Authors: Carola Dunn
Tags: #Regency Romance
THE ROAD TO GRETNA
“Hell and damnation!” Jason swore softly as yet another invisible rose-bush caught at the skirts of his greatcoat. He hadn’t thought Henrietta’s back garden had so many roses. At present he was in no case to appreciate the fragrance which floated on the still night air.
In the dark it was difficult to disentangle himself. He was forced to remove his gloves, with the inevitable result that he scratched his hands. Biting back another curse, he moved on towards the house.
He had nearly reached the back door when a heavy object thudded at his feet.
“Hell and damnation!” swore a muffled voice above his head.
By the dim glow of city lights reflected from the overcast sky, he saw a female form dangling from a rope of sheets, some eight feet from the ground. It was not Henrietta. Henrietta would never have used such language, let alone undertaken so hazardous an enterprise.
“Drop. I’ll catch you,” he offered in a carrying whisper.
“No, but I’m happy to be of service, ma’am.”
“I warn you, I’m no light weight, but I cannot hang on any longer.”
In proof of both statements, she abruptly descended, feet first. Jason managed to break her fall, finding himself with an armful of deliciously rounded young woman. She was indeed no light weight, and when he set her down, steadying her, he discovered that the top of her head reached his eye-level. He was a little above medium height for a man, so she was tall for a woman, quite unlike his dainty, delicate Henrietta.
“Thank you, sir,” she said with deep gratitude. “Oh, there’s my hat. I dropped one with a white feather so it would be easier to spot.” Retrieving it, she set it on her head and tied the ribbons. “Did you happen to notice where my portmanteau landed?”
Her practical attitude made him want to laugh. “You nearly hit me on the head with it.” Looking round, he saw the glint of a brass lock.
“Well, I beg your pardon, but after all I didn’t know you were skulking in the garden.”
He picked up the bag. “Good Lord, it’s heavy. What do you have in it? The family jewels? You are a runaway, I take it, not a burglar?”
“I’m eloping. You’re not a burglar, are you?” she asked in sudden suspicion.
“Like you, I am eloping, but I seem to have mistaken the house. From the mews it’s hard to tell just where one is.”
“Which house are you looking for?”
“Number 35, Russell Square. The Whites’.”
“You’re eloping with Henrietta?” Now she sounded dubious. “Well, I daresay it is none of my affair. Come back to the mews with me and I’ll direct you. Did you see a carriage there?” She reached for her bag.
“Pray permit me to carry it for you, ma’am.” He followed her, hoping she knew the garden’s layout well enough to avoid the rose-bushes. “The only carriage in the mews was my own."
“Dash it! I knew I shouldn’t have left it to Angus. But I am a little early.”
“So am I. If your...er...intended is not yet there, I should be happy to keep you company while you wait.”
“You had better not. Henrietta is shockingly vague about time. She’s as likely to turn up early as late.”
He was obliged to acknowledge the truth of her words.
When they reached the mews, the girl’s sweetheart had still not arrived. She pointed out the Whites’ house and Jason ordered his coachman to drive a little farther down the mews.
He returned to her. In the flickering light of a nearby oil lamp she looked anxious and a trifle forlorn, but though he was loath to leave her, she insisted.
“Thank you for your help, sir,” she said, pushing a stray lock of copper-coloured hair out of the way under her hat. “I wish you very happy with Henrietta.”
“And I you with your Angus.” Bowing, he resolved that if she was still waiting when he and Henrietta set out for Gretna Green, he would stop to discover whether there was anything he could do for her. With a word of farewell, he made his way towards the house she had indicated.
Penny watched him stride away. What a pity, she thought, that so charming a gentleman should be enamoured of a silly chit like Henrietta White. It had been kind of him to catch her in his remarkably strong arms. She had particularly liked the laugh in his deep voice when he told her that the portmanteau had barely missed him.
She had felt an utter widgeon hanging on the end of her rope, as if she didn’t have the sense to work out how many sheets she’d need. What she hadn’t allowed for was the knots. They took up far more of the length than she had expected. She was lucky not to have sprained an ankle, or worse, dropping from such a height; lucky, too, not to have brained her rescuer with the dratted bag before he caught her.
It had not seemed quite the moment to request an introduction, but she wondered who he was. Henrietta always had half a dozen beaux dangling at her apron-strings, though there were few genuine gentlemen among them, as this one’s voice had announced him to be. When she started talking about her conquests, Penny generally ceased to listen. Not that she had seen much of her neighbour recently, since she herself had been virtually confined to the house.
The August night was mild and Penny’s pelisse was warm, yet she shivered as she glanced back at the house, thanking heaven her uncle was away from home. The servants would have stopped her leaving, but none had the gumption to try to trace her when she was found missing.
Where was Angus? Setting down her portmanteau behind a mounting block, she started towards the entrance to the mews. Before she reached it, the clip-clop of hooves and rumble of wheels on cobbles preceded the arrival of a pair of horses, one ridden by a postilion. They were pulling not the yellow-painted postchaise she expected but a travelling chariot of antique design.
Penny stared in dismay. The cattle were bony nags, fit for the knacker, and the post-boy had holes in the knees of his breeches. Even the uncertain light of the badly trimmed oil lamp behind her was bright enough to reveal the flaking black paint on the chariot. It creaked alarmingly as it drew up beside her. She cast a longing, envious look back at the stranger’s stylish carriage with its mettlesome team of four.
The chariot door opened and Dr. Angus Knox descended. Penny hurried up to him.
“Surely I gave you enough money for a better rig than this?” she demanded in a low voice. “Why did you not hire a yellow bounder?”
“Ma dear Penelope, I couldna countenance spending sae much,” he said in his reasonable way. Had the expression on his round, freckled face not warned her that he was annoyed, she would have known anyway because irritation always made him sound more Scottish. “We ha’ three hundred mile and mair to gang. At a shilling a mile ‘tis fifteen pound, and anither fifteen to return, wi’ tolls and tips for the postilions beside. This carriage was lent me by a patient and willna cost us a single bawbee.”
“But I have plenty!” She was annoyed, too. “Well, never mind now, we must leave. Oh, my portmanteau—I nearly forgot it.”
After a brief pause, she went to fetch it herself. Dr. Knox was an honest gentleman, a worthy, kind-hearted soul, but it would never dawn on him to carry a bag for a young and healthy female simply because she was female.
He did, however, lift the portmanteau into the chariot and stand back to allow her to climb in first. In view of the vehicle’s decrepitude, she expected a damp, musty atmosphere inside and was startled when her nostrils were assaulted by a wave of cheap violet scent.
Sneezing, she missed the first part of Angus’s utterance.
“...Ratchett,” he finished.
Peering into the dark interior, Penny saw a darker bulk in the far corner. She swung round.
“What did you say? Who is that?”
“Yon’s Mistress Ratchett. I hired her for chaperon.”
“Really, Angus!” Grasping his sleeve, she tugged him a few steps from the chariot. Though the last thing she wanted was to quarrel with him, once again she found it impossible to hold her tongue. “I gave you money for a decent carriage and horses, not for a chaperon,” she hissed.
“Ye canna gang wi’out a respectable wumman,” he said obstinately.
“Of course I can. What’s so respectable about eloping? For pity’s sake, we’re going to Gretna Green, not to a fashionable house party. Give your Mrs. Ratchett a couple of guineas and tell her to go home.”
“Dinna fash yoursel’, Penelope, ‘twilna change ma mind.”
“Please!” She was already in high fidgets without an unknown and probably disapproving woman to deal with. “I cannot endure a stranger fussing about me. You must send her away."
“Then I’m thinking we willna be going after all. I hae ma reputation to conseeder. I’ll speak to your uncle for ye and I’ve nae doot he’ll see reason.”
“He will not,” said Penny in desperation. “You are too unselfish to understand his greed. I beg your pardon, I’m sorry I spoke so intemperately. I expect you are right, I ought to have a chaperon and perhaps it will be comforting to have female companionship.” She turned and scrambled into the chariot before he could declare that he had irrevocably made up his mind not to elope with her after all.
“How do you do, ma’am?” she said, seating herself beside Mrs. Ratchett, a shapeless black mass with a face like a full moon. “I’m Penelope Bryant.”
“Pleased, I’m sure, miss,” responded a high pitched, slightly wheezy voice. “‘Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge.’”
But not in the same chamber, Penny vowed to herself, as she waited anxiously for Angus to join them. She heard him speaking to the postilion, mentioning the Great North Road. A moment later he came to join them, sitting opposite with his back to the horses, and the carriage jerked into motion.
“Are we going by the Great North Road?” She tried to sound as if she were asking for information, not questioning his judgement. “Do you not think that is where my uncle will look for us?”
“Mr. Vaughn will not return home until tomorrow night—tonight, that is—and unless you left a note, he’ll have no notion where you might be, nor that I am with you.”
“I suppose not.” Penny was not going to spoil his improved temper by pointing out that her aunt was bound to have a spasm when she discovered her niece had fled. Dr. Knox would be sent for; Dr. Knox would be missing. Uncle Vaughn was sharp-witted enough to put two and two together, and Angus being a Scot, Gretna Green would come to mind at once.
“Besides,” he pointed out, “we shall make better time on the main highway, since John McAdam’s new surface has been applied. And we shall travel as Mr. and Miss Cox, brother and sister, with Mrs. Ratchett as our aunt. I gave my name as Cox when I hired the horses.”
“That was a clever precaution, but all the same...”
He reached across, took her hand and patted it. “Your nerves are overset, my dear, and no wonder. Try if you can catch a little sleep.”
Obediently she leaned back on the lumpy seat and closed her eyes, though she had no hope of sleep. The jolting rattle of the chariot was soon joined by snores from Mrs. Ratchett’s corner. Staring into the patterned darkness behind her eyelids, Penny wondered whether she could have found a different solution to her problem, but for weeks past she had racked her brains in vain. Marriage to Angus seemed to be the only chance of escape.
Anyway, it was too late now for second thoughts.
* * * *
Jason lurked in the Whites’ back garden, glancing up now and then at the lighted window of Henrietta’s chamber. Somewhere a church clock struck the quarter, and then the half hour. What the devil was the girl up to?
At last the back door opened, revealing a slender silhouette, poised as if ready to run, in a high-waisted gown and high-crowned bonnet. He hurried forward.
“It is I, my angel.” Drawing nearer the light, he saw that her carriage dress was forget-me-not blue, the colour of her eyes but hardly a practical colour for travelling any distance. Her golden curls were elaborately arranged in ringlets under a straw hat with a garland of silk forget-me-nots.
She held out a little hand in a white kid glove. Doffing his beaver, he took her hand in his and bowed over it as gracefully as if they were in a drawing-room. Her father being a Cit, she set great store by her suitor’s gentlemanly manners, so he took pains to gratify her with punctilious observance of the niceties. Even on the verge of an elopement.
“Is this not prodigious exciting?” she said in her soft, sweet voice. “I do not know when I have had more fun. Do you like my bonnet and my carriage dress? I had them made up specially.”
“Utterly delightful, like their wearer. Where is your baggage?”
“Right here in the passage, except that I forgot my jewel case. Cora has gone up for it.”
“Surely you will not take your jewels!”
She laughed merrily. “Oh, not the diamonds or the sapphires, but I must have my pearls to dress for dinner, and one or two other oddments.”
As she stood aside to let him pass, he gazed in dismay at a heap of boxes and bags which took up half the passage. Turning to protest, he saw that what he had taken for an ermine tippet was in fact a sleeping white kitten, clasped to her bosom. He closed his eyes briefly, schooling himself to patience.