. With the war not long over, the countryside was infested with footpads, vagrants and displaced soldiers. She was armed with an ancient matchlock pistol, one of a brace that she had taken from the house. She would not be afraid to use it should anyone try to accost her.
After a long and weary ride, having reached the borders of the Bilborough estate in the heart of Cambridgeshire, suffering from aching limbs and a severe headache, she rode slowly. She tried to ignore her discomfort in the joy of being close to Bilborough Hall, telling herself there would be plenty of time to rest when they were home.