Authors: The Marquess Takes a Fall
THE MARQUESS TAKES A FALL
Chapter 1: The Marquess Attempts a Rescue
Lord Colin Ashdown, the Marquess of Carinbrooke, jumped down from his stallion, stretched his legs and sighed. How ironic that travel by horseback was actually more restful for the horse than the rider. Or at least it seemed so for
horse. Achilles—the stallion—regarded him curiously, as if wondering why they had stopped.
“That’s well enough for you,” Colin told him. “You can eat where you wish.”
In reply, Achilles began grazing on a nearby stand of cow parsley and alisanders. Colin retrieved a last small piece of bread from his knapsack, and sat on a nearby rock for his own meal, thinking ’twas fortunate he’d thought to bring even that much from supper the evening before. The coastline near Sunderland, albeit as beautiful as promised, was sparsely populated, and there had been no inn or public house along the road for the whole of that afternoon.
Achilles nickered softly and nuzzled the nape of Colin’s neck, his soft breath tickling his lordship’s ear.
“Go finish your cow parsnip,” Lord Ashdown told him. “If I had a carrot, I’d eat it myself.”
The stallion tossed his head, and ambled off to graze closer to the cliff, which afforded a spectacular view of the North Sea. The animal was huge, and fast, but only intimidating to a rider who did not know him well. Deep down Achilles preferred the quiet life, having none of the high-strung nature that was supposed by some to be the mark of a well-bred horse.
Colin’s stomach growled, the sound only partly masked by the roar of the surf below.
It really was time for nuncheon. Lord Ashdown was very particular about this; he always ate nuncheon before two of the afternoon, and it must be after four already. The situation was most annoying.
“Achilles,” he said, “why have you not found us some snug country inn?”
He received a brief snort in reply.
The Marquess of Carinbrooke preferred consistency in every aspect of his life, mealtimes being only a small part. His daily schedule depended upon location, but wherever his residence he arose early in the morning and began the work of the day immediately following breakfast. At Marchers, his townhome in London, this might mean only an hour at his club, or some discussion in the House of Lords. At Wintermere—his estate in Lancashire—there was considerably more to accomplish, and he might spend most of the day on Achilles, checking that both the fields and the cottages he provided for his crofters were in good order.
His lordship’s clothing was always purchased from Thomas Hawkes of London; they had his requirements on file and sent him new items as the need appeared, everything constructed of the best materials and with a minimum of fussy detail. His boots were obtained from another such establishment, and were identical from year to year. The marquess did not appreciate change for fashion’s sake. The horses of his stable, including Achilles, were bred by Tattersalls, and were of an identical deep roan, although Colin could accept the occasional forehead blaze.
The pattern of Lord Ashdown’s life extended to invariant, seasonal migrations from Marchers to Lancashire, and from there to a small hunting lodge near Kirriemuir in Scotland. The move to London was accomplished on the Monday past Easter, for the sitting of Parliament, the Ascot, and the Henley Regatta. Kirriemuir followed after Parliament adjourned in August, just in time for grouse hunting season, and winter found him at his estate, following the briefest possible Christmas with Evelyn, his eldest sister, and Lord Beckwith, her moderately annoying husband. The entire schedule was interrupted only by an occasional week visiting great-aunt Sophia at Bath.
Great-aunt Sophia he liked. The annoying brother-in-law was another matter, and in a round-about way, the cause of Colin’s present expedition. Evelyn’s birthday was in late September. He was usually unavailable for the event, but the weather had continued so fair that autumn, with the roads remaining dry, that she had requested his presence at the Beckwith family home—Elswick Manor, close by Newcastle-upon-Tyne—for the festivities. His two younger sisters, Edwina and Eleanor, had added their pleas to those of Lady Beckwith, and Lord Ashdown had given in.
Lud, thought Colin, knowing that the family had at least one other reason for his presence, and wishing that he had thought of an adequate excuse. Christmas holidays at Elswick were bad enough. Evelyn’s idea of a party involved such mountains of food and drink that her houseguests would be hard put to move by the end of it, and that had never appealed. To make matters worse, the marquess had made such excellent time from Scotland that he now found himself in the embarrassing position of arriving at his destination nearly two days early.
Lord Beckwith accounted himself an expert in all forms of the hunt, and Lord Ashdown, unable to face the prospect of even an extra hour listening to Evelyn’s husband expostulate on the best way to bring down a grouse, had chosen a short detour from the main road. The cliffs to the south of Newcastle had been described to him as noteworthy; he had ridden along the coast for some time, hearing the piping ‘
of oystercatchers and the shrill long-call of the gulls. The weather had continued excellent, Achilles was delighted to be on new terrain, and the marquess had begun considering which of the local villages—if he could find one—might have a decent inn and a room for the night.
All in all, it had been a pleasant diversion in the waning days of September, and even if a decent inn proved elusive he could surely hope for a warm stable, and a bed of fresh straw. Colin was not entirely prepared to sleep outdoors, although he could manage, if needs be.
A flash of red near the base of the cliff just ahead caught his eye. The marquess frowned and approached the cliff edge for a closer look. He could see rock pools and a bit of sandy cove, which would be covered soon, with the change of the tides. Nothing else, for a moment, and then—
Yes, ’twas someone at the edge of the cove, the red of his coat appearing and disappearing among the rocks. And if that someone was not careful, he could find himself in considerable trouble. The wild cliffs were dangerous for the unwary, the bits of beach sheltered between headlands a trap when the returning waters rose to the base of the cliff.
Surely the locals knew the idiosyncrasies of their own coastline?
But it was a child, he saw now. No more than six or seven years of age, in a red . . . cloak of some kind. The marquess, after descending a few feet from the very top of the cliff, discovered that the tide was indeed coming in, the waves crashing ever-harder against the shore—the small beach and rock pools below would be cut off from the neighboring coves within minutes. With no place to go, against the steep cliff face, the boy would drown.
“Hoy!” he called, knowing it was useless. No-one could hear him over the sound of the waves.
Achilles seemed to sense his concern; the stallion pranced restlessly back and forth, whinnying loudly. Colin tied the stallion to a nearby blackthorn and began a search for some way to descend to the cove, thinking that a grown-man might negotiate what would be impossible for a child. He noted almost immediately that ’twas only the first twenty feet or so that were particularly steep; below that he could make out feasible routes through the rocks and bracken. The situation was perhaps not as dire as he had first imagined, but if the child could not find a path—
“Hoy there!” the marquess called again. The boy was no longer visible, but he must be down in the cove somewhere; there was no other way up.
The first twenty feet . . . Colin could not jump such a distance, but if he could slide part way down, and then find
ledge, just there—
Lord Ashdown was not a man inclined to waste time. He was scrambling down the cliff face in the next moment, using anything his hands could find—roots and bits of exposed rock—to slow his descent. He reached the ledge and took a deep breath, planning his next moves. It should be much easier from there, he decided, but there was still no time to waste. And indeed, the remainder of his descent might have been successful if not for one loose rock about two-thirds of the way down. Dislodged by his foot, the rock plummeted noisily down the cliff face and white-hot flashes of pain shot through his leg as he tumbled after it. He came to rest flat on his back, disoriented and momentarily out of breath.
Colin lost consciousness for a few moments. When he came to his senses again, the roar of the surf sounded much closer. His mind struggled against nausea and pain, the sky spun around him, and the ocean roar filled his ears.
Then a small face bent over his own. A child, wearing a red cloak.
“Boy—” said the marquess, wincing at the pain provoked by a single spoken word.
“I’m not a
,” came the scornful answer.
That was all he knew.
Chapter 2: The Injured Gentleman
Fiona Marwick bent over the pot of vegetable soup and inhaled deeply, wondering if she should add a bit of sweet basil. She had decided in favor of the basil, and a bit more pepper, when she heard her daughter’s first cries. They seemed to be coming from an unusual distance.
Madelaine had gone down to Trow’s cove again, Fiona knew. But low tide was long past, and she should have been on her way home by now.
The last word was clear. There was no pain in her daughter’s voice, but it was the ‘
that occasioned Fiona’s alarm, a small formality unlike her independent eight-year-old. She dropped the spoon into the pot, grabbed her woolen cloak and stepped outside, scanning the cliffs south toward the rocks of the cove. There was no sign of Madelaine, and Fiona frowned. What on earth could have happened? Maddie was usually determined to conduct her adventures as free from adult interference as possible, and to keep the day’s discoveries—a shiny agate, a sea star missing an arm—to herself.
“Mother! Come quickly!”
That did it. Fiona ran down the path to the cove, looking for the patch of bright red that would signal her daughter’s location. Maddie had complained about the color—it would scare all the birds away, she complained—but it was one thing Fiona had insisted upon. With that coat, which she had sewn from the remnants of an old blanket, she could spot her daughter anywhere against the black and the grey-greens of the cliff face.
She rounded a corner and there was Madelaine, running toward her. The girl grabbed her mother’s hand and began pulling.
“Maddie, stop,” said Fiona. “What is it?”
Her daughter was panting. “A man. A man—he’s hurt.”
“I don’t know. But he’s really hurt.”
She followed Madelaine down to Trow Rocks, a narrow path following a gash through the cliff, nearly invisible from above. As they dipped lower into the rock and rubble she saw the figure immediately ahead, a man in a long rider’s coat which was torn and marked with the signs of a fall. He was lying immobile, his face half obscured by one arm.
, thought Fiona, and was glad that Madelaine was not the type to have hysterics. The man was unconscious, or at least she hoped that was all, and his right leg turned in a manner that suggested it might be broken.
“Maddie,” said Fiona. “Run and get Hobbs and tell him what has happened.”
“We can’t just leave him here!”
“Of course not. But we can’t move him by ourselves, either.”
Her daughter turned back on the path.
“Maddie—” said Fiona, and hesitated for a moment. They were high enough to be safe from the tides, but she could see the man was in a bad way, and she hoped that help would arrive before he regained consciousness.
“Hurry,” she said, finally.
Madelaine nodded and left.
Fiona crouched down and felt for a pulse at the man’s throat. There it was, a soft thrum against her fingertips. At least the stranger was still alive, and the pulse seemed strong enough, but his breath was shallow and rapid. Dee would know what that meant; Fiona had no idea. She covered him with her cloak, as the September afternoon was rapidly turning cold, and sat down to wait on the flattest bit of rock nearby.
Her fingers reached out again, of their own accord, and gently brushed the hair back from his forehead. He’s certainly handsome enough, came the unbidden thought. Tall, probably, with a strong face and pronounced features, his chestnut brown hair still pulled back in a mare’s tail. His shirt had been pulled open at the throat and she could see the tendons of his neck, a vulnerable, almost boyish sight. But this man was no boy. Fiona recognized a gentleman when she saw him, and the injured stranger was certainly of the upper class. His clothing was finely made, and his boots—
She did not want to look at the leg. Fiona was not squeamish, but until it could be straightened the break was a disturbing sight; not a large angle, but one where naught should exist.