She was lost.
Camilla had suspected it for some time, and now, as she pushed aside the curtain and peered out into the night, she was sure. Her post chaise was enshrouded by fog. She might as well have been sitting inside a cloud. She had no idea where they were. The carriage could be sitting ten yards from her grandfather's houseor on the edge of a cliff.
"Wot should I do, miss?" the coachman called down from atop the conveyance.
"Just sit here for a moment." It would be foolhardy to press on through this pea soup of a fog. There was no telling where they would wind up. "Let me think."
With a sigh, she let the curtain fall and leaned back against the cushioned seat. This was all her fault, she knew. If only she hadn't been so sunk in her thoughts, so immersed in her problems, she might have noticed the fog creeping in or seen that the hired coachman, unfamiliar with the local terrain, had taken a wrong turn. Indeed, she should have stopped in the village and hired a local postboy to show the driver the way. Instead, she had been cudgeling her brain for a way to get herself out of her predicament, so intent on the trap she had sprung on herself with her liewhy had Grandpapa told Aunt Beryl?that she had not paid any attention to the coach's progress. Well, now she would have to pay for that inattention.
Camilla opened the door of the chaise and leaned out. She could not even see the heads of the lead horses clearly. She looked down at the road. She could see thatclearly enough to realize that it was little more than a track through the heath, certainly not the road leading to Chevington Park. God knew where the London-bred driver had taken them.
Wrapping her cloak around her and tying it at the neck, she jumped lightly down to the ground. The driver swiveled around and looked down at her. "But, misswot are you doing?" He moved as though he were about to climb down. "I ain't even put the steps down."
Camilla waved him back. "That's all right. No need to bother. I'm already down, you see. I am going to take a look around."
The coachman looked worried. "Now, don't go wanderin' off, miss. You can't see your hand in front of your face in this weather." Bitterly he added, "Heathen place, Dorset."
Camilla smiled to herself, but refrained from asking him whether London did not have fog, too. Instead, she inquired, "Have you a lantern? That would be of use."
"Yes, miss." He leaned over, handing down the lantern to her, still looking doubtful. Obviously, in his experience, young ladies of Quality did not go tramping about in the fog, lantern or no lantern.
Camilla ignored him and went to the horses' heads, holding up the lantern to cast more light about her. The light did little to penetrate the fog, but it did illuminate the ground beneath her feet, enabling her to see the narrow cart track. The lead horse on the right rolled his eyes apprehensively at her approach, but she spoke in soothing tones to him and stroked his neck, and he quickly quieted down.
She turned back to the coachman. "The thing to do, I think, is for me to walk beside the horses and guide them," she told him. "That way we can be sure of not going off the road or tumbling into a hole. I can see the ground in front of me quite well for several feet."
The driver looked as horrified as if she had suggested stripping off her clothes and running screaming through the night. "Miss! 'Ere, you can't do that."
"Why not? It is the sensible thing to do."
"It wouldn't be proper. I'll guide 'em." He started to lay his reins aside, but Camilla's voice stopped him.
"Nonsense! Who would stop the horses, then, if they should take it into their heads to bolt? I assure you, I am not skilled in handling the reins. However, I am quite capable of walking and watching the ground in front of me. Besides, I lived here nearly all my life. It isn't logical for you to lead the horses."
it just wouldn't be prop"
"Oh, hang propriety. Propriety won't help us to get out of this mess, now, will it?"
She turned her back on him, ending the conversation, and walked back to the horses' heads. She slid a hand beneath the strap of one of the horses' bridles and started forward, holding the lantern aloft with the other hand. The horses plodded along docilely beside her.
The track was a trifle muddyit had rained earlier in the eveningand Camilla kept to the grass beside the rutted trail to avoid getting her shoes caked with mud. However, the moisture of the bedewed grass soon crept through her shoes. The fog began to lift a little, revealing a patch of gorse or a briar bush here and there, but at the same time, it began to drizzle. Sighing, Camilla pulled up the hood of her cloak to protect her face from the chilly, persistent drops.
The drizzle, she soon noticed, was turning into a definite rain. Her feet slipped on the wet grass, but when she stepped into the track, the slick mud was just as bad. Moreover, the rain was beginning to penetrate her light cloak. She thought of getting her umbrella out of the post chaise, but she could think of no way that she could carry it and the lantern, and still hold the horse's head. Her only other choice was to wait for the rain to stop, but she did not relish the thought of being stuck out here any longer than she had to be. So she trudged on, grateful that at least the fog was disappearing, reduced to wisps and patches.
Then, off to her right, she saw a movement, and she jumped, startled, letting out a squeak of surprise. She held her lantern higher and peered into the night. It was a man standing beside a small tree, almost hidden by its branches.
"Sir!" she exclaimed, letting go of the horse's head and starting toward him eagerly. "Sir, can you help me? I fear we are lost, and"
The man whirled toward her, frowning fiercely, his face pale in the dark. There was a long-barreled pistol in his hand. "Hush!" he hissed. "Do you want to get us all killed?"
At that moment, her lantern exploded in her hand, the explosion accompanied by a loud pop. The horses whinnied and danced nervously. The lantern, torn from her grasp, hit the ground and went out, plunging her into complete darkness. Camilla screamed and turned to run back to the carriage.
But before she could take a step, the man launched himself across the space separating them and rammed into her with all his weight, sending them both tumbling to the ground. Camilla hit the earth hard, the breath knocked from her. The stranger lay sprawled atop her, his weight pressing her into the ground. Camilla struggled to get out from under him, gasping for air.
"Stop squirming, dammit!" he growled, pinning her to the ground. "They're firing at us. Silly chit, do you want to be killed?"
It was then that she realized what that pop had been and why the lantern had shattered. Someone had shot at her! She realized, too, that she had heard more pops as the man drove her to the ground. Camilla went limp with shock.
There were shouts in the distance, but no more bangs. Nearer to them, the horses, upset by the shots, were whinnying and dancing about, tossing their heads. The coachman, cursing, was struggling to control them.
The stranger lifted his head and looked behind them. Camilla stared up at him. His face was fierce and dark, all sharp angles and jutting cheekbones and black, slanting eyebrows. He looked, she thought, quite dangerous, and instinctively she was certain that it was he the others had been shooting at.
"Bloody hell!" He rasped the words out. "I think they're coming after us."
"What?" Her voice rose sharply. "What is going on?"
He shook his head and rose to a crouch. Before she realized what he was going to do, he had grasped her upper arms with hands of steel and jerked her to her feet, rising with her.
"Run!" he ordered, and with the word, he ran to the coach, dragging her along with him.
"Let go of me!" Camilla tried to wrest her arm away from him, but he was too strong.
There were two more gunshots behind them, and Camilla heard something splat into the side of the chaise. Her companion jerked open the door of the coach and tossed her up into it. Camilla screamed again as she hit the floor, and the carriage jerked and took off, the coachman apparently unable to hold the frightened horses any longer.
The stranger was clinging to the door. She thought he meant to crawl inside, too, but then, to her amazement, he grasped something on the roof of the carriage and used the door as a stepping-stone to climb onto the top of it.
"Watch out!" she shouted to the driver, and she heard the coachman's shout of surprise and the sound of a struggle, then the thud of a bodyundoubtedly the poor coachman'sfalling to the seat.
The coach gathered speed quickly, the horses panicked and with the bits between their teeth. The vehicle rocked and bounced along the rough path. Camilla grabbed hold of the seat, afraid that she would go sliding out the open door when the carriage tilted that way.
There were more shots, and she realized that they were hurtling straight toward the men who were firing upon them. She had a glimpse of dark shapes that resolved themselves into men and ponies. Suddenly a large man jumped out of the darkness, grabbing the door and swinging his feet up into the carriage. Camilla shrieked and scrambled away from him. As she did so, her flailing hand landed on her umbrella, lying there on the floor.
She picked it up and swung it hard at the man, cracking him on the shins. He let out a howl, and she gave him a hard poke in the stomach with the tip of the umbrella. He let out another cry of pain, and his fingers slipped on the door. He fell backward out of the carriage.
Camilla sat down on the seat, grasping the strap on the wall for purchase. With the other hand, she held her umbrella at the ready, keeping a sharp lookout for any other intruders. They tore along at a reckless speed, the door of the carriage swinging back and forth, the carriage jouncing wildly over the rutted track. Camilla was certain that they were going to overturn at any moment. It was raining in earnest now, too, and rain was slanting in through the open door.
She realized after a while that they were slowing down to a more sedate pace, and after a moment, she slid across the seat and grabbed the door as it swung back toward the carriage and pulled it firmly shut. She looked with distaste at the puddle of water that had formed on the floor, but there was little she could do about that. She could, however, remove her soaked mantle, the back of which, she discovered, was thoroughly smeared with mud from when the stranger had thrown her to the ground.
The stranger. Her eyes narrowed as her thoughts turned toward that man. Who was he, and what had he been up to out here in the wilds of the Dorset coast? He was up to no good, she was sure. Those men had been shooting at him, and, now that she thought about it, it was obvious that he had been hiding behind that treeno doubt lying in wait for someone. It was no wonder he had looked at her with such fury when she called to him; she had broadcast his presence to the other men, giving them a chance to protect themselves. She wondered if he was a highwayman, or merely some ruffian looking to attack one of his enemies.
Of course, she mused, given where they were, it just might have something to do with "the gentlemen"the name, uttered only in lowered voices, given to the men engaged in the age-old occupation of smuggling. Everyone knew about it, and, if truth be known, many an upstanding local citizen, even among the magistrates and judges, was known to turn a blind eye to the illegal trade. Indeed, many of them had a regular delivery of French brandy waiting on their back doorsteps in the early-morning light after a moonless night. There were those who, hating the duty laws, considered "the gentlemen" within their rights in evading the laws. The people of the outlying coastal areas were often known to resent the intrusion of the central government in what they considered their business. In the previous century, the smugglers had been so strong that there were even pitched battles between the Hawkridge gang and the soldiers. Though those lawless times had passed, the business of smuggling went on, especially now, with coveted French goods cut off from England by the war.
Camilla thought back to the man, remembering his face as he had loomed above her in the darkthe fierce upward slash of cheekbones and the hard mouth, the dark eyes beneath peaked black eyebrows, the dark, rough clothes. Yes, she decided, he had definitely looked as if he might be a smuggler, at odds with his fellows, or a highwayman looking to rob a traveler, or simply a ruffian seeking revenge upon someone. Whatever he was, she was certain that she was not in a safe position. She had seen him where he had not wanted to be seen, and she had been the unwitting cause of the other men shooting at him and chasing him. He had been furious with her earlier, and she had little doubt that he still was. This rough ride in the post chaise might be nothing compared to what happened when the vehicle stopped.
Which it was doing right now. Camilla could feel the chaise slowing down. In a moment, she knew, it would rock to a halt, and then he would jump down and come back here and open the door. He would pull her out and Well, she was not sure what he would do, but she had no trouble imagining him doing anything from hitting her to strangling her, including the despoiling that old women always warned of in lowered voices to girls who were rash enough to go out unaccompanied.
Camilla took a firm grip on her umbrella. It had served well enough as a weapon before. Perhaps if she took him by surprise, she might disable him enough to get away.