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The window slid up without a sound, with not a rattle nor squeak to break the silence of early morning. Alethea hitched a leg over the sill, leant down to pick up her bundle of clothes, and swung the other leg over to perch some fifteen feet above the ground. She glanced back into the bedchamber. The motionless figure on the bed was snoring quietly, an arm flung out over the covers, his hair ruffled. The remnants of a fire crackled as a burnt log broke and fell apart in a shower of sparks.
She eased herself down from the sill on to the branch of the magnolia tree espaliered against the red bricks of the house. The huge creamy flowers showed pale in the greyness of the early morning. She shut the window by tugging on the glazing bars, dropped the bundle, and began her descent.
A gentle scrunch on gravel as her feet touched the ground. A pounding heart, a catching of breath. Fear mingled with elation as she smelt the misty morning air and tasted the scent of freedom. She didn't pause to catch her breath or to think about what she was doing. Time pressed, there was not a moment to lose. She picked up her bundle and edged round the corner of the house.
No one stirred. No dog barked, no early-wakening servant called out to ask who was there. With swift, silent steps, she crossed the sweep, on to the lawn, running now alongside the driveway, visible to anyone who looked out from behind the rows of windows of the great house. No challenge rang out, no shouted demands for her to stop broke the dawn peace. The only sound was of birdsong, and, then, in a distant farmyard, a cock crowed.
Figgins was waiting beside the gate, her face tight with anxiety.
"What's there in that bundle, Miss Alethea? I thought you wasn't bringing anything with you."
"Some clothes, and pray remember I'm no longer Miss, nor Alethea. Mr. Hawkins, if you please. Mr. Aloysius Hawkins, gentleman."
They were walking briskly along the lane, now, the huge wrought iron gates behind them, the stately line of limes hiding them from any watching eyes. Only why should there be any watching eyes? How could anyone suspect that the dutiful, obedient Mrs. Napier should abscond before dawn, leaving husband, house, and all behind her?
"I thought you didn't want to bring anything from there."
"It's best that I'm thought to have left the house as a woman. If a set of clothes are gone, a blue gown, that is what they will search for. How suspicious it would be if I had appeared to set out stark naked."
Figgins let out a snort of mirth at this fanciful notion.
"How far is it to the carriage?" Alethea went on.
"I told them to wait at the corner, where this lane runs into the bigger road."
Alethea was striding along, relishing the freedom of trousers and boots, of stretching her legs instead of taking ladylike steps. She slowed as Figgins stumbled against a large stone.
"I can't be doing with these country lanes," Figgins said. "I don't know how folk put up with living in the wilds like this. It isn't natural; people were meant to live in cities."
"This is hardly the wilds; we are a mere twenty-one miles from London."
"Might as well be on the moon, for it's a different world out here and not one I fancy. Give me cobbles and paving stones and a bit of noise and bustle. It was so quiet waiting here for you, it fair gave me the creeps. And there was something up in the tree above my head making a dreadful hooting, whooping sound."
"Owls is unlucky."
"Not this one."
They were at the end of the lane. There, standing in the mist rising from the warming ground, was a coach, with a postboy waiting by the two horses. As they approached, he went to the door of the carriage and let down the step.
Alethea gave him a quick good morning and then jumped in, followed by Figgins. Up went the step, the door was closed, the postboy swung himself into the saddle and clicked the horses into movement.
She had escaped.
Copyright © 2005 by A.E. Books Ltd.