Authors: Anna Jacobs
Tags: #Historical Fiction/Romance
She hadn’t realised until her father’s death changed their lives so greatly how stuck in a rut she’d been, because there had always been plenty of household tasks to fill her days. Perhaps she had deliberately sought refuge in that rut after John’s death? She’d missed him so much. And her father had always been protective of her—too protective for her own good, she knew—while Martha and Sally had been treating her like fragile china for the past two years, now she came to think of it.
And she wasn’t fragile, not a bit of it. In fact, she felt to be brimming with energy and life, just as she used to be.
John wouldn’t have approved of her letting people over-protect her. He’d admired her partly for her practical nature and energetic, independent ways. Her father hadn’t approved of the match at all, because John had only his stipend as a curate, but Penelope hadn’t cared about that. She was sure her fiancé would get his own church one day and then he’d earn more, and anyway, she had her hundred pounds a year from her mother. That made enough difference for them to feel it all right to marry. They’d been so happy, full of plans for helping their poorer parishioners.
Sighing, she banished the sad memories. She must look forward not back from now on. And she intended to do something about Martha as well as herself. Although people considered her sister the capable one, Penelope knew that Martha had the same fears and vulnerability as any other woman, only she hid them underneath that brisk exterior. She’d had the same dreams too when they were girls—to be a wife and mother—and had given them up without complaint to look after her father and sister.
Was it too late now for Martha to find happiness in that way? Who could tell? All Penelope knew was that there was more chance of
happening here than there ever had been in Woodbourne—for them both. She admitted to herself that she would still like to marry and have children.
She stretched, raising her arms and twirling round. She could almost feel herself breaking free of the protective shell. Once, when she was sixteen, she had crept out to dance barefoot on the lawn in the moonlight, wearing nothing but her nightdress—a shocking thing to do. Now that same joy in life was bubbling up inside her and she wanted to weep for her father, cry out with the pain of the new life surging through her, laugh at Edward and his foolish ways, exult in their coming move—all at once.
As she ran lightly down the stairs she heard a noise in the distance that she couldn’t quite place, a faint roaring sound almost like the distant rumble of thunder. Perhaps it was one of the new steam engines? There it went again. What did she know about mills and machinery? Nothing. But she could learn, couldn’t she?
Only when she opened the front door did Penelope realise that people were running along the street, glancing backwards over their shoulders as if terrified of whatever they were fleeing from.
“Is something wrong?” she called, but no one answered.
She hesitated, but as the number of people passing had lessened and she could see nothing pursuing them, she decided it must have been a false alarm and locked the front door, turning towards the square and moving briskly. The inn was only two or three minutes’ walk away. Nothing could happen to her in that short distance, surely.
But when she was only a few steps along the street she heard voices yelling behind her and turned to see a group of rough-looking men run round the corner pursuing two others. Even as she looked, they bowled over an old woman who was hobbling along painfully and pounced on one of their victims, kicking him and punching him so that he screamed in pain.
Terrified, Penelope turned to run, but someone grasped her arm and pulled her into a narrow passage between two houses. As she squeaked in shock, he said, “It’s all right. I’m just getting you out of their way, miss. I doubt you could outrun them, so we’d better get you out of sight quickly.”
Although he was carrying a big iron bar under his arm, he had a transparently honest face, the sort you trusted instinctively, so when he pulled her along the narrow passage she trusted her instincts and went with him.
“We’d better get you back inside your house quickly. If they see you with me, they’ll come after us both.” He turned right into the narrow muddy lane that lay between the rear gardens of the villas and the back yards of a row of terraced mill workers’ dwelling. As he came to the bright green gate, he tried to open it and when it proved to be locked, cursed under his breath and glanced back the way they had come.
Penelope could hear voices yelling queries at one another.
“Have you seen Porter?”
“Where did the sod go?”
“I’ll have to break it open, though it’ll show them we’re here,” her companion said. “It’s me they want and I’ve no mind to let them kick me to death, let alone what they might do to you.”
His words were so shocking she gaped for a moment, then pulled herself together and asked, “Can’t we climb over it?”
He glanced at her in surprise. “I can, but what about you?”
“I used to climb trees as a girl.” She hitched up her skirt, blushing as she exposed her lower limbs, then telling herself that didn’t matter if it was a question of saving a man’s life—and perhaps her own. “Give me a push up.” With his help she put one foot in the latch hole and with a further shove from the stranger—she carefully refrained from thinking which part of her anatomy he had had to shove—she managed to climb over the top of the gate.
“Stand back! I need to throw this over.”
With a thud the iron bar landed on the bare earth near the wall.
Her rescuer clambered over the gate to join her and picked up the bar. Seizing seized her hand, he pulled her towards the house. “Hurry up. We have to get you inside, out of their way.”
“I have a front door key, but not a back,” she panted.
“Let’s try it.”
But the key didn’t fit this lock and the voices were getting closer.
He felt along the top of the door frame, but found no spare key in this favoured hiding place.
She glanced round them, then saw a single, empty plant pot beside the kitchen step and lifted it. “This might be it.”
He took the rusty key from her and to her relief it turned in the lock.
“Look along the backs!”
He pushed her inside and when he hesitated, she pulled him with her. Closing the door, they locked it again and stood staring at one another, panting. For a few moments time seemed suspended then more voices outside broke the spell. With a start she realised her skirts were still kilted up and pulled them down, blushing hotly.
He put the bar carefully on the floor. “Don’t move,” he breathed in her ear. “They can’t see us if we stay here in this passage, but if we go into the kitchen or the scullery, they’ll be able to spy us through the windows. I bet they come and look, because everyone knows this house belongs to Mr Seaton.”
They stood close together behind the door. His body felt warm against hers, but the wall was cold against her left hand and she suddenly realised that her leg was hurting. She could feel something trickling down it—blood, she supposed. She must have grazed herself getting over the gate. Well, she could do nothing about that in front of the stranger. The graze was quite high up her leg. How much flesh had she been showing when she climbed over the wall, for heaven’s sake? She felt her face burning again, but hoped he couldn’t see her embarrassment in the shadowed passageway.
Another outburst of yelling from the laneway made her flinch and let out a faint whimper. She wasn’t a coward, but the voices outside sounded full of raw anger, and the way the men had kicked their victim showed how violent they could be.
He put his arm round her shoulders, whispering, “Hold still, lass. They can’t see us and I doubt they’ll try to break in.”
His arm was warm and comforting and she leaned against him, thankful she wasn’t alone.
The rioters broke down the back gate and came right up to the house, rattling the door and peering through the windows, but after a minute or two they went away again, arguing all the way down the garden path about where Porter could have disappeared to. After a few minutes the voices faded into the distance and she let out a long, shuddering sigh of relief.
Her companion took his arm away from her shoulders and stepped away. “Sorry, miss. Wasn’t thinking. I didn’t mean to take liberties, but you seemed upset.”
She studied him covertly. He wasn’t much taller than she was but he looked lean and strong, as if he’d been honed by hardship. She’d let herself get soft, she knew, far too soft. “I’m grateful. I don’t know what I’d have done without your help. Does this sort of thing happen often in Tapton?”
“Only lately, since Owd Noll’s decided he wants to own Seaton’s Mill.”
“Brindley. The man I used to work for. Nasty old devil he is. Owns the third mill in town, the smallest one. Jonas Wright has the biggest, Ben Seaton the next biggest, and then there’s Brindley’s. Terrible place it is. His machinery’s downright dangerous an’ he pays the least of any master.”
“Why were they chasing you?”
“Because I’m Assistant Engineer at Seaton’s now, but I used to work at Brindley’s. I reckon Owd Noll wants to stop me helping Mr Seaton set up his new machinery. I reckon he thought he’d easily buy Seaton’s after the old master died, but Mr Ben wouldn’t sell. He’s a good master, he is, like Mr Wright.”
She could hear the admiration in his voice and felt pleased that she and Martha had not misjudged the nature of their employers. “Well, I’m all right now, so if you think it’s safe, we’ll move into the kitchen. There’s a fire in there and I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling chilled through.”
“Aye, we should be all right now.”
She led the way. A glance through the window showed her the tops of heads bobbing past in the back lane. Voices continued to howl and shriek faintly in the distance. At one point there were sounds of breaking glass and once a woman’s scream, high-pitched, cutting off abruptly.
“Is it a riot?” Penelope whispered.
“Aye. I saw some of Brindley’s folk running round. They’re usually at work at this time of the morning, but today they’ve downed tools. Don’t know what he’s done to upset them now.” There was a grim tone to his voice.
She held her hands out to the fire and he did the same. “What made you help me today?”
He shrugged. “I could see you were a lady, but I knew that bunch would have taken no account of that. Brindley’s brought in some trouble-makers from Manchester, you see, men as’d murder anyone for a few shillings.” He looked into the distance, his face tight with unhappy memories. “As well as destroying Seaton’s new machinery if he can, Brindley wants me out of town. Or better still, dead.”
She could only stare at him in shock for a moment, then whisper, “Why? Isn’t it enough to dismiss you?”
“Not with him. I defied him, you see, refused to make his machinery even more dangerous to the children who work on it, not if I starved for it.” He gave her a mocking bow. “My name’s Daniel Porter, by the way, miss, and I’m a fool. I want to be an engineer, you see. I’m self-taught, still have a lot to learn, but I
She held out her hand, feeling a link to him forged in their joint escape from danger. “I’m Penelope Merridene and I don’t think you’re a fool. My sister and I are moving to Tapton soon to teach Mr Wright’s children and Mr Seaton’s sister. We’re also going to teach some of their workers to read and write better, so maybe we’ll see you in our classes.”
“Just give me the chance!” he said fervently. “I’d heard they were bringing in a governess, but not that they were to let the men have lessons too.” Another frown, then, “If you’re going to live here, you’d better not let on that you know me if we pass in the street. Brindley’s hatred seems to spill over on to anyone who’s a friend of those he considers his enemies.”
She stared at him in shock. “I hadn’t realised the situation here was so—volatile.”
“I don’t know what that word means, but I’d liken the situation here to a keg of gunpowder. If someone sets the fuse carefully and then lights it, the keg will blow up. Boom!” He made an expressive gesture with his hands. “Normally no one would think twice about Seaton putting in new spinning machinery—not unless someone stirred up trouble deliberately.”
“And that someone is Mr Brindley?”
“I reckon so.”
This town wasn’t, she realised now, quite as peaceful as it had seemed. But that made no difference to her decision to come here. The riots wouldn’t last long, surely, and she wanted very much to live a useful life again. “If I meet you in the street, Mr Porter, I shall definitely speak to you. My father brought us up not to give in to bullies.”
He looked at her with a wry smile. “Then
shall have to avoid
I don’t want you getting hurt, miss, and any road, it’s not your fight.”
She looked into his clear blue eyes and something warmed still further inside her. “Don’t avoid me,” she said softly. “We all have a duty to unite against evil.”
“Eh, you don’t know Owd Noll.”
But she smiled and shook her head. Nothing would make her ignore this man, not after the way he’d saved her today. Besides, she liked him, she really did.
Outside there were still occasional shouts and running footsteps, but they didn’t seem nearly as loud as before. “Shall we go and peep through the front parlour windows?” she asked.
“Aye, why not? I’ve never been inside one of these big houses afore. My mother and sister will want to know all about it. You’re called Miss Merridene, aren’t you?”
“My sister is Miss Merridene because she’s the eldest. I’m Miss Penelope.”
“Is that how the nobs do it?” He was grinning.
She smiled back. “People do have some silly rules, don’t they?” She saw him staring round as they walked through the empty house and once heard him mutter to himself. “Eh, to think of living like this!”
In the front parlour the noise was greater and men were still pounding up and down the street. Penelope and Daniel peeped out from the side of the window, trying not to show themselves.