Read A Bouquet of Thorns Online

Authors: Tania Crosse

Tags: #Romance

A Bouquet of Thorns (6 page)

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‘Well, perhaps we could start at three and nine, if you wouldn't mind helping Nanny with her duties. She's too old to manage on her own now, but she's been with our family for so long – she was
my
nanny, you know – so we can't possibly dismiss her. You would have to share her room, I'm afraid, but it is very warm and comfortable. And our servants share our own fare. We like to look after them well, and expect their honesty and loyalty in return. Now
do
say you'll accept the offer!'

Her enthusiastic words were pricks of ice in Rose's wounded heart. There was nothing she would have loved more than to join this household, but . . . ‘I'm afraid I cannot live in.' Her voice quavered as her throat closed with sadness. ‘You see, my father recently had a terrible accident that has left him paralysed, and as a result he has lost his position and the accommodation that went with it. We are about to move to one of the Westbridge cottages. Our housekeeper will come with us to care for him, but there are certain things that she cannot manage alone, so I must return each evening. And . . .' She looked up and met the woman's sympathetic gaze, but would she understand? ‘I have a horse. Not just any horse that I could easily sell on. He has a certain temperament . . . I fear it would mean having him put down, and I couldn't bear that. I have somewhere to keep him, but I should need to see to him every morning and night, so altogether I couldn't possibly live in.'

Her face was a mask of taut muscles, matched by the compassion of the woman who had listened to her. ‘Oh, my dear, I am so sorry to learn of your plight,' she said with such feeling as she reached out and touched Rose's arm. ‘If only we had space, I should willingly offer your father a home also, for I'm sure he is as amicable as yourself. As for your horse, I'm afraid we have no stables, either. Oh, dear. What a pity,' she sighed. ‘But
please
think it over. I shall keep the position open for . . . a fortnight, shall we say? So, if you change your mind, just let me know. But,' she hesitated, biting her lip, ‘I must warn you that
any
position as governess is bound to be live-in, you know.'

Rose lowered her eyes. ‘Yes, of course. I suppose . . . I hadn't really thought about it properly. I'm so sorry to have wasted your time.'

‘Not at all. The boys and I have enjoyed your visit. I just wish . . . A fortnight, remember.'

The woman's kindness had made the tears glisten in Rose's eyes and she angrily brushed them away as she walked back down the street. What a fool she had been! A governess was a servant like any other, with a servant's wage supplemented by full board. Alone in the world, the position would have been ideal, but she had responsibilities, and though she would do anything in her power, she wasn't sure she could satisfy them all. So where would they end up? In the workhouse? Good God, no! She couldn't bear the thought. They would only take her father, of course, and possibly Florrie if she could not find other employment, but male and female were strictly separated and they would never see each other again.

She shook her head. How could she even think of it! Perhaps she could set herself up as a dressmaker. But you needed time to establish a clientele, build up a business,
premises
, none of which she had. An
assistant
, then? She glanced up at the snow-laden sky. It was only mid afternoon, but growing darker by the minute. She should collect Polly and the dog cart from where she had stabled them for the day. She regretted not having ridden Gospel and having his speed to convey her quickly home. But perhaps she might just have time to make some enquiries.

She drew a blank. Apprentice to a dressmaker with lodgings but no wages; or a shop assistant on a paltry salary was the best she could find. Oh, why wasn't she a man? She groaned with such fury that she drew glances from passers-by. She could have earned eight to ten shillings a week labouring, but as a woman, you received so little reward no matter how hard you worked! Perhaps she should just find out about the workhouse . . .

The blood seemed to drain from her head and swirl about her heart as she dragged herself up Bannawell Street to the forbidding workhouse at the top, and her hand shook so violently she could scarcely knock on the intimidating wooden gates, one of which was finally opened by an even more menacing face that eyed her with hostility.

‘Please,' Rose asked in a whisper as the courage flowed from her fingertips, ‘how does one get into the workhouse?'

‘Apply to the Board. In Bedford Square,' the voice snapped. ‘They won't take a fit young woman like you. Get yersen a job. Do some work!' And the toothless mouth – whether it was man or woman, Rose could not tell – broke into a jeering cackle.

‘'Tis not for me, but for my father,' Rose blurted. ‘He's paralysed, and—'

The face did not flinch. ‘I told 'ee. Apply to the Board. Won't take anyone unless they'm destitute. Nort but the clothes on yer back, and I doesn't mean
they
sort of clothes,' the face sneered, jabbing a finger at Rose's good coat. ‘I means
rags
. Then maybe they'll take 'en.'

The gate closed with a crash, but not before Rose caught sight of two stooped figures shuffling past, clad in the drab fustian of the workhouse uniform with a large ‘P' for pauper on the arm. So shameful. So degrading. Rose stood for a full minute, her own shoulders slumped, battling to stop herself slithering to the frozen ground. How could she have come to this? How could fate be so cruel? A feeble, anguished moan escaped from her lips, laced with anger and frustration. It wasn't in her to give in, but at this moment, she was so lost, so defeated, so desolate that her blood seemed to have turned into water. She dropped her head back on her neck, her eyes shut as memories of her past, happy life tortured her soul, and it was only the touch of a snowflake on her frosted cheek that sparked her brain to retrieve its grip on reality. The snow was beginning to fall, the vicious wind slicing at her slender form. They were in for a snowstorm, and she had a long journey over treacherous terrain before she could reach home. She must hurry to collect Polly and set out as quickly as she could, hopefully before the snow came down too heavily.

The memory of that soul-destroying day flashed through her brain once more. When she had arrived back at Cherrybrook, frozen to the marrow, covered in snow, terrified and exhausted from battling against the blizzard, she had been too broken to relate all the details to Florrie. Too ashamed to admit that her fine plan had failed. Just as she couldn't bring herself to tell the dear woman now that on that fateful day, she had actually considered applying to the workhouse for her father. And then she had received a kind and generous letter from Charles, begging her once again to marry him. She had felt so low, so desperate, that her former hesitation was dispelled and she had joyfully accepted his proposal.

But look where it had got her!

She had been so happy until her wedding night, when she had learnt what marriage was
really
all about, and though Charles behaved like an utter gentleman during the day, even in her ignorance Rose realized he treated her unfeelingly in their bed. And within six months, her father was dead. The only thing that had kept her sane were her mad flights of freedom on Gospel's back, and now he, too, was gone. She had lost everything she had sacrificed herself for by marrying Charles Chadwick, and her world lay in broken pieces at her feet.

‘I did it for all of us,' she told Florrie now, her voice quiet and trembling. ‘For you, for Father. So that I could keep Gospel. But I also did it for me.' She lifted her head and her glistening eyes fixed on Florrie's compassionate face. ‘I honestly thought Charles and I would be happy together. I'd never had a sweetheart before, you know that. I'd never known what it was to love a man. And now . . .' She smiled wistfully, and even as she spoke the words, she wondered if they weren't quite true, for hadn't she felt about Seth . . .? ‘And now I never will. And I can never forgive Charles for what he's done. Not ever. And if 'tweren't for this child, I'd be gone from here for ever.'

And because there was something else she had to do as well . . .

Four

D
r Power crumpled the letter into a ball in his fist and launched it into the fire, since that was the best place for it. He watched pensively as its edges scorched, then it uncurled a little before it finally fell victim to the hungry, licking flames.

Rose Maddiford. Her maiden name – for like so many of those who knew her of old, he could never think of her as Mrs Chadwick – suited her well. She truly must be mad. The letter was a full written confession of how she had willingly helped Seth Collingwood, saying that she believed unequivocally in his innocence, and that the story that he had terrified her and threatened to kill Amber's puppies was a complete and utter lie of Collingwood's fabrication told in order to protect her. She knew that he would almost certainly be flogged for his escape, but he was already so ill and could the doctor please do anything to prevent it, especially as the poor man had been wrongly convicted in the first place and didn't deserve his incarceration, let alone the terrible punishment. Dr Power had been so good to her in the past, especially with her father, and she trusted him to do what was morally right.

The good doctor slumped back in his chair and tapped his joined fingertips against his pursed lips. Ah, Rose . . . The vision of the very first time he had clapped his stunned eyes upon her crept unbidden into his brain. What was it, six years ago, when he had taken up the position of prison surgeon? It had seemed a good way to provide a roof over the heads of his growing family, and also offered him the opportunity to help the working classes of the area who could not afford the normally expensive charges of a private doctor. He was given a house of almost equal standard to that of the governor, and was paid a reasonable wage to care for both the inmates and the prison staff, so that when the local community requested his attendance, he could do so at a fee they could afford. Among them were the workers at the Cherrybrook gunpowder mills. The first time he had been summoned there, it had been at the behest of a captivating, mettlesome young girl so slender she appeared quite ephemeral, like some fanciful painting from one of his children's fairy-tale books, perched atop a massive, prancing, long-legged steed whose coat matched the shining ebony of her hair. She could have been no more than sixteen then, and at more than twenty years her senior, he was old enough to be her father, but he could not deny that, had he been younger and not already long and happily married, his heart would have been strongly drawn to her. It made him feel a little ashamed, though there was nothing more than admiration for her in his breast, not only for her undeniable beauty, but for her vivacity, her strength of character, her soul. She had such an immense capacity for compassion, whether it be for the high moorland where she lived, animals of every description, or the men and their families who had worked for her father. The father whose death, as he had witnessed for himself, had broken the poor girl's heart.

And now she had sent this plea for help.

He filled his lungs deeply, and slowly let them collapse again. Did she realize what she was asking? And yet he understood entirely. His own position at the prison was humbling and irresolute, his allegiances torn asunder. He was supposed to be a man of mercy, healer of the sick, and yet he had to uphold the cruel regime of the harshest punishment imaginable. The prison infirmary was full of convicts from other gaols across the country, sent there not because they were particularly heinous, but because they were suffering from consumption, and Dartmoor's clean air helped them to recover sufficiently to be returned to serve their sentences whence they had come. There were other inmates who feigned illness to escape the back-breaking hard labour, some who even put their own lives at risk by swallowing anything to hand – such as soap, ground glass or even pins – that would incapacitate them. Dr Power had to be equal to all their tricks. And then, ironically, perfectly fit and healthy men had their constitutions decimated by the meagre starvation diet, the vicious punishments and inhumane, gruelling tasks they were put to day in, day out, enduring conditions to which no farmer would subject his animals.

Men like Seth Collingwood.

The fellow had been in his care for a few days once before. Shortly after arriving at Her Majesty's hotel, he had apparently saved the life of Warder Cartwright as the work party returned from its racking and dangerous day's toil at the quarry. For his trouble, he had been assaulted by a group of maddened inmates – nothing too serious, but battered and bruised enough to require the medical officer's attentions. Dr Power had to admit to taking an instant liking to his patient, which was something he could rarely say of his charges. Even then, Collingwood had been protesting his innocence and Dr Power had been inclined to believe his claims, but he was hardly in a position to argue with the authorities who had committed the accused to gaol.

And then, ten days ago, the physician had been appalled to discover the poor devil chained in a punishment cell, awaiting sentence from the Director of Prisons for his attempted – and almost successful – escape. He had taken some lead shot in his shoulder from one of the guards' Snider carbines, but the wounds were healing well. How well his broken ankle inside its plaster cast was mending would only be known when it was removed. It was the doctor's considered opinion that the cast had been professionally applied and was not Rose's own remarkably successful attempt, as she claimed in the letter. However, he had determined that, were he to be questioned, he would keep that view to himself, for he would inform on neither Rose nor his respected colleague, the elderly Dr Seaton. What had horrified him, though, was that the prisoner had been set to the usual punishment task of oakum picking – teasing into shreds a statutory length of old tar-saturated ships' rope which had since dried into razor-sharp fibres that sliced into the fingertips, rendering them excruciatingly painful. This when the prisoner was most obviously running a fever and coughing up blood, sitting in a cramped position in a cold, damp cell, with nothing but bare boards for a bed and existing on the so-called jockey diet of bread and water. Dr Power didn't even wait for the result of his immediate report to the governor, but had the convict removed to the infirmary at once. Fortunately, it had been less than forty-eight hours since his recapture, but had it been much longer, it may well have been a death certificate rather than a medical report he needed to complete. The governor had, of course, been furious, and the vindictive sergeant who had lied about the escapee's state of health had been severely reprimanded, but that was it. After all, who really cared about the fate of just another convict at the isolated prison?

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