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I am off to London, to seek my fortune!' Kitty Wythenshawe glanced up hopefully at the young farmhand driving the gig. He did not look overly impressed with her announcement, but perhaps that was because he had known her for years and had always thought of her as the seamstress's daughterwhich, of course, she wasbut now she was off to stay with her godmother. And her godmother was A Lady! Lady Leaconham, to be exact.
'Well, Joshua?' she demanded. 'Are you not pleased for me?'
The lad moved the straw he was chewing from one side of his mouth to the other. 'Nowt to do wi' me.'
Kitty sighed but did not allow her companion's indifference to damp her spirits. The overnight rain had given way to a beautiful spring morning, the sun had driven off the early mist from the moors and she could see the lapwings circling lazily over a distant field. It was as if Nature itself was smiling upon her adventure. Kitty glanced down at her olive-green walking dress with the yellow leaf motif embroidered down the front and around the hem. Mama and Aunt Jane had worked so hard for this occasion. She had never before had so many new clothes at one time.
'Dunno what tha wants wi' goin' t' Lunnon,' remarked Joshua, suddenly becoming loquacious.
'I have to find a husband,' said Kitty, clasping her hands together in a sudden moment of anxiety. If only she could marry well then she could provide for Aunt Jane and Mama. They were both widows, eking out their meagre savings with a little dressmaking. Their home was a little cramped, to be sure, but Kitty had grown used to that. However, she was painfully aware that Mama and Aunt Jane were growing older and the cold, damp cottage was not so comfortable in winter, when the water would seep up through the earth floor and Mama's joints would become stiff and painful, and Aunt Jane's cough always became much worse. They were the daughters of a gentleman and this was not what they had been born to. Kitty knew it was her duty to improve their fortunes and if she had to sacrifice herself at the Matrimonial Altar then she would do itnot that it seemed to Kitty much of a sacrifice to marry a rich man: it was all very well to read novels where the heroine gave up everything to follow her heart, but Mama had married for love and Kitty did not think that she was particularly happy, living in such straitened circumstances. Indeed, had she and Aunt Jane not scrimped and saved every spare penny to give Kitty this one chance to go to London expressly for the purpose of achieving a good marriage?
Letitia Leaconham had been a close childhood friend of Mama's and had gone on to make a brilliant marriage, while Mama had defied her family and married Walter Wythenshawe for love. He had been in possession of a moderate income, but he had not prospered, and as Mama was wont to point out at times of stress, strict principles and enlightened views were all very well but they do not pay the bills. Upon Papa's death there had been any number of accounts to be settled and so it had come to pass that Kitty and her mama had moved into the tiny cottage in Fallridge with Aunt Jane, the widow of an impecunious curate. Since then Mama had spent every penny she could spare upon Kitty's education in the belief that if only she could be launched into Society she would make a good marriage. After all, her birth was impeccable, even if she had no dowry. As Aunt Jane said, Kitty was their Last Hope; if she could only find a rich husband then they could all be comfortable. 'I'd marry thee.'
This utterance put an end to Kitty's ponderings. 'I beg your pardon?'
'I said I'd marry thee,' repeated Joshua. 'If tha needs a man.'
'Oh, Joshua, that is very kind of you!' Kitty put a hand on his rough sleeve. 'Indeed it is very generous, but you see, if I am to support Mama and Aunt Jane, that they may live out their years comfortably and without more suffering, I need to marry someone someone '
'A lord,' said Joshua, spitting out his straw. 'Some 'un richer nor me. Aye, well, me mam's set her heart on my marrying Lizzie Greenwood, since she will inherit the farm from her faither, so I suppose it wouldn't do fer me to be marryin' a lass with nowt to 'er name.'
For a few moments Kitty's sunny mood clouded: it was very lowering to think even Joshua considered her a poor prospect for marriage. Her spirits soon recovered, however. She was a gentlewoman by birth, and as Papa had always told her, it was a person's actions that were important. So Kitty pulled herself up and said graciously, 'No, but thank you for the offer. And it is very good of you to drive me to Halifax, and so kind of your father to let us use the gig. I am to meet with Mr and Mrs Midgley at the Crown. You may not know them; Mr Midgley is a cloth merchant, which is how Mama became acquainted with the family, for she often buys cloth from him. They are taking their samples to London, you see, and have agreed to take me with them, which was very fortunate, because otherwise Mama would have been obliged to send me on the stage and hire a maid to go with me. So you see everything has worked out very well.'
She ended on a cheerful note with a sunny smile for Joshua but he was not attending. He was staring ahead of him and frowning.
'Well?' said Kitty. 'What is it?'
Joshua scratched his head.
'I ain't right sure which road we wants.'
Kitty followed his stare. They were dropping down from the hills and she could see the junction in the distance, a large, open space where several highways converged.
'The road to Halifax will be the main route,' suggested Kitty, but even as she said it she realised that this did not help. All the roads leading away from them were in good order and wide enough for two carts to pass.
'Da said to keep goin' downhill 'til we get to Halifax.'
'That is all very well,' retorted Kitty, beginning to lose patience, 'but there are at least three of those roads leading downhill. Think, Joshua. Can you not remember which one you take?'
'Ah, well, I've never bin this road afore,' he confessed. 'Uncle Jed allus makes this run.'
Kitty closed her lips to prevent herself making a hasty exclamation. It would help no one and might upset her companion, who, after all, was going to considerable trouble for her. As they descended to the crossroads she spotted a large black horse standing at the side of the lane. At first she thought the animal unattended, but as they approached a man stepped into view. His serviceable buckskins and brown riding jacket were liberally spattered with mud and he was hatless, his black hair unconfined and hanging wild and disordered to his shoulders. He did not look around as they approached, but was concentrating upon securing the straps of his saddle.
'That fellow might know which is the correct road,' said Kitty. 'You should ask him.'
Joshua looked at the bedraggled stranger and pulled a face. 'Nay. No need for that.'
'To be sure he looks very rough, but he might know the way.'
'Tha can't be certain o' that.'
'Well, it would do no harm to ask,' said Kitty, trying to hide her impatience.
Joshua ignored her. When she realised that he had no intention of asking for directions she decided she would have to act. As they drew abreast of the man she leaned over the side of the gig and called out to him.
'I say, my manyes, you: which one of these roads leads to Halifax?'
She was not used to accosting strangers, and a mixture of nerves and irritation at her companion's stubbornness made her tone much sharper than usual. The man turned slowly and looked up at her from beneath heavy dark brows. Kitty found herself facing the blackest, fiercest stare she had ever encountered.
It was as much as Kitty could do not to recoil from the stranger's angry glare. With some alarm she realised that Joshua no longer intended to drive past. He brought the gig to a halt and the man walked over to stand before them, looking very much as if he would drag her from the gig at any moment. Swallowing hard, she sat up straight, determined not to show fear. She said haughtily, 'Did you understand me, fellow?'
Those piercing black eyes held hers for a moment, then they swept over her, from the crown of her bergere bonnet down to the nankeen half-boots peeping out from under the hem of her walking dress. Kitty had the unsettling feeling that he could see right through her clothing to the flesh beneath. She felt thoroughly exposed and her cheeks flamed. She snapped her head up and stared straight ahead.
'Drive on, Joshua.'
The stranger's long arm shot out and one big hand caught the pony's bridle.
'Nay,' he said in a slow, deep drawl. 'First tha needs to know t'road.'
Kitty shot a furious look at him.
'Then perhaps you would be good enough to tell us!'
'I'll tell thee nowt afore I hears a civil word from yer ladyship.'
Joshua shifted uncomfortably beside her. Kitty wondered that he did not stand up to the stranger, but a moment's consideration told her that her companion, a stocky youth of sixteen, was no match for the tall, broad-shouldered stranger some ten years his senior. The man stood at their pony's head, one hand gripping the leather cheek-piece while the other stroked the animal's neck with slow, reassuring movements. The pony, traitor that he was, turned his head and rubbed against the stranger's arm.
Kitty realised that, however angry the man might be with her, he was in control of himself and the situation. They could not move on until he allowed it.
She ran her tongue over her dry lips.
'I beg your pardon,' she said politely. 'Pray be good enough to direct us to the Halifax road.' Silence.
It dragged on for a full minute. Kitty gave the stranger a challenging look but he did not move, merely stared back at her with his unfathomable black gaze. He looked as hard and immobile as the rocky granite outcrops that littered the moors.
Joshua rubbed his nose. A bullock cart lumbered up to the junction and turned along one of the lanes but still the stranger held Kitty's eyes. Then, just when she was wondering if Joshua would dare to use the shotgun that she knew lay beneath the seat, the man stepped back.
'That's thy road.' He pointed to the lane where the bullock cart was disappearing around a bend. 'Just follow yon wagon t'bottom of t'hill.'
With a slight nod of acknowledgement Joshua flicked the reins and they began to move.
Kitty felt obliged to utter the words as they drove away, but she kept her eyes fixed on the road ahead. From the tail of her eye she saw the man tug his forelock but there was nothing subservient about the gesture and she could not shake the horrible conviction that he was enjoying her discomfiture.
Daniel Blackwood watched the gig pull away, a deep crease in his brows. He was in the worst possible humour but he should not have taken it out on that young couple. He had been travelling since yesterday afternoon, his horse was lame and he had been obliged to spend the night on the moors. He was in a devil's own temper and it had not been improved by being addressed by an arrogant chit as if he was a lackey!
He had seen the gig approaching, but knowing the young couple could do nothing to help him he had ignored it, only to be summoned like a servant to give directions. True, the girl was young and pretty, but he was in no mood to appreciate the heart-shaped face, the large green eyes fringed with dark lashes or the dusky curls that escaped from beneath her wide-brimmed straw bonnet. He watched the gig rolling away down the hill, the little figure in her green robe and yellow bonnet sitting rigidly upright beside the boy who was driving. Probably some farmer's daughter trying to impress her swain by acting the great lady. Well, she had chosen the wrong man to try out her airs and graces!
With an angry snort he bent to pick up his greatcoat and hat from the grass verge and gathered up the reins of his horse.
'Come up, Marnie. I'll walk you to the inn and Fletcher can keep you there until you're fit to come home.'
Kitty arrived at the Crown and was informed by the landlord that she was expected: Mr and Mrs Midgley were waiting for her in the coffee room. Kitty nodded and he directed one of his servants to carry her trunk across to the travelling carriage standing in the middle of the yard. Before stepping into the inn she turned to say goodbye to Joshua, thanking him for his trouble and pressing into his hand a sixpence which he was somewhat embarrassed to take, but she insisted. She watched him drive away in the gig, a tiny pang of homesickness mingling with the excited anticipation she felt for the journey ahead of her.
Mr and Mrs Midgley greeted her with unfeigned delight, declaring that she had not kept them waiting at all, and begging her to sit down and join them for breakfast before they set off.
'For if I am not mistaken,' said Mr Midgley, twinkling at her, 'you were up before dawn, miss, and too excited to take a bite to eat.'
'Very true,' laughed Kitty, removing her bonnet and shaking out her dark curls. 'If you are sure we have time?'
'All the time in the world, my dear,' replied Mr Midgley. 'We travel to London in easy stages. I don't mean to press the horses, for we shan't be changing them again for some while, unlike the mailcoach.'
'Nor will we be careering along at such a breakneck speed,' added Mrs Midgley, chuckling. 'So come along, my dear, sit by me and you can tell me how your dear mother does.'
Kitty readily complied. She was not well acquainted with her hosts but their warmth and kindness soon broke down any reserve and she found herself chattering away quite naturally while they breakfasted upon freshly baked bread rolls and scalding coffee.