The Captain and His Innocent(5)

By: Lucy Ashford



 But how will Lady Charlotte really feel? Ellie was wondering rather wildly as the carriage rolled on through the Kent countryside. How can she relish the prospect of having a nineteen-year-old French girl—a penniless orphan—suddenly foisted upon her?

 One thing was for sure—Ellie would know soon enough.

 * * *

 They made slow progress, as slow as the previous day. Miss Pringle talked on as the road led them up and down hills, past farms and the occasional village, past fields of sheep, and dark woodland.

 And then, soon after the final change of horses, Ellie could see the sea. The afternoon light was fading, and from the far horizon a low mist was rolling in across the expanse of grey waves; but even so, she pressed her face to the carriage window, realising that between the shore and the road lay a bare expanse of heathland. She glimpsed the sturdy tower of a small and ancient church, and nearby stood a lonely old house with sprawling wings and gables, set on a slight rise and shrouded by stunted sycamores.

 She craned her head to gaze at it, but the carriage was entering woodland again and the house had already disappeared from view. A house of secrets, she suddenly thought.

 Ellie, her father would have fondly said. You and your imagination.

 A sharp pang of renewed loss forced her to close her eyes. By the time she opened them again, the carriage had rounded the next headland and the sea was visible once more. Down below was a cluster of little houses around a harbour, with an inn and a wharf where fishing boats were tied up and men mended their nets.

 Miss Pringle was still talking about Lord Franklin. ‘His family—the Grayfields—can, I believe, trace their ancestry back to Tudor times...’

 Ellie glanced down at her small black-leather valise on the carriage floor. She wondered what Miss Pringle would do if Ellie were to seize her valise, jump out of the carriage, run down to the harbourside and beg one of those fishermen to take her away from England’s cold and hostile shores. I am homesick, she thought with sudden anguish. Homesick for the Paris of my childhood. For the happy times I spent there with my father and mother. I’m even homesick for Brussels, where I endured those last desperate months with my poor, dying papa.

 ‘Oh, look at that mist.’ Miss Pringle was shuddering. Ellie realised her companion was looking out of the window also. ‘And soon it will be dark. January. How I hate January. It’s this sort of weather, they say, that brings out the smugglers. Lord Franklin does his very best to stop their obnoxious trade, but they are desperate renegades. It’s even said they’re in league with the French—and after all, on this part of the coast, France is less than twenty miles away.’

 The fishing village was no longer in sight. The road was heading inland again to carve its way through thick oak woodland, and Miss Pringle talked on. But suddenly she cried out in alarm.

 ‘What is this? Gracious me. Why have we stopped?’

 Ellie noted the fearful expression on her companion’s features. Highwaymen, that expression said. Robbers. Murderers. ‘Please,’ said Ellie. ‘Calm yourself.’

 By then one of the grooms, distinctive in Lord Franklin’s navy-and-gold livery, had appeared at the window of the carriage. ‘Begging your pardon, ladies, but it appears that half the road ahead of us has fallen away, no doubt because of the recent rain.’

 Miss Pringle put her hands to her cheeks. ‘Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness...’

 ‘No reason at all to be alarmed, ma’am,’ said the groom hastily. ‘But we need to do a bit of repair work to make sure the way’s safe for Lord Franklin’s horses. It’ll take us ten, perhaps fifteen minutes—no more.’

 The moment he’d disappeared, Ellie leaned forward. ‘Miss Pringle?’

 ‘Yes?’ Miss Pringle had got out her smelling salts and was sniffing vigorously.

 ‘I think I will take advantage of our halt to get a little fresh air.’

 ‘But you took a walk less than an hour ago, Elise, when we last stopped to change the horses! And very soon, we’ll be at Bircham Hall. Can you not wait? Besides, I’m not sure it’s safe for you to wander hereabouts, I’m really not sure at all.’

 But Ellie had already opened the carriage door and was jumping down to the road, with her cloak wrapped tightly around her.

 * * *

 Although it was not yet four, a fierce chill was starting to pierce the air. And the mist! The mist she’d seen out at sea was rolling in across the land now, blanketing the woods that surrounded them with its clammy and sinister air. Though if she looked hard, she could still just see the road ahead. Could see, too, where the left-hand side of the road’s stony surface had fallen away, into the verge that bordered it.

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