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The Tolbooth Gaol, Glasgow, ScotlandJuly 1810
'Blackloch Hall?' Sir Henry Allardyce shook his head and the fine white hair that clung around his veined, bald pate wafted with the movement. Upon his pallid face was such worry; it tugged at Phoebe's heart that her father, who had so much to endure in this dank miserable prison cell, was worrying not about himself, but about her. 'But I thought Mrs Hunter was estranged from her son.'
'She is, Papa. In all the months I have spent as the lady's companion I have never once heard her, or anyone else in the household, make mention of her son.'
'Then why has she expressed this sudden intent to travel to his home?'
'You know that Charlotte Street has been twice broken into in the past months, and the last time it was completely ransacked. Her most private things were raked throughher bedchamber, her dressing table, even her..' Phoebe paused and glanced away in embarrassment. 'Suffice to say nothing was left untouched.' Her brow furrowed at the memory. 'The damage was not so very great, but Mrs Hunter has arranged for the entire house to be redecorated. As it is, every room seems only to remind her that her home has been violated. She is more shaken by the experience than she will admit and wishes some time away.'
And they still have not caught the villains responsible for the deed?' Her father looked appalled.
'Nor does it look likely that they will do so.'
'What has the world come to when a widow alone cannot feel safe in her own home?' He shook his head. 'Such a proud but goodly woman. It was generous of her to allow you to come here today. Most employers would have insisted upon you accompanying her to Blackloch Hall immediately.'
'Mrs Hunter asked me to run some errands in town before my visit to you.' Phoebe smiled. 'And she has given me the fare to catch the mail to the coaching inn on Blackloch Moor, from where I am to be collected.'
'Good,' he said, but he gave a heavy sigh and shook his head again.
'You must not worry, Papa. According to Mrs Hunter, Blackloch is not so very far away from Glasgow, only some twenty or so miles. So, she has agreed that our weekly visits may continue. As you said, she really is a good and kind employer and I am fortunate, indeed.' She took his dear old hand in her own and, feeling the chill that seemed to emanate from his bones, chafed it gently to bring some warmth to the swollen and twisted fingers. 'And she enquires after your health often.'
'Oh, child,' he murmured, and his rheumy eyes were bright with tears, 'I wish it had not come to this. You left alone to fend for yourself and forced to lie to hide the scandal of a father imprisoned. She still believes that I am hospitalised?' Phoebe nodded.
'And it must stay that way. For all of her kindness, she would turn you off in the blink of an eye if she knew the truth. Anything to avoid more scandal, poor woman. Heaven knows, there was enough over her son.'
'You know of Mrs Hunter's son? What manner of scandal?'
He took a moment, looking not at Phoebe but at the shadowed corner of the cell, his focus fixed as if on some point far in the distance and not on his ragged fellow inmate who was crouched there upon the uneven stone flags. The seconds passed, until at last he looked round at her once more, and it seemed that he had made up his mind.
'I am not a man for gossip. It is a sinful and malicious occupation, the work of the devil, but ' He paused and it seemed to Phoebe that he was picking his words very carefully. 'It would be remiss of me to allow you to go to Blackloch Hall ignorant of the manner of man you will find there.'
Phoebe felt the weight of foreboding heavy upon her. She waited for the words her father would speak.
'Phoebe,' he said and his voice was so unusually serious that she could not mistake the measure of his concern. 'Sebastian Hunter was a rake of the very worst degree. He spent all his time in London, living the high life, gambling away his father's money, womanising and drinking. Little wonder that old Hunter despaired of him. They say his father's death changed him. That the boy is much altered. But.' He glanced over his shoulder at the cellmate in the corner and then lowered his voice to a whisper. 'There are dark whisperings about him, evil rumours.' 'Of what?'
He shook his head again, as if he could not bring himself to convey them to her. But he looked at her intently. 'Promise me that you will do all you can to stay away from him at Blackloch.'
She looked at him, slightly puzzled by his insistence. 'My job is with Mrs Hunter. I doubt I will have much contact with her son.'
'Phoebe, you are too innocent to understand the wickedness of some young men.' Her papa sounded grim and his implication was clear. 'So do as I ask, child, and promise me that you will have a special care where he is concerned.'
'I will be careful. I give you my word, Papa.'
He gave a satisfied grunt and then eyed the bulging travelling bag that sat by her feet. 'You are well packed. Does Mrs Hunter not transport your portmanteau with the rest of the baggage?'
She followed his gaze to the worn leather bag that contained every last one of her worldly possessions. 'Of course, but it does not travel down until tomorrow and I thought it better to take my favourite dresses,' she said with a teasing smile.
'You girls and your fashions.' He shook his head in mock scolding.
Phoebe laughed but she did not tell him the truth, that there was no trunk of clothes, that all, save her best dress and the one she was now wearing, had been pawned over the months for the coins to pay her father's fees within the gaol so that he would not be put to work.
'I have paid the turnkey the garnish money and more, so you should have candles and blankets, and ale and good food for the next week. Be sure that he gives them to you.'
'You have kept enough money back for yourself?' He was looking worried again.
'Of course.' She smiled to cover the lie. 'I have little requirement for money. Mrs Hunter provides all I need.'
'Bless you, child. What would I do without you?'
The turnkey had reappeared outside the door, rattling his keys so Phoebe knew visiting time was at an end.
'Come, Phoebe, give your old papa a kiss.'
She brushed his cheek with her lips and felt the chill of his mottled skin beneath.
'I will see you next week, Papa.'
The turnkey opened the door.
It was always the hardest moment, this walking away and leaving him in the prison cell with its stone slab floors and its damp walls and its one tiny barred window.
'I look forward to it, Phoebe. Pray remember what I have said regarding.'
The man's name went unspoken, but Phoebe knew to whom her papa was referringHunter.
She nodded. 'I will, Papa.' And then she turned and walked away, along the narrow dim passageways, out of the darkness of the gaol and into the bright light of Glasgow's busy Trongate.
On the right hand side was the Tontine Hotel and its mail coaches, but Phoebe walked straight past, making her way through the crowds along Argyle Street, before heading down Jamaica Street. She kept on walking until she crossed the New Bridge that spanned the River Clyde. Half of Mrs Hunter's coins for the coach fare were squirreled away inside her purse for next week's visit to her father. The rest lay snug in the pocket of one of the Tol-booth's turnkeys.
The road that led south out of the city towards the moor lay ahead. She changed the bag into her other hand and, bracing her shoulders for the walk, Phoebe began her journey to Blackloch Hall.
'Hunter, is that you, old man? Ain't seen you in an age. You ain't been down in London since' Lord Bullford stopped himself, an awkward expression suddenly upon his face. He gruffly clapped a supportive hand to Hunter's shoulder. 'So sorry to hear about your father.'
Hunter said not one word. His expression was cold as he glanced first at Viscount Linwood standing in the background behind Bullford, and then at where Bullford's hand rested against the black superfine of his coat. He shifted his gaze to Bullford's face and looked at him with such deadly promise that the man withdrew his hand as if he had been burnt.
Bullford cleared his throat awkwardly. 'Up visiting Kelvin and bumped into Linwood. Thought we might drop in on you at Blackloch while we were here. The boys have been worried about you, Hunter. What with'
'They need not have been.' Hunter glanced with obvious dislike at Linwood as he cut off the rest of Bullford's words and made to step aside. 'And visitors are not welcome at Blackloch.'
He saw Bullford's eyes widen slightly, but the man was not thwarted.
'Kelvin knows an excellent little place. We could'
'No.' Hunter started to walk away.
'Stakes are high but the tables are the best, and the lightskirts that run the place ' Bullford skimmed his hands through the air to sketch the outline of a woman's curves '.just your type.'
Hunter turned, grabbed Bullford by the lapels of his coat, thrust him hard against the wall of the building they were standing beside and held him there. 'I said no.' He felt rather than saw Linwood tense and move behind him.
'Easy, old man.' The sweat was glimmering on Bullford's upper lip and trickling down his chin. 'Understand perfectly.'
A voice interruptedLinwood's. 'You go too far, Hunter.'
Hunter released Bullford, and turned to face the Viscount. 'Indeed?'
Linwood took one look at Hunter's face and retreated a step or two. But Hunter had already left Bullford and was covering the short distance to where his horse was tethered. The big black stallion bared his teeth and snorted a warning upon hearing his approach but, on seeing it was Hunter, let him untie his reins and swing himself up into the saddle. And as he turned the horse to ride away he heard Bullford saying softly to Linwood, 'Deuce, if he ain't worse than all the stories told.'
The July day was fine and dry; and Phoebe smiled to herself as, bit by bit, mile by mile, she left Glasgow behind her and passed through the outlying villages. The bustle and crowds of the city gave way gradually to quiet hamlets with cottages and fields and cows. The air grew cleaner and fresher, the fields more abundant. She could smell the sweetness of grass and heather and earth, and feel the sun warm upon her back, the breeze gentle upon her face.
Step by step she followed the road heading ever closer to Blackloch and its moor. Rolling hills and vast stretches of scrubby fields surrounded her, all green and yawning and peaceful. Sheep with their woolly coats sheared short wandered by the side of the road, bleating and gambling furiously ahead with their little tails bobbing as she approached. Overhead the sky was blue and cloudless, the light golden and bright with the summer sun. Bees droned, their pollen sacks heavy from the sweet heather flowers; birds chirped and sang and swooped between the hawthorn and gorse bushes. Two coaches passed, and a farmer with his cart, and then no more, so that as she neared the moorland she might have believed herself the only person in this place were it not for the two faint figures of horsemen in the distance behind her.
She walked on and her thoughts turned to Mrs Hunter's son and her papa's warning. Dark whisperings and evil rumours, she mused as she transferred the travelling bag from one hand to the other again, in an effort to ease the way its handles cut into her fingers. You have no idea of the wickedness of some men Her feet were hot and her boots chafed against her toes as she conjured up an image of the wicked Mr Huntera squat heavy-set villain to be sure, run to fat with drink and dissipation, with eyes as black as thunder and a countenance to match. Living all alone on a moor miles away from anywhere. Little wonder his mother had disowned him. A man with a soul as black as the devil's. Phoebe shivered at the thought, then scolded herself for such foolishness.