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The Maid of Fairbourne Hall(7)

By:Julie Klassen

Sterling had certainly gotten there quickly. She and Joan had left perhaps only thirty or forty minutes before. Of course they had walked, while Sterling had a horse and carriage at his disposal. He—or Marcus, more likely—must have come to her room soon after she’d left and discovered her gone. Thank heaven she left when she did.

Clattering horse hooves galloped into the square, and Margaret peered around the other side of the tree. A man in a chimney-pot hat and cropped coat rode up, quickly dismounted, and tied his reins to a post. The man’s hurry sounded an alarm in Margaret’s mind. Was this the man from Bow Street Murdoch had announced before Margaret left? Had Sterling planned to hire a watchman but now commissioned the same man to find and apprehend her?

The newcomer trotted up the walkway toward Sterling and Mr. Lathrop. There on the stoop, the three men spoke, Sterling gesturing and frowning. He pulled something from his pocket and handed it to the officious-looking man. She could not see the object clearly from that distance, but based on the way the man studied it, she guessed it might be a framed miniature portrait. The one commissioned by her father for her eighteenth birthday?

Evidently, Sterling had arranged for the runner to meet him at the place he expected to find Margaret. Where he would have found her had she arrived even five minutes earlier. Sterling Benton knew her better than she realized, and that thought riddled her with anxiety. Where could she go, where could she hide, where Sterling Benton would never think to look for her?

A few minutes later, Sterling departed in the carriage and Mr. Lathrop retreated inside, yet the runner remained, leaning against the outside stair rail.

“Well?” Joan whispered.

“The watchman, or whatever he is, is making himself comfortable. I don’t think he is going anywhere soon.”

“Well, I must be going soon,” Joan said. “Are you coming with me or not?”

There was no point in staying. Sterling had gotten there first. Even if she managed to sneak inside and speak with Emily, her father would insist on sending her home. It was no good.

Margaret sighed. “Looks like I am.”

Joan echoed her sigh. “Well, come on, then.”

Staying to the shadows, they crossed the square and returned to the thoroughfare. Joan urged her to hurry, and soon Margaret’s thoughts were consumed with dodging flower carts, barrels, carriages, and horse droppings. And with trying to keep sight of Joan’s blue frock as she scurried ahead. Soon, Margaret’s feet were aching and her side cramping.

Joan turned only long enough to hiss, “Hurry! We’ve got a long way to go, and it’s getting late.”

Margaret eyed the passing hackney carriages with longing but knew she should not spend the little money she had. She bit back a groan and kept trotting along, the carpetbag swinging against her leg. Ahead, Joan strode smartly on, ever eastward, her heavier valise apparently no burden at all. Thirty or forty minutes later, they turned south onto Grace Church Street.

The street narrowed and darkened. The cobbles gave way to uneven paving, refuse-filled gutters, and smells that compelled Margaret to breathe from her mouth.

Finally, Joan turned down a lane signposted Fish Street Hill. There, they passed several old tenement buildings before Joan pushed open a narrow door. Margaret breathed a sigh of relief. Her next inhale brought salt air and the rank odor of rotting fish. They were close to the river here, she guessed. And the docks.

Too tired to care, she followed Joan inside and up two rickety flights of stairs. She stood, numb and mute, as Joan knocked softly on the door of number 23.

While they waited, Joan turned and whispered, “I’ve had all the trouble I care to from your Mr. Benton. I think it best we don’t tell my sister your name or who you really are. Peg has never been good at keeping secrets.”

Margaret nodded.

A few moments later, shuffling and grumbling came from the other side of the door. Then a woman’s hoarse whisper. “Who’s there?”

“Peg, it’s Joan.”

The lock clicked, and the door was opened by a frowzy woman very like Joan in appearance, though several years older and a stone heavier. She might have been pretty once, but her skin was rough, her face too careworn for her years.

“Good heavens, Joan. What’s happened?”

Joan answered calmly, “I’ve lost my place.”

Her sister’s face crumpled. “Oh no. What did you do?”

“Nothing. Look, it’s late. We’ll talk in the morning, all right?”

The woman nodded over Joan’s shoulder. “Who’s this, then?”

Joan flicked Margaret a glance. “She’s with me. She just needs a place a sleep for a night or two. Come on, Peg, let us in. We’ll help with the children and give the place a good cleaning—whatever you like.”

The woman frowned. “Oh, very well. But keep it down. The children are already asleep.”

They stepped inside the dark room, which smelled of cabbage and soiled nappies. Margaret could see little, as their reluctant hostess spared no candle for them to get settled by.

“Candles are dear, they are,” Peg explained as if reading her thoughts. “There’s a bit of light from the window, if you need it. And embers in the stove.”

Joan disappeared into the apartment’s only separate room. She returned a moment later and tossed something onto the floor. Margaret realized with sinking dread that she was meant to sleep on an old blanket on the floor.

Margaret stood there, waiting for Joan to help her undress. But Joan followed her sister back into the bedchamber.

Margaret whispered after her, “Joan?”

“You’re on your own now, miss,” Joan said. “I am a maid no longer.” She shut the door behind her.

Well. She needn’t be so snippy, Margaret thought, oddly chastised as well as annoyed. She decided she was too tired to undress in any case and settled down atop the thin scratchy blanket on the floor, hoping no mice or rats decided to join her there.

Margaret awoke on her side, stiff. Her hip bone ached from being pressed against the hard floor. Sunlight, filtering through sooty windows, shone on the grey wool blanket she had pulled over herself in the night. Likely it had once been the golden hue of boiled wool. As she pushed it away, something furry brushed her hand. She gasped and bolted to her feet. A dark, hairy form fell from her shoulder to the floor. She shrieked, only to realize it was not a rat, but her wig. She quickly bent and pulled it on. Another creature appeared before her and she reared back and nearly shrieked again. This creature had a small pale face, curtained by stringy ginger hair.

“Hello,” the little girl said, staring at her. “Who are you?”

“I am . . .” Who am I? Margaret’s brain was a fog. She remembered Joan saying she ought not give her real name. Probably wise. If Sterling came here to question Joan’s sister, Peg might say Joan had been there with someone, but not that a Margaret had been there.

“I am a . . . friend . . . of Joan’s.”

“Is Aunt Joan here, too?”

“Yes. In your mamma’s room, I believe.” She made no effort to disguise her voice with the child.

The little girl tilted her head to one side. “What’s wrong with your hair?”

Margaret reached up and realized her wig was askew. She righted the wig and muttered lamely, “Always a mess in the morning. You, on the other hand, have very pretty hair.” She said it hoping to distract the girl. She did not want her reporting to Sterling or a runner that a blond lady wearing a wig had been there. That would give away her disguise and make Sterling’s search all the easier.

She eyed the girl’s stringy hair again. “Or you could have. When was the last time you combed it?”

The little girl shrugged.

Margaret looked away from the girl to survey her surroundings. One end of the room housed a small stove, cupboards, and table and chairs. The other end held a pallet bed complete with sleeping boy and baskets heaped with fabric. Apparently Joan’s sister was a seamstress of sorts. Margaret spied a piece of broken mirror hanging on the wall by a ribbon and walked over to it, checking her wig and cap and wiping a smear of kohl from between her eyes.

“I want breakfast,” the little girl pouted.

“And I want to be a thousand miles from here,” Margaret whispered to the stranger in the mirror.

Peg stepped out of the bedchamber, tying on an apron and stifling a yawn. She said, “Light the fire, will you?”

Margaret looked at the little girl. She seemed awfully young to be trusted with fire. It took Margaret a few seconds to realize Peg had asked her.

Margaret had poked at many a drawing room fire but had never actually laid one. She eyed the small stove. A bucket with a few pieces of coal sat at the ready.

Joan came out of the room, a toddler on her hip. She glanced at Margaret, then smiled down at the boy. “This is little Henry.”

“Named for his father, he is.” Peg pulled a sack of oats from the cupboard.

“Papa is gone to sea,” a boy of seven or eight piped up. Margaret had not seen him rise from the pallet bed. “I am going to sea one day too.”

“Not for a few more years, Michael. Don’t be in a hurry,” Joan said, an indulgent dimple in her cheek.

Margaret caught Joan’s eye, and nodded her head toward the stove. Joan frowned at her, uncomprehending.