Sunday, April 28, 2013

Far Beyond Rubies - Chapter Three - by Rosemary Morris

Far Beyond Rubies Chapter Three

After entrusting the letter to Mistress Kemp—because he was unwilling to intrude in a house of mourning—Gervaise had decided to put up at the local post inn. He intended to continue his journey on the following day. Yet, he asked himself, how could he journey on, knowing he might never meet the young lady again? He wanted to rail against fate, to scream out at the indifferent elements.
After a night during which Mistress Kemp occupied his thoughts and dreams, Gervaise rose early. He made his way downstairs to partake of breakfast. When he reached the bottom tread, he heard a strangely familiar voice which seemed to call to him from the past. He looked across the hall to where Mistress Kemp faced the postmaster, who stood behind a wide counter. At the sight of her muddy clothes, Gervaise’s eyebrows rose. He advanced toward her.
She tilted her chin. “Rodgers, I require a horse.”
From a slight distance, Gervaise observed curiosity flicker in the man’s small eyes.
Rodgers drummed his plump fingers on the oak counter, behind which he, or one of his underlings, received guests. “You don’t need to hire a horse from me. I’ll send to Riverside House for one.”
Colour flamed in her cheeks. “No, it is unnecessary.”
Rodgers cleared his throat. “Are you sure?” He looked her up and down. “Begging your pardon, you’re in a sorry state. I’ll have a chaise brought around to return you to Riverside House.”
“Do not trouble yourself. Please provide me with a room in which I can dry myself. Later, I require a horse. I shall ride home by and by.”
Rodgers shook his head. His double chin wobbled. “Without an escort?”
“Just so. As I said, I want to hire a horse—” she said in the firm tone of a lady accustomed to being obeyed.
“I’m sorry to disoblige you,” Rodgers said, although he did not sound apologetic, “I haven’t got a horse trained to carry a lady riding side-saddle.”
“Please try to find one, Rodgers. In the meantime, at least provide me with a room.”
The inn keeper shook his head. “I repeat, I haven’t got a suitable horse. What’s more, sorry as I am to disoblige you again, I haven’t got a room which is not taken.”
“A moment,” Gervaise interrupted. He smiled at her. “I am on the verge of departure. The lady may have my room. It will take me no more than moments to vacate it.”
At the sound of his voice, she turned. Her eyes widened. His heartbeat increased. Did vanity prompt him to think it pleased her to see him?
Never could he have imagined any member of the female sex retaining her allure while garbed in wet, dirty clothes. Yet neither her dishevelment nor her untidy hair, falling down her back in a riot of curls, detracted from her charms. To the contrary, the sight of her unleashed hair increased them. He decided this would not be his last encounter with the young lady.
* * * *
After Juliana hung her cloak on a wooden peg, she removed her wet gown and petticoat and draped them over stools by the fire to dry. Warmth spread through her body. Fortunately, her stays and bodice were no more than damp. She did not need to completely disrobe.
A servant girl brought a pot of steaming chocolate. Comforted by hot drink, Juliana took her quilted, scarlet dressing gown out of her bag. After the girl helped her put it on, she smoothed the soft folds. While she was in mourning, everything she wore should be black, but the garment served its purpose of keeping her warm.
She removed her cloak from the peg to search the pockets. Horror overwhelmed her. Where was her drawstring purse? Did she pack it in her bag? No, she remembered putting it in her pocket. Heaven help her, it might have fallen out when she handed the other purse to Sam. Yet, more than likely a skilful thief had picked her pocket in the stable yard. Or perhaps the purse fell out when she wrung the water out of her cloak on her way here. She fumbled in the pockets again before rifling through her bag, pulling out the letter from Mister Seymour to William. She cast it aside. Thought after thought raced through her mind concerning the whereabouts of the missing purse.
Without her money, how would she manage? Juliana did not dare to retrace her footsteps to find it, for fear William or his men might locate her. If they did, what would happen?
Juliana needed to travel to London to consult her father’s lawyer. With his help, she hoped to prove she and her sister were not bastards. How long would it be before they were reunited? Fury—caused either by her father’s broken promises or William’s lies, the root of her present situation—overwhelmed her. With her knuckles, Juliana wiped away a few angry tears which spilled down her cold cheeks.
Her mind continued to race. Rodgers claimed he could not provide a horse. Yet, whether her clothes were wet or dry, she must set out for London on foot if necessary. The longer she delayed, the greater the chance of her brother finding her here at the post house. She took a deep breath to calm her agitation. For the moment, she was safe. William never left his bed until noon.
How would she settle her reckoning with Rodgers? She pushed her hair back with her hand. Her hair! Of course, the hair merchant! Juliana took off her night gown, and then replaced it with her damp petticoat and black gown. Her hair tied back, Juliana repacked her bag before going in search of the pretentious little man who pretended to be a Frenchman.
After a brief, urgent search, she found Monsieur Lorraine in an outhouse in the stable yard paying a giggling servant girl for her shorn locks.
“Monsieur, I have reconsidered.” Too dispirited to haggle over the price, she did not mince her words.
The monsieur grinned. “Bon, please be seated.”
Her hands trembled while he opened a large bag. Her limbs would not obey her. He guided her to a rickety stool. She sank onto it. He stood behind her to spread out her hair. “Beautiful. So thick, so silky, with a natural curl. Please bend your ’ead, Mademoiselle.”
His warm hands brushed her neck. Sick in the pit of her stomach, she shivered, imagining Father’s outrage in response to William’s atrocious behaviour causing her to sink so low. At the touch of cold steel scissors against the tender skin at the nape of her neck, she shuddered.
“Do not be sad. Your ’air, eet will grow all ze better for ze snip.”
It took Lorraine no more than a minute to cut off all her locks. She fingered her head. Her hair clustered in ragged curls. She needed a hat to cover them. No respectable woman had short hair. Thoughts of the curious stares she would suffer sickened her. Although nausea rose in her throat, she forced herself to stand. Miserably conscious of her shorn head, she watched Lorraine weigh her long locks before wrapping them in a clean cloth. He took a drawstring purse from his bag, opened it, and counted some coins. “Your ’air weighed twenty-three ounces. ’Ere is your money, sixty-nine pounds.” He put the coins in a ragged cloth, and then knotted the ends to form a pouch before pressing it into her limp hand. “Adieu.” He walked away before she could count the money.
How light her head felt. Previously, the weight of her hair tilted it back. She passed her hand across the bare nape of her neck, and then stood still as though frozen by adversity. Feeling more wretched than ever, she wrapped her arms around her chest. How ugly she must look. She caught her lower lip between her teeth. With other more pressing concerns to deal with, she should not mourn the loss of her hair.
Head bent, Juliana entered the stable yard.
“Swounds, Mistress Kemp! Your hair, your beautiful hair!”
Juliana recognised Mister Seymour’s deep voice. Ashamed of her immodest appearance, she turned to hurry back into the post house.
A hand caught hold of her elbow. “Mistress Kemp, will you not speak to me?”
Mister Seymour released her. She tried to cover her head with her hand, conscious of his voice stirring her as no other man’s ever had.
For no reason, an unwelcome memory flooded her mind. William wanted her to marry his exceptionally handsome friend, Ravenstock, a notorious libertine. Of course, when he suggested it, she had laughed sarcastically at William, suppressing the temptation to spit at him. She remembered other suitors, any one of whom her father would have considered a good match. However, none of the gentlemen had appealed to her so Father had not tried to persuade her to marry. “You are still young,” he had said. “There is plenty of time before I must hand you into a husband’s safekeeping.” How solicitous he had seemed. Surely he did not leave Riverside to William.
Mister Seymour’s voice interrupted her memories. “Did you sell your hair to that poxy fellow touting for business in the stable yard? The one I noticed pestering maidservants?”
Before she nodded, Juliana eyed his shocked face in silence.
“If only I knew you were in such need. Should you require more money, a travelling companion or aught else, I am at your service.”
Although she despaired of ever experiencing happiness again, his concern for her welfare cheered her.
Juliana took a handkerchief from her cloak to wipe her face. “Thank you, sir, you are more than kind. I lost my purse. Without the means to go to London, I would have been undone if—”
“You cannot travel alone.”
Mister Seymour did not have the right to tell her what she could and could not do. “Yes, I can, my boots are stout enough to walk to the next post house where I shall hire a horse, and I have enough money to purchase food on my journey.”
“You cannot walk so far. I will not permit it.”
“You will not permit it?” Although his concern warmed her, she stared at him, angered by his presumption.
“Mistress Kemp, please forgive me for my arrogance, i’faith I have no right to prevent you going to London alone, but it is obvious you are in distress. As a gentleman, it is my duty to assist you. Will you not permit me to help you?”
Juliana fingered the crescent moon, shaped by tiny moles, on her cheekbone. Tempted to share her troubles with the stranger, she wondered whether she should confide in him. No, she could not. “You are generous, sir. There is naught to say other than I must reach London without delay.”
“The matter is easily solved, Mistress Kemp. I am on my way there and would be happy to escort you. Indeed, you should not travel alone. Footpads and highwaymen are the curse of the land.”
“Are you sure I would not inconvenience you, Mister Seymour?”
“How could someone as ‘far beyond rubies’ as you, discomfort anyone?”
Conscious of her blushes in response to his complimentary biblical reference, she looked at his square face with its cleft chin, slanting eyebrows and large cornflower blue eyes, fringed with long, thick lashes the same shade as his chestnut hair. Everything about him—his pleasing features, his fashionable yet not ostentatious clothes, and his respectful tone—inspired trust. In spite of her uncertainties, she smiled. “To be honest, desperation drives me. So I thank you and am pleased to accept your kind offer.”
“I shall partake of breakfast in the public room while you order breakfast to be served in your bedchamber. Can you be ready to depart within the hour?”
“Yes, but first I must assure you I am not ‘far beyond rubies.’” Her eyes threatened to brim over with tears. “God rest his soul, my late father would have told you I am often wilful.”
* * * *
At first sight of Mistress Kemp’s clipped hair brushing the vulnerable white nape of her neck, Gervaise had wanted to cradle her in his arms and comfort her. When she turned, the sight of her loose-fitting gown flowing over her shapely breasts and curvaceous hips had sent a jolt of desire through him. He blotted the delicious image of her from his mind. It was ridiculous for a man with his experience of foreign climes and beautiful women to lust like a mere youth.
Later, after he ate a hearty breakfast, Gervaise made haste down the stairs. The lady’s image returned. The thought of intimately touching her satin smooth skin thrilled him. He squashed the vision in his mind’s eye, and swore on all he held sacred that, even if the opportunity presented itself, he would never, under any circumstances, take advantage of Mistress Kemp. Her shorn hair, and the glimpse of the tender white nape of her neck had not only aroused his sympathy, it made him want to protect her. His unruly imagination quenched, he decided to be the lady’s knight-errant. Prepared to face any number of dragons on her behalf, he controlled his desire. Yet he could not help wondering whether she would be his prize if he vanquished the fiery creatures. However, did he want such a prize? No, he did not. In the past, he had known profound love and harmony. To be honest with himself, he admitted he believed he would never again achieve such exquisite happiness with any other lady.
At the sound of Rodger’s voice from below, he paused half way down the stairs.
“Do you take my meaning, Tom? Go to Riverside House. Tell his lordship his sister’s here. Doubtless he’ll reward me for the information, and he might give you a penny or two.”
Gervaise proceeded down the stairs in time to see a thin lad scurry away from the landlord.
“Wait,” Rodgers called after the boy. “You might be turned away by the servants. I’ll pen a few lines for his lordship.”
Because Gervaise had overheard Juliana and Henrietta’s conversation in the pavilion, he harboured no doubt that Juliana had good reason to flee from Riverside. Damnation, the lad would betray her. Without hesitation, he retreated quietly back upstairs. He thought quickly. A post house of this size must have another exit. A plump maidservant, all rosy cheeks and smiles came toward him.
“Where are the back stairs?”
Her eyes widened, yet in spite of her obvious surprise, she bobbed a curtsey. “I’ll show you, sir.”
“Thank you…er—”
She bobbed a curtsey. “Mary, sir.”
“Thank you, Mary.” He paced after her through the rabbit warren of corridors to a side door. To avoid unwanted attention, he sauntered into the cobbled stable yard where he sighted his quarry. He followed the lad, finally catching up with him behind a hawthorn hedge. “Would you like to earn some money for delivering a message?”
The lad kept his distance from him, regarding him with suspicious eyes. “Yes.”
“Good. Give me the letter you are taking to Riverside House.” He pointed at a ploughed field before continuing, “Wait on the other side of the gate until I return.”
When Tom hesitated, Gervaise held a sovereign up to the light. “No need to be scared. Think of all this will buy.”
A grin almost split Tom’s face in two, probably at the thought of receiving a substantial part of his yearly wage. Without looking away from the coin, Tom pulled a sealed missive out of his pocket and handed it to Gervaise.
“Thank you, lad. Now, keep out of sight until I return with another letter for you to take to Riverside House.”
“I don’t know if I should’ve agreed. What if Mister Rodgers finds out?”
“If you say naught, how could he?”
“That’s so.” Tom nodded. “I’ll deliver it, sir.”
“Thank you.”
The sunshine warm on his back, Gervaise strolled to the post house in the languid manner of a gentleman enjoying the morning air. Without so much as a glance around the busy stable yard, he re-entered the half-timbered building through the side door. Inside, careful not to attract attention, he made his way to a comfortable parlour, reserved for travellers putting up in the establishment. It boasted a window overlooking the village High Street which led to the London road. Seated at the desk placed below the window, sharpened crow’s quill in hand, Gervaise dipped the quill into the inkpot, and then penned a brief note to his damsel in distress. Next, he wrote a letter to Lord Kemp.

“My lord,
This letter replaces one, which the fool of a postmaster, Rodgers, wrote to you that unwittingly contained false information.
 In pursuance of my duty as an honest gentleman and your well-wisher, I take pleasure in serving your lordship by informing you that your sisters, Mistress Kemp and Mistress Henrietta, have taken the road to Northampton.
I have the honour, my lord, to remain your humble servant and beg your lordship to reward the honest bearer of this missive.

Satisfied with it, he decided to give the letter to Tom and then find a maidservant to deliver a note to Mistress Kemp.
Gervaise scowled. A pox on Lord Kemp, he thought with fury.
* * * *
“Enter,” Juliana called in a voice loud enough to be heard on the other side of the door. As it opened, she ate the last morsel of buttered bread, which comprised her hasty breakfast, and then sipped the rest of her coffee. When she looked across the bedchamber she recognised the daughter of a dairywoman at Riverside House. “Mary, I did not know you had a position here. How is your mother?”
The wench bobbed a curtsey. “In good health, thank you.”
“What about you? Do you like working here?”
“Yes, Mistress, it’s more exciting than dairy work. But, begging your pardon, a gentleman asked me to give you this note.”
“Thank you, Mary, you may go.”
“If you’ve finished eating, may I take the tray?”
Juliana nodded absent-mindedly, while curiosity, mingled with excitement, bubbled up in her; for only one gentleman could have penned the note. While she read it, Juliana ignored the girl who collected the pewter dishes, coffeepot, cream jug, and sugar basin.
“Leave that for now, Mary. Fetch me pen and ink.”
The girl obeyed, and then waited while Juliana rapidly wrote a reply.
“Please take this to the gentleman who sent you to me.”
Mary bobbed another curtsey, took the note, and picked up the heavy tray.
Certain William would instigate a search, Juliana frowned. “A moment, Mary. Will you do something for me?”
The girl turned so fast that the cutlery and dishes rattled and the cream jug fell over with a clatter. “Mistress Kemp?”
* * * *
A half-hour later, Juliana left the bedchamber accompanied by Mary, who carried Juliana’s heavy bag while they tiptoed along the narrow corridor.
In her haste, Juliana nearly tripped over the hem of her lemon-yellow petticoat, worn under a blue and white striped gown, left open down the front of the skirt in accordance with fashion. She steadied herself, wiped the perspiration from her forehead, and then fingered the frayed ribbon ties of a straw hat worn over a white, frilled mobcap which concealed her short curls.
Mary grinned at her, still obviously well-pleased to have swapped her best clothes for expensive black silk garments which she would be able to sell for sufficient profit to buy a new petticoat and gown.
Juliana followed Mary through the maze of passages, down a flight of narrow stairs, and finally to the back door of the old building.
Mary handed the bag to her. “Good luck, Mistress Kemp, I’ll not tell anyone I helped you.”
“Thank you, Mary. I shall never forget you assisted me.”
Juliana slipped out into the stable yard where she skirted a riderless horse, a coach, and several grooms. To avoid notice, she forced herself to walk slowly to the side gate. “Mary,” a man’s deep voice called, “is that you? What are you about, girl?”
Juliana’s breath caught in her throat. She pretended not to have heard the man who mistook her for Mary because of the clothes she wore. Without a backward glance at him, which would betray her identity, she quickened her step and left the stable yard.
Juliana followed the winding lane, bordered by native hedging, to a fork, where she turned onto a path through the wood. She had described this in her note to Mister Seymour. It led to an ancient grey stone Celtic cross, covered with a fine tracery of yellow-green lichen and pincushions of emerald green moss. To one side of it Mister Seymour waited for her. In a leather-gloved hand, he held the reins of a black gelding.
He indicated her clothes. “You are well-disguised.”
“I am grateful for these servant girl’s clothes, although they are far from what I am accustomed to.” Self-conscious, she smoothed the cheap bodice, hoping he would not think any less of her.
* * * *
Gervaise looked at the beech trees on either side of the path. Gilded by sunshine, their trunks soared to the sky like graceful pillars supporting a cathedral roof.
A ray of sunshine illuminated the pure lines of Mistress Kemp’s face, intensifying the delicate colour of her cheeks and lips. While she regarded him with wide-open, still trustful eyes, his breath caught in his throat.
“You shall ride pillion.”
“Thank you, how kind you are.”
Her obvious admiration flattered him. He looked away from her. Upon his word, this lady’s steady regard had nothing in common with other females; those who tried to capture his interest, either by fluttering their fans and eyelashes or by making bold advances. Bless her soul, she looked at him as though he was her hero. Only his late wife had ever regarded him thus. Embarrassed, he cleared his throat.
Again, a jolt of desire shuddered through him. He wanted to kiss her pretty mouth and—
She looked at him with such innocence that his cheeks burned. He turned aside, reminding himself of his vow never to take advantage of her.
“I am glad you ride,” he said to break the silence. Too many ladies fear to entrust their lives to cumbersome side saddles. “At the next post inn, I shall hire a saddle horse fit for a lady.”
“Thank you Mister Seymour, however, I insist you allow me to meet my expenses.”
Gervaise put a hand on each side of her tiny waist, controlling his fervent desire to hold her close. He avoided looking into her eyes for fear she might read the lusty thoughts in them. Instead, he swung her up, seated her sideways, and then mounted after he strapped her bag behind her.
“Walk on,” he ordered the horse. “Mistress Kemp, either hold onto my belt or put your arms round my waist.”
“Listen, Mister Seymour.”
In the distance, harnesses jingled, horses crashed through the woods, and men spoke in harsh voices.
Her hands tightened on his belt. “I fear my half-brother woke early and sent out a search party.”
“Spread out, men, his lordship ordered us to search every path,” a hoarse voice commanded.
Juliana clutched him around his waist.
“No need to be frightened. I am well armed.” He urged the horse to trot, but the gelding, burdened by so much unaccustomed weight, balked.
“Set to lads,” a voice urged, “his lordship will reward us after we find his sisters.”
“Mister Seymour, turn right along the narrow path ahead of us.”
He looked up at an oak tree. “Shall we hide in the branches?”
“Very well, but if I am to risk life and limb for you, I hope you will confide in me later on. After all, it is not every day one meets a young lady running away from home,” he said with a hint of laughter in his voice.
“Ride on, Mister Seymour. My dinghy is moored on the river. We can escape in it and leave our pursuers behind.”
“The horse?”
“No need to worry about him, I am sure he will find the way back to his stable.”
The sturdy gelding forged ahead through the native woodland on either side of the path until Gervaise drew rein at the tranquil water’s edge.
After he helped Juliana dismount, he withdrew a blunderbuss from his saddlebag. Juliana clutched her skirts, holding them high above her ankles to keep them dry. She stepped into the dinghy and sank onto the seat in the stern. Gervaise grabbed their baggage, throwing it into the small vessel, which rocked alarmingly, before clambering in and casting off.
“There’s the mistress,” a triumphant voice yelled.
Gervaise seized the oars.
One of their pursuers flung himself off his horse and raised a firearm.
“Lie down, Mistress Kemp,” Gervaise ordered. He raised his primed blunderbuss, ready to shoot if necessary.
Fortunately, the boat drifted away from the shore, but although a swift current bore it downstream, their pursuers rode along the towpath. One of them fired a shot which missed them by less than a foot.
“Row,” Mistress Kemp shouted.
He laughed in appreciation of his spirited companion.
* * * *
With the benefit of a strong, tidal current, they travelled some fifteen miles upstream before landing, leaving their pursuers far behind.
At the post house, Mister Seymour hired horses on which they rode to London. They reached the capital within three hours, having had only one disagreement over her insistence on selling the dingy her father had given her.
“Thank you for your assistance, sir.” She reached out for her bag. However, instead of releasing his hold on it, her travelling companion gripped the handle more tightly.
Juliana regarded him, her heart torn with conflicting emotions. The necessity of being beholden to this stranger made her uncomfortable. Yet, at times, he did not seem a stranger. He seemed to be someone she had known and loved forever. Loved? No! How foolish she was to have such thoughts.
“Please give me my bag,” she said, forcing herself to speak calmly.
“Not so fast, Mistress Kemp, where are you going?”
“To seek lodgings.”
“Most improper, come, you shall put up with some friends of mine who are a respectable married couple.”
Juliana shook her head. “I cannot be indebted to strangers.”
“I am no longer a stranger. You accepted my help.”
“And I am grateful for it but—”
“If you insist on taking lodgings, at least allow me to pay for them.”
“To take your money would be even more improper,” she replied, embarrassed by his generous offer. “Put your mind at rest, I will fare well enough now I am in London.”
“You will find it harder to survive alone in this wicked city than you anticipate. It would be my pleasure to fund you. If you insist, you may repay me at your convenience.”
Juliana shook her head to signify she must reject his offer of financial assistance.
“At least permit me to help you find somewhere to stay. Come,” he replied, clasping her arm and leading her into a tavern.
Juliana’s cheeks burned. No lady should enter such an establishment. She avoided the curious gazes of men with tankards in their hands, and did not hear what Mister Seymour said to the tavern keeper.
Moments later, her escort led her out of the establishment and up the street to a narrow house. The door was decorated with a brass knocker which he rapped hard.
His figure partially obscured the woman who opened the door. After a minute or two—during which she could not hear what they said because of the noise in the street—he beckoned to her and entered the house.
She went up the narrow flight of steps and looked questioningly at him.
“Mistress Kemp, this good lady assures me she has snug lodgings which will suit you.” He gestured to a plump girl. “I suggest you go upstairs and view them.”
Too tired to protest over his high-handedness, she hastily inspected the small rooms, decided they were adequate for her needs, and then returned to Mister Seymour.
“I shall rent them. Thank you for your help, sir.”
“Then I bid you good day.” He smiled, bowed, and left without any trace of regret that she could discern. The front door closed, leaving her alone and bereft. Would she ever see him again?

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