Norfolk, England, 1816
After five nights, Griselda had got used to sleeping in ditches.
On the first night the prospect was horrifying, but there had been no choice. There was no inn for miles and she had been too tired to do anything but roll herself in the capacious folds of her father’s old shooting coat, make a pillow from her pack and hope for the best. She had fallen asleep before she knew it. The fact that it was a still, warm night had helped and she had woken with the first light; a little stiff, but more refreshed than she had imagined possible. Certainly she felt better rested than she had done in that odious inn at Kings Lynn.
Having survived that, Griselda decided it was a better plan to walk and sleep where she chose instead of taking the mail coach. The late August weather was holding fine and fair, and Griselda could think of nothing worse in such weather than to be shut up in a mail. She was used to vigorous exercise and she was pleased to discover that her body did not fail her. She had always loved to walk alone and her spirit relished the complete liberty she now had at her disposal. Her coat and breeches no longer felt like an indelicate novelty, but were simply her clothes. They were good and suited for their purpose. She had never guessed that men’s clothes could be so comfortable. To be without stays was a revelation and it was wonderful not to be hung about with petticoats. She was sure she was wearing the old breeches, shooting coat and that broad-brimmed, low-crowned hat with real conviction now, for no-one had questioned her suspiciously. She began to wish that she could go on wandering in this way indefinitely.
But she must head on for Cromer and present herself to her brother.
She was at last within a day’s walk of the place, according to the milestone in the last village. Now, as she stood at the fork in the road, she wondered if her reluctance to proceed was from fear that she would not meet with a very civil reception from Hugh. After all, it had been ten years since she had last seen him. She had been a child of eleven when he had sailed for the Cape of Good Hope with his Regiment. She knew him only in the warmest remembrance and from his letters. He had written to her so often and at such length that she had felt certain that he would at once understand why she had been forced to leave Glenmorval and embark on this journey. Or rather it was her fervent hope that he would understand.
She lingered still at the edge of the hamlet, watching an old gig lumber down towards her.
“This is the road for Cromer?” she asked, in her best gruff and boyish manner.
“Aye, it is,” said the driver of the gig, “but you’ll save yourself a mile or two if you go over the fields.” He gestured up to the right, towards a gap in the hedge which presumably led to some well-known local path. “You’ll need it, too, for it’s going to rain.”
The path was a good one and Griselda made her way along it, through a well-gleaned stubble field and over a stile into pasture land. She could not share the gig man’s conviction it would rain. It was too warm and clear for that, and she began to look forward to catching a first glimpse of the sea. It was certainly better to think of that than worry about what Hugh would say when he saw her.
The path snaked and turned into a little covert of welcome shade. She trotted through it, pulling off her hat, enjoying the dappled sunlight and the sweet, fresh smells of the woodland. She even found a few ripe blackberries to supplement her rather meagre breakfast of bread and cheese. She was determined to be careless and enjoy what she felt sure must be the last few hours of her freedom. As soon as she reached Cromer she would be forced to become Miss Griselda Farquarson of Glenmorval again, and to behave accordingly.
At the edge of the covert the path led along a high stone wall made up of great stones, heavy with ivy and as far as Griselda could judge, of some antiquity. She wondered what lay behind it – the park belonging to some gentleman’s seat, she supposed. Hugh had said in his first letter from Cromer that there were plenty of great houses to be visited in the area, but that “I think the sea bathing and some good books will be enough distraction for me at present.” Recalling that, she felt a trifle guilty that she was about to disturb his tranquil convalescence.
The wall suddenly turned into a great archway and Griselda stopped and looked through it. She saw that she had been skirting the edge of a very venerable old ruin. Her heart pounding, she ran in, astonished at her discovery. It was an old abbey, dripping with creeper, wonderfully melancholy and painted by the bright light and deep shadows that the encircling band of trees cast over it. Directly in front of her there was half a crumbling cloister of carved arches, the cracks in the stone pavement thick with long grass. A few steps led up into the roofless chapel, whose old windows were hung with cobwebs of stone tracery. Griselda pictured the monks filing through it – and then fancied that they might not have been monks at all, but nuns.
Eager to see inside the chapel, she crossed the cloister but stopped at the doorway. She was not alone. There was a man standing in the old nave, his face turned towards the east end of the chapel. He held an open sketch book and was diligently drawing the west window.
Griselda frowned. She did not wish to share this exquisite place with anyone else. It deserved to be enjoyed in perfect solitude. Any moment now, she was certain that a prosing clergyman would appear, with his wife and daughter leaning on his arms, to break the silence with banal observations.
She sighed, but too loudly, and the man looked around.
He had thick brown-gold hair, with a loose wave to it that made each lock catch and flash in the light. His hair fell back softly from his forehead revealing a high, smooth brow and a dazzling pair of limpid blue eyes that entirely overshadowed the rest of his well-sculpted face. He looked levelly at her for some moments. He did not smile but his features clouded with puzzlement as he continued to look at her. She felt disturbed by his scrutiny, and looked away, aware that her observation of him had been just as open. She crammed her hat back onto her head and walked as boldly as she could into the chapel. She was relieved to observe he had begun to sketch again.
She did not give the chapel her full attention. She could not help watching him as he stood there in his white linen shirt sleeves, his drab olive-green riding coat tossed on the ground by his feet. He was sketching very energetically and with a great deal of serious concentration. She wondered if he were a professional artist but she decided his clothes were too good for that. His riding boots had been polished to a deep nicety – they still shone through the dust they had picked up. He has a man to see to them, Griselda thought, and then observed that his waistcoat and riding breeches, though as sober as his coat, were of excellent cut and fitted his long lean form extremely well. That suggested an expensive tailor. Without doubt, he was a person of considerable means. Griselda was completely sure of it when she spotted his horse tethered under a tree in the next field – an elegant bay mare and exactly the sort of horse she would have chosen herself had she the necessary guineas.
She decided to forgive him for being there. A gentleman antiquary sketching in a ruined abbey added a great deal to the picturesque qualities of the scene. Griselda could imagine it transformed into the black and white of a steel engraving hanging in a print shop window.
And what am I in this picture? she mused, as she sat down on what once must have been the chancel steps. Her boots had no polish left in them. They were merely very dirty, like her breeches. There was dirt under her fingernails too, she observed, and the cuff of her old shirt was fraying badly. That little detail set off the worn fustian of the shooting coat to perfection. She took off her hat and raked her fingers through the hair which she had clumsily cropped only a few days ago. She knew she must look very disgraceful. The gentleman was probably wondering whether she was going to set upon on him and rob him or merely annoy him with village idiot impertinence.
She gazed up at the sky, turning her face up to the sun and not caring if she grew any more brown or coarse. The damage was done and she was not going to spoil these last hours of freedom with such considerations.
The storm the gig man had promised now felt perceptible, if still distant. There was a heaviness in the warmth and the insects were hanging low, as if they knew what was imminent. She knew she should be getting on with her journey but she could not find the will to move. She no longer wished to reach her destination. Nothing mattered except this still, almost silent moment of high summer perfection, where she could sit, disguised and undisturbed. She could not deny the pleasure she felt in behaving disgracefully in the presence of such a man. She was sure he would be very shocked to know that she was the daughter of Sir George Farquarson of Glenmorval.
She leant back and stretched herself out on the dry turf, looking up at the sky through the interlaced fingers of stone vaults which were all that remained of the chapel roof. She cradled her head in her folded hands and watched a skylark’s giddy progress upwards for a while. Then she closed her eyes, gave into the gentle insistence of her tired body, and fell asleep.
It was the thunder that woke her. An instant later she felt the first drop of rain on her face and heard a man’s voice say, very close to her ear:
“Oh, damn it!”
She opened her eyes and sat up quickly to find the gentleman artist sitting cross-legged on the ground nearby. He was looking down at his sketch book, brushing the rain drops from it with his sleeve. Then he looked across at her, frowned again and flipped the sketch book closed.
“We’d better take shelter,” he said, getting to his feet. He stretched out his hand to her to help her up. She did not take it but scrambled up herself.
“What were you doing?” she demanded.
“Drawing you. A very pretty pose. I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist it…” He broke off, then added, “Ma’am.” He hesitated and then said again, but this time in a tone of enquiry, “Ma’am?”
She did not answer but turned to pick up her hat and her pack. The latter he seemed determined to help her with.
“Thank you sir, I can manage perfectly,” she said, hoisting it onto her shoulder. “I’ve carried it myself this far.”
He put up his hands for a moment to show he would not fuss with her any longer, for which she was grateful. She was wondering which was the best way to make her escape and where the path she had begun to take, began again. Quickly, she started off across the chapel.
“There is a roof of sorts over the old chapter house,” he called out. “I think this is going to be…” He was interrupted by a white gold flash of lightening. They both paused, Griselda silently counting until the thunder came.
“Three miles off, if that,” he said, pulling on his riding coat. “You’d be ill-advised to start off over open country for a while.”
She hesitated, watching him turn up his coat collar. Then he gathered together his sketching outfit and headed off through a gap in the wall which presumably led to the old Chapter House. The rain was pelting down now and she knew she had no choice but to wait a while. She dashed after him.
The Chapter House roof was nothing more than four feet of leaky old tiles that made a small canopy. He was already standing under it, rubbing his face dry with his hands.
“I was a fool to come out today,” he said. “My man said it would rain.”
“We have been very lucky with the weather this last week,” she observed, and felt her lips twitching with a smile.
“Well, at least the harvest is in,” he said.
Now she had to laugh. The incongruity of this conversation was too much for her.
“Forgive me,” she said. “I did not expect to have a drawing room conversation.”
“No,” he said with a grin, “Neither did I.” He hesitated a moment and then added, “And perhaps we should not have one.”
“No, perhaps not,” she agreed.
“Although I suspect you are well acquainted with drawing rooms, I cannot believe that they are your natural element,” he said.
“By necessity they have been. But I must confess I prefer a place such as this to the grandest drawing room. Even in the rain.”
She glanced at him, to see his reaction. He smiled, and there was a warmth about that smile that illuminated his entire face, and made those glorious eyes seem brighter and clearer than before.
“You are a perfect child of nature, then,” he said, with some satisfaction.
“Yes, I believe I must be,” she said.
“Who are you?” he said, and then added, “no, but I must not ask you that. That would be impertinent.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said. “I would rather not say.”
“And yet I should dearly love to know your story. The moment I laid eyes on you I thought there was something: one glance and I knew you were not the uncouth creature your clothes suggested. But I was not sure of it until you fell asleep. And then I saw you were in disguise and I was longing to wake you so you could tell me what you were about. But you were too perfect in your sleep to be disturbed so I took the liberty of drawing you. And the thunder woke you instead.”
His eyes searched over her as he spoke. His voice was rich with lively, warm curiosity. Griselda felt herself blushing and looking away. She sensed his enthusiasm and that she had inspired some great excitement in him, an excitement which she found she understood perfectly, for something similar was jumping up inside her.
“I only hope you have not found yourself in this situation through some awful tragedy,” he then said, sobering slightly.
“No, not exactly,” she said. “You may be assured of that. I am here because…” – she hesitated – “because I am here.”
“That is a very unsatisfactory answer,” he said. “But perhaps my curiosity is better left unsatisfied.”
“Oh, I think so,” said Griselda. “If you knew who I was and what the circumstances were you would be forced to behave quite differently. As should I. And that is what I particularly wish to avoid.”
“Well said. I have often thought that but I have never achieved it. But you have.”
“Many people would not consider it an achievement,” she pointed out.
“But I must,” he said. “Believe me, you inspire me more than you can imagine.”
Griselda had never had such a conversation in her life before. It made all that had passed before fade into insignificance to be standing here with this glowing young man. He continued:
“You seem to be the embodiment of freedom herself. You are not human. You are Liberty!” Then he laughed – a deep, pleasing, self-mocking laugh, shaking his head as he spoke. “This storm is making me wild.”
“No, wildness is inside us,” Griselda said, her own emotion bubbling up. “It comes from our own hearts, our own souls.” She laughed as she spoke, feeling an extraordinary sense of exhilaration.
He stared at her.
“I think you are the most beautiful creature I ever laid eyes on,” he said. He reached out and touched her cheek with his knuckles, his hand unfolding like a flower as his skin touched her. “And you are real. I can feel the warmth of you skin.”
Griselda had never been so aware of her body as in that first gentle touch. He turned his hand and traced his fingers down her neck. She shuddered as he did so, for his little finger was delicately caressing her throat. She parted her lips and widened her eyes, watching him as he touched her. He had closed his eyes and stood like a blind man delicately exploring an object which he did not know. There was a slight smile on his lips.
Suddenly there was another great crack of thunder and the sound of distressed whinnying.
“My horse!” he exclaimed and dashed out of the chapter house.
Griselda followed and soon saw the cause of the noise. The mare had got loose and was bolting through the field, threatening to charge through a gap in the hedgerow.
He went tearing ahead to catch the mare. But the moment he reached her, she turned and started to charge towards Griselda. There was nothing to do but to jump for the bridle and do what she could to restrain her, although it felt for a moment that she was going to be dragged across a muddy field.
“Not frightened of horses either,” he said, when he returned to Griselda’s side and took the bridle from her.
“I could not be afraid of anything so perfect,” said Griselda, watching with some admiration as he gently brought the mare to order again.
“Would you like to ride her?”
“In this weather?”
“Well, I think we should try and find a decent shelter,” he said. “I think there is a tolerable inn not to far from here where we may at least get our clothes dry.” Then he glanced away a moment and said, “but of course, I should not impose upon you in any way. And you may wish to be on your travels to wherever. Is it to Samarkand or Arkangel or…?”
“No, a tolerable inn will do me very well,” she said. “I am beginning to feel uncomfortably damp.”
It was, of course, the height of impropriety to agree to his suggestion. But apparently they were not playing by those rules. They were playing some different game altogether, one that Griselda found far too exciting to call to a halt.
So he tied Griselda’s pack to the mare, along with his sketching outfit, and handed her up into the saddle. He assumed she would ride astride and for a moment she was a little uneasy, never having done so before. But she felt a little safer when he climbed up behind her and taking the reins in one hand, put his arm about her waist.
“I’m sure you’re a famous horsewoman,” he said, “but you haven’t the benefit of the stirrups.”
“Oh, I’ve no objection,” she said, as if it was the easiest thing in the world to have his arm about her waist and her whole body pressed against his. On the contrary, it was as intimate and as exciting and as downright dangerous as the wild gallop he now pushed the mare into. They hurtled along as if he were riding to hounds, even taking in a couple of jumps.
“She loves to jump,” he said, his arm pressing a little more tightly around Griselda’s waist.
At moments it seemed that the entire escapade might end with broken necks, but the journey to the inn was accomplished without any mishaps. As the horse slowed to a sensible walk, Griselda exclaimed breathlessly, “Oh, but I could have gone on like that for ever!”
“Yes, so could I!” he rejoined. “But her ladyship will not allow us to do that. She can smell a nice dry stable – she’s a delicate creature at heart and she doesn’t like the rain.”