Philomena crept up the twisted stairs. A rat scuttled past and disappeared into the early morning fog of the London alleyway. She shuddered and pulled her shawl closer, stepping lightly to soften the clink of patten on wood as she climbed, head pounding and legs trembling.
Last week, dark curls bouncing, she’d skipped up the same stairs in happy anticipation of breakfast with Samuel, her guardian and employer. Since his death,
Philomena lived in dread of Joseph, Samuel’s son. So far, she had come to no harm for Joseph fell into bed each night, drunk and incapable. During the day, though, as she moved around the workshop, Philomena felt her tormentor’s black eyes on her body. Whenever she looked up, Joseph licked wet lips and winked. Philomena stole up the last few stairs, biting her lip at each protesting creak. All was quiet outside the room. Joseph still slept.
“You see,” she murmured. “There’s nothing to worry about.” She turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open.
Joseph shot out from behind the door, grabbed her arm, and dragged Philomena into the room. She stumbled and dropped the basket. Wiry fingers bit into her flesh. Joseph jerked her closer. She recoiled from the rancid stink of last night’s beer and held her breath as he sniggered.
Philomena twisted her head from side to side, searching for a weapon, but the dingy room, like thousands of similar tiny rooms in the teeming stews of the city, held little but a rough table and chairs. Neighbours hearing screams through the paper-thin walls would make no move to help. Quarrels and fights in the building were too common to raise more than an eyebrow.
Joseph forced his lips onto hers. Teeth clenched, Philomena took a deep breath, stood tall, and drove her knee into his groin. Joseph doubled up, grunting. A two-handed thrust launched him across the room. He crashed into the flimsy wall and lay still, shocked and gasping. A grey snow of loose plaster rained down, speckling the head and shoulders of his fustian waistcoat.
Triumphant, Philomena laughed. “Don’t you dare touch me again or you’ll be sorry.”
Joseph stumbled to his feet and sneered, lips curled over a jungle of mismatched yellow teeth and a single black stump. “Little fool. You’ll give in soon enough. Make no mistake about that.” Blobs of congealed fat from last night’s dinner fell from his coarse cotton shirt as he lurched out of the room. The door crashed shut.
Philomena’s mind raced, sharp and clear. She’d managed to get the upper hand this once, but next time would be another matter. The city she called home offered precious little protection to a lone woman. The time had come to leave. Her chin lifted. “Tomorrow,” she whispered, “I’ll be in Bristol.”
Skilful with a needle and thrifty enough to have saved a few sovereigns over the years, she could build a new life. The new Great Western Railway would whisk her to the other side of the country in less time than a cab took to cross London. Joseph would come after her, of course. He needed her expertise in the tailor shop, for he lacked any talent.
Philomena must take care to draw no attention. She snatched his Sunday best clothes from a hook. Lord, the smell was terrible. The clothing hadn’t had the benefit of the laundress’s tub for many a month. She breathed through her mouth and dressed in the heavy fustian trousers, tightening a length of string around her waist to prevent them falling off.
Fastening the jacket snugly with a pin across the chest, she turned back the sleeves. A flat cap led to a struggle. No sooner was one handful of raven-black curls tucked inside than another escaped. Philomena’s fingers fumbled, as fat and lazy as slugs.
She pulled a pair of Samuel’s scissors from a table, took a deep breath, grasped a heavy lock of curls, and chopped hard. Hair tumbled to the floor. She worked fast, wasting no energy on regrets until a heap of curls lay on the wooden floor. Goodbye, Philomena. A grin spread from ear to ear as she slammed the door of the lodgings.
Night closed in before she reached Bishop’s Bridge Road Station, tired and footsore, to clamber aboard the train. Heavy rain plummeted down. She shivered in the open wagon. For more than an hour, the train rattled onward. Philomena’s weary eyes closed, lulled by the regular rhythm of the wheels. At last, head nodding and chin resting on her chest, she slept.
The train lurched, pitching her awake. A cry, so shrill with fright that it was impossible to tell if it came from a man or a woman, pierced the night. “Gawd ’elp us all, it’s a landslide.”
Philomena lost her grip on the slippery side of the wagon as it pitched and bounced. For a heart-stopping moment of silence, the world held its breath. The front of the wagon tilted, flew into the air, and flipped backwards. She soared high into the dark, as weightless as a bird. I’m going to die. She knew a brief stab of sorrow that the adventure had ended so abruptly. Then the ground rose up to deal a blow that squeezed all the breath from her lungs.
Deep sleep enveloped the inhabitants of Thatcham Hall, rewarding the servants for long hours of toil with a brief respite before the first maid rose to set fires.
Wind and rain howled through cracks and down chimneys. Only Hugh—Lord Thatcham—was still awake, hunched over the oak desk in the silent library, long legs cramped as the embers of the fire died away and the night chilled his bones.
His gaze sped down a column of figures. He added them once and then again. Finally, satisfied, he scrawled a signature below the total. He drew a deep breath and released it in a sigh, the knot in his stomach easing a little. The Hall, with its debts and its crumbling East Wing, so often swallowed every penny of profit raised, but, slowly, Hugh was turning things around.
The improvements planned for the farms would help. Next year, barley yields should be up, thanks to the new thresher. He yawned and stretched, then turned again to the pile of papers.
Hugh pulled the next document near and read it, eyes narrowed, pen poised. Old Walden’s cottage needed work. Could it wait a while? That would save a few pounds. His hesitation lasted only a moment. Old Walden, long-serving butler to both his father and grandfather, deserved some comforts. The roof of the retirement cottage must be a priority. So many priorities crowded round that sometimes Hugh could hardly breathe.
He strode to the window and squinted into the darkness that shrouded the land. The night stars hid behind scudding clouds, but even in the pitch black, Hugh visualised each cottage, tree, or fence on the estate. This was his land. He knew and loved every stone, leaf, and blade of grass of it. The Dainty family had lived there since Tudor times, through good years and bad, and three hundred years of ancestors weighed heavy on Hugh’s shoulders. If he achieved nothing else, he would make sure the Hall and its estates passed, intact, to his son, John.
If only Beatrice had shared some of Hugh’s love for Thatcham Hall. Maybe, then, they would have managed better together. Restless, he turned from the window. The brief marriage had ended in disaster, leaving a bitter legacy of guilt and remorse.
Nevertheless, Hugh would forever be grateful to Beatrice for giving him a son. John, now four years old and the image of his dead mother, enjoyed robust health and vast stores of energy. As mischievous as a puppy, he romped each day through the nursery, leaving torn books, broken ornaments, and a succession of frantic nursemaids in his wake.
Hugh bit his lip. He had kept busy all day, far from the nursery, but tomorrow he could avoid his responsibilities no longer. He must deal with John’s latest misdemeanour. Could he avoid punishing the boy? He remembered the painful punishments that followed his own wild behaviour as a child. No. He must check John’s worst excesses, even though each wide-eyed stare from eyes as round and green as Beatrice’s, and just as quick to tears, twisted the knife of guilt in Hugh’s heart.
Easing his legs back beneath the desk, he concentrated on the stack of documents. Finally, the day’s work completed, he threw his pen aside and tossed down the last dregs of claret.
A foot crunched on the gravel. His head jerked up. A voice called and another answered, loud and urgent. A fist hammered on the door, insistent. Hugh’s heart lurched.
He hurried to the window and flung open the shutters. A dozen or so labourers, lanterns held aloft, jostled one another on the front drive. Hugh took the stairs, two at a time. The butler threw open the front door and a noisy cacophony exploded into the Hall.
Hugh spoke steadily, hiding his agitation. “What’s amiss?”
“Oh, begging your pardon, my lord. There’s been a terrible accident over yonder. One of them there newfangled steam trains has come off its tracks, and all the people are dead, my lord. Dead, or dying.”
“Good God.” Ice slid down Hugh’s spine, and he shivered. It seemed that death and disaster had returned to Thatcham Hall. “Tell the coachman to send a horse and cart at once, and saddle Thunder for me. I’ll ride over and see what can be done.”
The rain still fell and the night was cold, with the wind blowing in gusts from the east. At the railway cutting, amid swirls of smoke and arrows of rain, shapes shifted and stumbled, indistinct in the flickering light of lanterns. Oil lamps threw shadows that hid as much as their glow illuminated. Hugh squinted into the gloom.
The whole village, it seemed, had turned out to help. He urged Thunder on to where a carriage lay overturned on the ground, wheels in the air. Broken planks littered the mud. Here and there, twisted bodies lay quite still. Dead bodies.
Hugh leaped down, took a pace forward, stumbled, and almost fell over a bundle on the ground. He fought for balance, boots sticking in the mud that reached to his ankles. The bundle moved, rubbed its head, rested a moment on its elbows, then fell back and lay still. Hugh bent nearer, and the bundle opened its eyes. Startling, bright blue pools stared up from a face caked indirt. The bundle coughed and sat up. “What happened?”
It was a boy’s high voice. Hugh let out the breath he had not even known he held. “You’re not dead yet, then.”