The storm was at its height when we left the inn that night. The wind was howling around the outer walls, the draughts whistling through the seams of the windows.
As we opened the door to the moors and the rain, there was not even a glance from those drinking there; not so much as a raised eyebrow. I wondered how much Thomas had paid them to keep quiet, or whether they did it for the love of him. With the quiet tenacity I expected of him, he did not complain about the weather. He only pulled his collar high, and pushed the old cocked hat he wore, the fur on it half-eaten away by moths, low over his forehead. He wore it for luck, I knew. By the time he had climbed up onto the box and gathered the reins, his greatcoat shone like polished jet in the sheeting rain.
It was only then that Emma and I ran from the beneath the lintel of the inn doorway through the puddles and the mud to the carriage, the door held open by the stable boy. By the light of the carriage lamps I saw that the child’s fair hair was dark with rain, so that he had to blink every moment to keep the water out of his eyes. As Emma climbed up before me, scrambling like a milkmaid rather than a lady, I touched the child’s head. It was a kind of blessing; whether for myself, or him, I hardly knew.
The steps were let up, the door was shut, and as the carriage lurched forwards a piece of silver flew past the window, the boy jumping to catch it, and my lady flinched. I reached over, and touched her arm in reassurance. ‘It’s Thomas,’ I said. ‘He’s throwing the boy a coin for his trouble.’
She turned her face away.
It was not long before we had left the tavern behind and were journeying through open moorland. The road surged downwards, and the horses’ hooves caught on the worsening road. I felt the jagged vibration of it through the springs of the carriage. ‘Too fast,’ murmured Emma. The horses slowed as they began the long climb up to Shawsdrop; as we surmounted the hill, Thomas urged them on. He was a hard driver that night.
‘I see it,’ I said. Quietly, as though I thought my master might hear me. There were the distant lights – his harbour lights, as he used to call them – shining out across the moor. I wondered if Sorsby was watching our approach from his lodge, the blink and roll of our lamps as we jolted along. It was why we had chosen the height of the storm, the kind of night when every sane person would wish to be at their fireside. Surely no one of sense would travel on such a night.
But I was without sense, and without feeling. I had one goal in view. I was a different Annaleigh from the one who had come here a year before, the bitter tension in me so familiar that it was part of me, and I could seem serene even under the yoke of it.
I was all calmness compared to the woman who sat opposite me in her London walking dress, her cloak fur-lined, her hair a fashionable cascade of curls. How often, in recent days, I had looked for similarities between us. Like me, Emma feigned serenity, but I could see the slight tremble of the muscles at the corner of one beautiful eye, and the sheen of sweat on her face seemed unnatural and marked, like mildew in a grand reception room. I noted the desperate tightness of her clasped hands, still bearing her rings, her wedding ring, even after all that had happened. That alone made me want to roll my eyes in exasperation. We are such different creatures, I thought, with surprise, the kind of surprise that made the hairs prickle on the back of my neck with misgiving. She had no reason to care for me; and yet we were here together.
When she spoke, her voice startled me, that sudden gentle voice, amidst the tumult of the storm and the lurch of the carriage.
‘If we take his life,’ she said, ‘we had best do it quickly.’
‘Madam,’ I said, ‘there is no “if”.’
One year earlier
‘Press your face to the glass.’
The woman’s voice was low and soothing. We had been in the stagecoach for an hour, and it was the first time she had spoken. I would have been grateful if our fellow travellers had afforded me the courtesy of silence. In that coach, scented stale by their bodies and breaths, their voices rang strange and disquieting in my aching head. My mind was teeming with memories, so that as we left the streets of London far behind, thoughts of my past streamed on and on like a magic lantern show, as though I was living my life again as an observer.
It hadn’t taken long for me to feel sick. The air I breathed felt thick and heavy, and the constant rocking of the coach threatened to bring up the punch I had drunk at the Bull and Mouth Inn with Mr Plaskett. What had they put in it? I thought. And then, what had he asked them to put in it?
‘You’re a fine shade of green,’ said one of the other passengers warily, a sallow-cheeked gentleman. ‘Can you hold off until Barnet?’
‘Don’t spew on me,’ said another. ‘You should’ve travelled on the outside.’
I shook my head. Jared had paid for me to travel on the inside, thinking of my comfort, not wishing me to catch a chill. To criticise this arrangement seemed somehow disloyal to him. So I pressed my face to the glass as the woman had advised, and somehow survived until the next change of horses, my fellow passengers piling out of the carriage with barely disguised eagerness to be away from me.
On the next stretch of the journey, I felt a little better. The sallow-cheeked man hazarded conversation with me.
‘I saw the old man that put you on the coach. Saw the look on his face. You’re not virtuous, for all that you look so innocent.’
I thought of Plaskett, he who had made my travelling arrangements and ordered the punch. He was one of Jared’s customers; the paint was barely dry on his portrait, though we had known him as a visitor in our house for a long time. He had always presented himself as a fatherly figure, but I had begun to notice on my last days in London that he had often licked his lips when he looked at me, watching me with a slight smile. On our way to the inn, he had taken every opportunity to steer me, his hand on my elbow when we crossed the street, rushing to touch me under the shade of solicitude.
He had seemed disappointed when the passengers for the Leeds coach were called. My fellow traveller must have seen him hovering around me, his voice low and urgent in my ear. ‘You can always call on me, if I am ever needed. You need not trouble Jared. I may visit to see you are doing well, for I am intimate friends with the Twentyman family. You may write to me at my lodgings in Arlington Street, Piccadilly, or I can always be found at the White Bear – mark it, Annaleigh, mark it.’
The man who had questioned my virtue gave a low laugh at the look on my face. The woman who had soothed me interrupted. ‘She’s more virtuous than you are, I’ll warrant.’
The other man looked harder at me in the jolting carriage, even as I turned my face away, feeling sick.
‘Eh? Swear it on a Bible then, eh?’
‘I’ll not swear anything for you or any other man,’ I snapped.
‘Injured in love, then,’ said the woman softly, who had closed the book she was reading.
‘No,’ I said, stung into answering. ‘A little.’ As soon as I said it I regretted it. Presenting myself as alone, a young woman, to this group of strangers. It was my plan to make my own way, to leave my youth behind. Yet here I was, acting like a child. I thought of my home, the house in St Martin’s Lane. I had lived there since I was a baby, but as I had looked back at it after leaving, one last turn on that busy street, it was just a house. Another house with a classical façade, the door and windows like the shut eyes of someone long dead.
‘It is best you find out that men are faithless now,’ said the woman evenly, though the sallow-faced man said a low pish under his breath. ‘You are young. Best you do not spend your finest years chasing what cannot be.’
She had been meant to travel onwards with us but at the next stop she left the coach, walking out silently into the night, I know not where; her book clasped in one hand, her locking box in the other.
I found some moments of pleasure on the journey. I loved the ancient roads we travelled on, ruts hollowed out of the earth, the branches interlaced above the coach in natural shelter, as though the trees either side had met by mutual agreement.
When we stopped at an inn in Huntingdon, the two children running in and out of the tables in the coffee room reminded me of me and Kit when we were children. A fair boy, and a dark-haired girl, she only slightly smaller than him, their games full of energy but no malice.
In my mind, Jared, Melisende and Kit travelled with me on the first part of that journey, as though they sat next to me. If I closed my eyes, I could catch the scent of them. For Jared, it was the turpentine he would dip his brushes in. For Melisende, the smell of almonds, baked in the tart she taught me to make. For my precious Kit, the scent of his sweat and skin, the musky edge of it, as he reached for me on that last day I saw him, our hands never quite meeting as the crowds on Snow Hill dragged me away from him, Jared calling my name.
They seemed so close to me at first, but on the last day of the journey, I could not summon them. Were there too many county borders between us, I wondered? All I could remember was a stupid, commonplace memory, something I would rather forget and yet could not shake.
It was my last evening in London, and Mr Plaskett was taking me to the coach. Weaving through the London streets, he kept his hand beneath my elbow, always that wretched dry touch of his. ‘You must be obedient,’ he said. ‘I know Melisende trained you in cookery, but you will not be at home, and must think how to please them. Miss Twentyman – Mrs Hume I should say – will take you in hand; you shall be apprenticed to learn housekeeping skills – yes, think of yourself as her apprentice.’
I had nodded, dully. I hardly saw the faces of the people we passed; I was murmuring the apprentice’s promise Kit had made. The night before Kit went to be bound as an apprentice, he was fourteen, I eleven, and we sat on the turn of the stairs in our house, a candle beside us, chanting it.
‘During which term the said apprentice his said Master faithfully shall serve, his secrets keep, his lawful commandments everywhere gladly do. He shall do no damage to his said Master. He shall not haunt Taverns, or Play-houses, nor absent himself from his said Master’s service Day or Night unlawfully…’
I fancy I smiled as I thought it, remembering our childish voices together, saying the words as lightly as though they were a nursery rhyme, all our solemnity a play only.
‘Annaleigh?’ Plaskett’s voice, pettish. ‘Your lips are moving. What is it you are thinking, child?’
Always the present, dragging me out of the past, where I wanted to live. Always that touch on my arm.
I left the stagecoach at Leeds, and took a further conveyance which had been paid for by my employer. It was a full coach, with four places on the top. As we travelled through the town of Hebden Bridge, the mist clung to the hills, softening the outlines of grey cottages, built from damp grey stone and slate, studding the hillside as the road wound its way upwards, like a thread from Melisende’s skein. As we clattered on towards open country the road was bordered by rough stone walls, and high, thick-grown trees. Then the trees fell away to show me the land I had come to.
‘They live on the moors,’ Mr Plaskett had told me. ‘A most respectable family. The Twentymans of White Windows. Discreet, however.’
We were travelling through an openness, an exposed hillside – a green-blue vastness which spread out before me, hills and valleys covered with heather, and the occasional dwelling, miles away, but clear as an outpost on those hills. I stared as the sun appeared from behind the clouds and made the heather on the hills shine as vivid as a bruise. The moors seemed to reflect the constantly changing sky, and were first welcoming under the brief illusion of sunshine, then fiercely barren beneath cloud. In the distance, there was nothing but blue hills. I felt the immensity of it deeply, felt I might be swallowed by it, as one feels standing on the edge of a precipice. It was utterly alien to me. In London, with its crowded streets, dense with voices, colours and smells, I had been raised to think of the people as the threat; but here the vanquisher was the landscape itself. A painter’s child, I tried to calm myself by naming the colours: russet, acid yellow, green, brown, purple.
But the carriage was slowing, drawing up. I turned from the moors, and saw that we had arrived at a lone tavern: a rectangular, low, grey building set into the raw hillside. Ahead there was a handful of grey scattered houses, but that was all for miles.
‘Becket Bridge, Becket Bridge.’
No, I thought. Not this desolate place. Obediently, I climbed down, and opened my arms to receive my box as it was thrown to me from the rumble tumble. Then the coach drew off, racing towards some other place.
There was no one to meet me. I was completely alone. I thanked God for the glimpses of September sunshine dealt by the ever-changing sky; it was the only mercy. As the wind snatched at my cloak, I felt it begin to tell on me. I worried the string of coral beads around my neck as though they were a rosary; re-checked the hiring letter, which I had carried in my pocket. I wondered if some mistake had been made and I would be left there, alone at the roadside, in this foreign land.
Then I saw it, at first just a distant shape, moving slowly. As the minutes passed it resolved itself into a man, coming across the moors.