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The Yorkshire countryside was soaked in late summer rain. It burdened every tree and hedgerow and laid the grass low with its weight. It ran in little rivulets down the sides of the closed carriage and streamed off the coachman and the patiently trotting horses. The coachman, cursing under his breath, damned the country, the weather, and his employer, Mr. Felix Kingston.
Inside the carriage, Faith Duncan tucked a wisp of chestnut hair back into the coil that lay against her neck and sighed. There was something dreadfully gloomy about the countryside in this weather. It looked lonely and uninhabited. And the closer they approached Moorshead Castle, the more desolate and dreary it appeared. Of course, the rain did not help matters. Probably when the sun was shining and the heather could be seen all abloom this was a lovely place. But now everything was sodden and gray.
Well, she told herself as she shifted wearily on the velvet squabs, she had been forewarned about the location. Mr. Felix Kingston had told her that Moorshead was a lonely place, far from any neighbours, and that she could not expect much company there.
Suddenly Faith felt the carriage come to a halt. Peering out the window through the gathering dusk and rain, she could just make out the castle. Her heart leaped up in her throat. Never in her life had she seen such a grim and foreboding structure. Just the look of it made her feel ill with apprehension and fright.
The carriage had stopped at the bottom of a steep, rocky road, evidently so that the coachman could open the rusty iron gate that barred the narrow way. The wind beat harshly against the sides of the carriage and a single gaunt pine treebowed before its force. Tired and chilled as she already was, Faith felt an additional chill; it seemed to settle into her very bones.
In the dim light the castle loomed, cold and heartless as the huge ledge of jutting rock that served as its foundation. Four great towers stood stark against the evening sky, suggesting to the frightened Faith some sort of terrible prison. And about the whole of the place hung a strangeness, a sinister quality that gave her a most distressing feeling. She shuddered and pulled her cloak closer about her. Perhaps she had made a mistake coming so far from London, to a place she knew so little of. And yet, what else could she have done?
In her memory Faith returned to those dreadful days in the city. Since her Papa's death when she was eighteen she had kept body and soul together by serving as nurse-companion to querulous old ladies. She had never known the mother who died giving her birth; she had known love and affection from the housekeeper Trilby and her governess Menton. But they were long gone out of her life, for Papa's death had left her without any substance whatsoever. And so she had become companion to the first in a string of old ladies, in the same fashion as she had found this position, by answering an advertisement in the Times.
Her last employer had been a vile-tempered, nasty old shrew; as her companion, however, Faith had at least been fed and clothed. But Mrs. Petrie's death had left her completely alone and friendless, with very little money. In the tiny cubbyhole of a room that she found, she had diligently read the Times. But positions were few.
All of London was caught up in the coming coronation. At last the Prince Regent was to become king. He was perhaps not the best of men, but the people had not had a coronation for many long years and they were determined to enjoy it.
It seemed to Faith that she was the only person in London who had other, more important, concerns. She could think only of her dwindling supply of money and the disaster that awaited her when it was gone.
And then she had seen the advertisement. At first she found it a little suspicious.
A young woman is needed for nurse-companion to an elderly lady. Those applying should have no other responsibilities and be prepared to leave London immediately. Ask for Mr. Felix Kingston at the Inn of the Three Swans between the hours of 4 and 6.
Faith told herself that she could at least go for an interview. Certainly there could be no harm in that. And her money was going so fast. She must not let any opportunity escape her.
So she presented herself at the appointed time and place. The innkeeper gazed at her curiously, but she was confident that she looked entirely respectable in her cloak of drab brown and her dull serviceable bonnet.
The innkeeper seemed satisfied, too, for he sent her to follow a maid to a private room where she was admitted. A mild-looking man, perhaps a little older than her own age of five and twenty, rose from his chair.
"I am Faith Duncan," she said. "I came in answer to your advertisement for a nurse-companion."
The man smiled. "Very good. Do sit down, Miss Duncan."
Faith settled into a chair and he returned to his. "I must tell you something about the position. First, have you a gentleman friend or aged parents?"
Faith shook her head. "No, sir. My Papa was my only relative and he has been dead these seven years."
"And no gentleman friend?" The mild blue eyes settled on her hair, which, although its luxuriance could be restrained in a coil, persisted in being a rich chestnut hue.
"No, sir," Faith replied. "Mrs. Petrie, my previous employer, did not allow her servants to have callers."
"I see. That's too bad."
"I assure you, sir, it mattered little to me. I have no hopes of marriage and look only for a position in which I may be of service."
"And you do not mind residing away from London--in a somewhat isolated area?"
Faith permitted herself a small smile.
"Indeed, sir, living at Mrs. Petrie's was living in an isolated area."
"I see. And why are you seeking a new position?"
"Mrs. Petrie departed this world," Faith replied. "And unless I wish shortly to follow her--due to starvation--I must find another position."
Mr. Kingston smiled in acknowledgment of her humor. "The Yorkshire moors are wild," he cautioned. "There are few servants in the castle--and none your age."
"That is of no concern to me," replied Faith. "But what of the woman whose companion I am to be?"
"The Countess is ailing. It's her age, no doubt. And isolated as she is she needs proper care and attention--something her old servants cannot give her."
"I see." Faith frowned thoughtfully. "I believe I am quite qualified for this position and I am not bothered by any of the things you have mentioned to me."
"Fine," Mr. Kingston smiled at her, his mild blue eyes reflecting his pleasure. "Be here with your belongings on Tuesday next. I shall send a closed carriage for you."
"That is most thoughtful, sir. But I can come on the mail coach."
"Nonsense. If you are jostled about in that horrid coach for hours on end--and with the low-class company one usually finds there--" He wrinkled his nose in disgust. "You will be useless to my aunt if you arrive in an exhausted condition. And that is what the mail coach will do to you. You come here Tuesday next at eight in the morning and the innkeeper will show you the proper carriage. We will consider your duties further after you arrive at Moors-head."
"Yes, Moorshead Castle. It's very old--actually a fortified fifteenth-century manor house. But it's called the castle. No one knows now if it got its name from the rock on which it sits, jutting out over the countryside, which looks like a Moor's head, or from the fact that it sits at the 'head' of the moor lands. But no matter. It's a grim, drafty old place, but really rather comfortable."
"Yes, sir," replied Faith. "I am sure I shall find it so."
"Good. Then I shall see you when you arrive."
The clatter of hooves brought Faith abruptly back to the present. The horses had started up the steep, rocky road. Looking up at the castle, Faith could see no lights anywhere. The whole place looked desolate and foreboding. Again she felt a wave of fear. What if the castle were deserted? What if she had come this long way for nothing?
But common sense soon asserted itself. Faith gave herself a scolding. The steady beating of the rain on the roof of the carriage, the dampness and chill of the long tedious journey, the apprehension of going into a new employment, all these were working against her.
Of course there would be someone in the castle. They were expecting her. After all, Mr. Kingston had sent the carriage for her. She had never been one to give in to panic or this kind of senseless fear. If she had, she would have been lost long ago. For there had been some bad moments in the seven years since Papa's death, some very bad moments.
Now, as the carriage drew nearer, moving slowly up the road, she saw lights appear in several places and breathed a sigh of relief. The journey had been a long, weary one and she would be glad to wash and have a bite to eat. She had not slept well in the inn the night before and the thought of a comfortable bed was even more satisfying. She felt as though she had been jounced and jiggled into a thousand bruises. Undoubtedly Mr. Kingston was right. By mail coach the trip would have been a nightmare. Closed up with noisome or aggravating travelers for several days she would have been twice as weary. Now, with just a good night's sleep she would be in fine shape again.
The carriage clattered to a halt before the great scarred door of the castle. Faith suppressed a shiver. All her life had been spent in London and, although she had certainly seen castles before, she had never seen one in such an eerie setting.
Moments later she found herself and the valise which held all her worldly possessions standing in the great hall. The Countess must be very plump in the pocket, thought Faith. The great hall was hung with paintings and tapestries that appeared quite costly--and old.
The butler, an aged retainer with a rotund figure and a long dismal face that contrasted oddly with each other, left her standing while he went to inform Mr. Kingston of her arrival.
The vastness of the great hall made Faith uneasy and she occupied herself with looking at the paintings, some of which were portraits. One in particular held her attention. It was of a dark handsome man with hard black eyes and a stubbornly set jaw. The rich court clothes that he wore marked him as an aristocrat, but, thought Faith, even in a peasant's rags his noble blood would be visible. The man held his head arrogantly, as though contemptuous of the world upon which he gazed, a world quite beneath his touch.
Perhaps this had been one of the late Earl's ancestors. Faith thought. Perhaps even the one who had built this castle. The man had a decided piratical look about him.
A small cough behind her made her turn. The rotund butler was regarding her gloomily. "Mr. Kingston will see you now in the drawing room. Follow me."
Faith, seeing that the little man made no move toward her valise, stooped for it herself.
"That is unnecessary," said the butler. "I will have it taken to your room."
The drawing room, Faith saw as she entered it, was also elegantly done, though rather old-fashioned. By the hearth, where a fire blazed brightly, sat Mr. Felix Kingston, his mild blue eyes smiling. "Ah, Miss Duncan, you made the trip success-fully, I see."
Faith nodded. "Yes, Mr. Kingston. And I thank you again for the closed carriage. I have not traveled much, but I can see how much more comfortable that was than the mail coach."
"But you are still cold through and bone weary, I've no doubt." Mr. Kingston motioned to her. "Come, have a seat by the fire. Spacks, some tea and cakes for Miss Duncan."
"You are most kind," said Faith gratefully as she sank into a chair. "I did find the journey a weary one," she admitted. "But then, I am not used to traveling."
Mr. Kingston smiled. "I believe that you have led a rather secluded life as nurse-companion."
Faith nodded. "I have, but it is a way of life. And I must live."
Mr. Kingston nodded sympathetically. "So must we all."
Faith thought that her eyes must have reflected something because her new employer suddenly chuckled. "I see that you are among those who believe that the aristocracy has no problems."
Faith, about to deny this, realized its truth and smiled. "I do not have many dealings with the aristocracy," she replied. "So I suppose I am ill-equipped to make such judgments. My previous employers have not been titled."
Felix Kingston smiled again, that friendly smile which made Faith feel quite comfortable. "Although you have not said so, I gather that your previous employers were rather hard to live with."
Faith did not deny this.
"You will find the Countess a little querulous at times, but basically she is a good-hearted old soul. It's unfortunate that she is so cozened by my brother."
"Your brother?" This was the first Faith had heard of such a person.
"Yes, my brother is the Earl of Moorshead--and my aunt's heir. Sometimes I think he would not mind should Aunt's departure be hast--" He stopped suddenly. "You must forgive me, Miss Duncan. My brother is an unscrupulous man, well-noted for taking whatever strikes his fancy whether it be women, land, or..."
Mr. Kingston's fair boyish face puckered into a frown. "But enough--I have only suspicions, no facts. I must plead with you, though, to keep your eyes open."
"Of course." Faith suppressed a little shiver. What sort of position was this? Far away from the city and now with intimations of something sinister on the part of Mr. Kingston's brother. Then common sense asserted itself again. In an old castle like this one's imagination was apt to run riot. Probably the Earl and his brother did not get along well. Many brothers did not. And so they were suspicious of each other.
"Ah, here comes Spacks with your tea and cakes."
Faith, raising the delicate cup to her lips, wished for a hearty chunk of bread and meat. But years of service in the vagaries of rich old ladies had accustomed her to subsisting on whatever was put before her and so she ate one cake and reached for another.
"My aunt has already gone to sleep for the night. She is recovering from a strange illness which the doctor could not recognize."
It was plain to Faith that Mr. Kingston did not believe that the illness was a natural one. "The old are often subject to strange ailments," she said calmly. "I am sure I can make her quite comfortable."
Felix Kingston smiled at her warmly. "I'm sure you can, Miss Duncan. I recognized that the moment I saw you. You appear to be a very warm, compassionate person."
Faith did not know how to reply to this. Certainly there was nothing wrong with hiring a warm, compassionate person as a nurse-companion to one's aunt. And there was nothing wrong in smiling on that person warmly. In fact, Faith decided that she liked Mr. Felix Kingston; he seemed a reasonable, kindhearted man.
Of course, being the practical young woman that she was, she realized that her long years of residence in maiden establishments had not left her well equipped for dealing with gentlemen. But there was nothing in Mr. Kingston's behavior at which to take umbrage, and it was exceedingly pleasant after years of being yelled at and scolded for little or no cause by shrewish old women to be spoken to kindly and treated with respect by a young gentleman.
Faith finished her second cake. "Please tell me more about the establishment here."
Mr. Kingston regarded her kindly. "You have seen Spacks, Aunt's butler. Deevers, the housekeeper, is also old. They have been with Aunt for many years. There are also a few maids, the cook, and some servants in the stables. Actually, Aunt subsists with a minimum of staff. A great part of the castle is closed off and unused."
Faith nodded. "I see."
"I reside here at the present because of Aunt's illness," Mr. Kingston continued. "You will also meet my brother." His bland face registered dislike. "And a great-niece of my aunt's--Lady Clarisse. She is of about your age and rather a shrew, I fear. Currently she is on the scramble for my brother, because he is the heir. He already has the title, of course, and the late Earl's funds, but Aunt's jointure was quite large. The late Earl was rather enamored of her when they married. They say she was quite a beauty, then."
He smiled. "But you must be exhausted from your journey. Time enough to learn about the vagaries of this family as you become one of us. I will have Spacks take you to your room."
"You are most kind," Faith replied, rising from her chair and thinking with gratitude of a soft bed.
Mr. Kingston rose, too, and covered her hand with his. He seemed very close to her and Faith was suddenly uncomfortable. Men were dangerous creatures; she had been warned about them continually. She wished to withdraw her hand but did not quite know how to do so. Perhaps if she turned to go ... In her confusion, however, she caught her toe on the leg of the chair and found herself suddenly propelled into Mr. Felix Kingston's arms.
"Oh, sir!" breathed Faith in embarrassment. "Excuse me, sir." A sudden noise from the doorway caused her to color up. It certainly would not help her with the servants to be seen in such a position. She did not look toward the door. Better to pretend the butler had not seen.
Mr. Kingston set her on her feet and smiled, but not before she had realized, much to her dismay, that being held in a man's arms was rather a pleasant sensation.
Her new employer continued to smile at her. "I hope you will be happy with us and consider this your home."
Faith found herself coloring up again. "Thank you," she murmured. "I shall try to do that."
As she followed Spacks out into the hall, she heard the closing of the great front door. "Has someone come in?" she asked. It was better to act as if nothing untoward had happened.
The butler's smile was not particularly friendly. "'Twas his lordship you heard. He was just going out."
"I see." Faith kept her voice even, hiding her relief. It was really better that she did not have to face the rakish Earl at this time. She had had quite enough for one day.
Then she was following Spacks up the great stone staircase and down a long dark corridor where shadows hovered in every corner. The candles in Spack's candelabra flickered in the draft, but the round little man did not seem disturbed. "This," he said, stopping before a great door, "is to be your room. The Countess's is the next one on. The fire's been lit and your valise is inside."
"Thank you." Faith turned the knob and stepped into the room. The fire blazing brightly on the hearth was the one real spot of light in the room. On a stand near the bed, a massive old piece hung with brocade curtains, stood a lone candle. Faith suppressed a shiver. The room was a mass of shadows.
She took a deep breath, stepped in, and shut the door. She had few choices, she told herself, actually none at all. This was to be her home and she must make the best of it. There was nothing but a few pence in her pocket--the full extent of her monetary resources.
With a sigh she opened the valise and began putting away her belongings, a procedure that did not take a great deal of time. Her worldly belongings, thought Faith with a wry smile--the accumulation of five and twenty years of living. Not much to look at. But then, she was lucky to be alive at all. If she had been forced into the streets, like so many of London's young girls, she might by now be dead. No, considering the tremendous odds confronting her, she had been fortunate to survive.
With another sigh she slipped out of her drab brown dress and into a much-mended nightdress. If all went well here, perhaps she could afford some new clothes. Nothing extravagant, of course, just a few new gowns, perhaps even one of a lighter shade than her dull browns and grays. And a new nightdress and chemise or two.
She smiled thoughtfully as she crawled into the old bed and pulled up the covers. In spite of its isolation and its shadows, life at Moorshead Castle might well be very good, very good indeed.