Read Too Far to Whisper Online

Authors: Arianna Eastland

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance

Too Far to Whisper (23 page)

BOOK: Too Far to Whisper
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He lay there, his mouth open, his eyes large with fear.

“Mr. Beckford!” she cried. “What is wrong?”

“Pain,” he whispered hoarsely, his hand clutching the left side of his chest. His breathing was labored, his perspiration-soaked face ashen.

Rosalind placed her hand on the man’s clammy brow. “I know not what to do to help you!” she said, her voice rising.

Roger made an attempt to say something, but was unable to form the words. He stared up at her, his eyes glazed with pain, a gurgling sound coming from his throat with each labored breath.

Rosalind clasped Roger’s cold hand between both of hers and rubbed it vigorously. Panic flooded through her as his fingers curled around hers, his nails digging into her palm as his pain intensified. “Try to keep calm, Mr. Beckford,” she whispered. “This spell will pass, and you shall be fine.”  She wanted to believe it was just a severe case of indigestion from the venison, but she was more inclined to think his heart was the problem – that it had been too weak to withstand the rigors of the day’s journey, especially with the added burden of the heavy pack. With violently trembling hands, Rosalind used a corner of Roger’s blanket to wipe his forehead.

A long, shuddering gasp slipped from his lips, followed by a frightening silence. The hand that just seconds ago had grasped her hand so fiercely, fell limp, and the eyes that had begged her for help grew glassy and unseeing.

“No!” she shouted, grasping him by the shoulders and shaking him. “You cannot leave me!  Not out here…not like this!” Releasing him, Rosalind sat back on her heels and stared at the man as if he were some hideous monster. A sudden, violent urge to retch caused her to cover her mouth with her hand.

She remained there, stiff and unmoving, for what seemed like hours – her heart furiously pounding in her ears as she willed Roger’s body to move. Then, feeling much like a lost, abandoned child, she curled into a fetal position with her blanket wrapped around her and fell into an exhausted sleep.

The squawking of crows overhead awakened Rosalind. Yawning, she blinked against the rays of sunlight that filtered through the trees. She winced as she rose to a sitting position, her stiff muscles knotting in protest. Rubbing the back of her neck, she allowed her gaze to briefly shift to Roger’s body. The sight of the blue, rigid form lying on the blanket made her quickly look away and take several deep breaths to calm herself. She wished she could give the man a proper burial, but she had neither the tools nor the strength to do so. The thought of having to leave Roger where he lay, at the mercy of insects and animals, flooded her with guilt, but she was helpless to do otherwise.  Sucking in her breath and holding it, she inched her way toward Roger’s body and recited a brief prayer over it. Then, determined not to look at him, gathered the few supplies she thought she would need and set off in what she hoped was an easterly direction. She knew she stood a better chance of making it back to Adam’s, for Eastwell was twice the distance away and across much rougher terrain.

The temperature climbed as the day wore on, and Rosalind’s pace slackened as the heat and her pack steadily drained her energy. She found herself wishing she had paid better attention to the trails she and Roger had taken, for now she had to rely only on her instincts to help her find her way back to Adam’s. Every time she passed through a thick cluster of trees or bushes, she imagined that everything from a band of savages to a pack of wolves might be waiting to pounce on her. She felt for Roger’s knife, which she had tucked into the waist of her apron, to give herself a small measure of reassurance.

Rosalind paused to drink from a spring-fed pool and splash cool water over her face and neck. Although she was eager to reach Adam’s by nightfall, her desire to keep moving succumbed to an even greater desire to collapse on a patch of soft moss beneath a tall oak and rest for a spell. Leaning back against the tree’s broad trunk, her legs stretched out before her, Rosalind nibbled on a piece of bread and scanned her surroundings, hoping to spy some familiar landmark. It seemed to her that she already had walked a greater distance than she and Roger had covered the day before, yet she recognized nothing around her. Nevertheless, she refused to consider the possibility she might be lost. She vowed that by dusk, she would be comfortably seated in front of Adam’s hearth. Tonight she would sleep in a soft bed, not outdoors with a chorus of mosquitoes humming in her ears.

Involuntarily, her thoughts drifted back to the last time she had been alone and lost in the woods. Shadow had miraculously appeared in the midst of a blizzard to rescue her. She found herself wishing he once again would appear.  She wanted to hate him, to consider herself fortunate to be rid of him, but as reluctant as she was to admit it, she still cared about him…perhaps too much. She had done a good deal of thinking while walking alone in the forest all day, and she slowly had come to regret storming out on Shadow the way she had. He had done so much for her and yet she had turned on him in a moment of anger and accused him of deceiving her – and even worse, had told him the only reason why she had allowed him to touch her was because she’d thought she was soiled goods. But now that she had allowed herself sufficient time to cool down and more calmly consider all that had occurred, she realized how wrong she had been. Shadow had risked his life, sacrificed the respect of his people and condemned himself to the life of a fugitive, all for the sole purpose of protecting her. And what had she done to thank him?

No, Shadow had not acted selfishly at all, Rosalind was forced to admit.

“I have been such a fool,” she said aloud, lifting her eyes toward a lone patch of blue sky that peeked through the trees. She wondered where Shadow was and what he was doing at that very moment. She also wondered whether she ever would see him again, or if she ever would have the opportunity to ask for his forgiveness.  She suspected he would not even want to see her, for which she could not blame him, but she desperately craved that opportunity.

Wishing to take advantage of the few remaining hours of sunlight, Rosalind gathered her supplies and with renewed determination, set off in search of Adam’s house. A short time later she suddenly halted, a smile curving her lips.
The tree!
  Before her stood a broad maple, two of its limbs cracked and hanging down on opposite sides of its trunk. She recalled how Roger had commented that the limbs resembled two thin arms dangling at the sides of a fierce warrior. She and Roger had passed this way!

Rosalind’s heartbeat quickened along with her pace as other familiar landmarks began to spring up on either side of her – the stump tunneled with insect holes, the large rock shaped like a bear. Each sighting was more exciting to her than finding clues to a buried treasure. She pushed herself to the point of exhaustion, certain that Portsmouth lay just beyond the next clump of trees or over the next ridge. Her body cried out for rest and her sore muscles craved a long soak in a tub of hot water, but soon, she told herself, she would be comfortable. And, if luck were on her side, she also would be looking into Shadow’s eyes again. Her father always used to tell her that whatever happened in life, good or bad, it was part of God’s plan. Perhaps, she thought, as tragic as Roger’s death was, it was God’s way of sending her back to Adam’s…and to Shadow.  Perhaps it was His way of telling her she belonged with Shadow.

The sun began its descent, making Rosalind more desperate to reach her destination. For the past half-hour she had been hearing the call of a bird – the same call over and over again. Something about it did not seem quite right to her, did not ring true in her ears. She struggled to suppress the thought that Indians might be nearby, even though for the better part of the last mile she had felt that someone – something – was watching her. Roger’s comment about the savages having their way with women and then bashing in their skulls, kept running through her mind.

The tangled maze of trees that loomed before her, its branches beckoning to her like hundreds of long, bony fingers, was, Rosalind felt certain, the last remaining obstacle that stood between her and the cozy safety of Adam’s house. She maneuvered her way though the labyrinth of twisted, insect-infested trees and bushes, her determination willing her to keep moving.

When at last she emerged into a small clearing on the other side of the trees, her face scratched and sweaty, her hair peppered with leaves and pine needles, and her breath coming in short gasps, Rosalind spied something that caused her to freeze where she stood.

She screamed and dropped her pack as her hands flew up to her face. “Dear Lord, no!”

Beneath a tall maple, but a few feet to the right of where she stood, lay Roger Beckford’s body, exactly where she had left it that morning. She had done naught all day but walk in a circle!

Rosalind’s head began to spin and her legs suddenly felt too weak to support her. She frantically grabbed for a tree branch in an attempt to steady herself, but her reach fell short and she sank to her knees.  The stiffness of death already had contorted Roger’s mouth into a hideous, twisted smile that seemed to be mocking her for her failed attempt to leave him behind.

His haunting visage was the last thing she saw before she blacked out.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

With great effort, Rosalind opened her eyes, but the blinding brightness caused her to abruptly shut them again. Her head throbbed and her mouth felt as though someone had stuffed it with lamb’s wool.

“She is coming around,” a male voice whispered.

“Poor child,” a female voice responded sympathetically. “Such an ordeal she has been through. She is fortunate to be alive.”

Rosalind rolled her head to the left, an action that caused a searing pain to shoot through her temples. She moaned.

“Rosalind,” the male voice, now much closer, softly called. She felt a large, warm hand take hers. “Can you hear me?”

His answer was another moan.

“Fetch another wet cloth for her head,” the male voice ordered. “It might take down the swelling.”

Rosalind willed herself to open her eyes. She squinted against the light, struggling to focus on her surroundings. Although her vision was fuzzy, she was able to determine that she was in a chamber.

“How do you feel?” the male voice asked her.

Cautiously, Rosalind turned to face the voice. The face that came into focus was a familiar one.

“Nathaniel?” she croaked, confused. “Where am I?”

“Back in your chamber, where you belong,” he said. He squeezed her hand. You gave us quite a scare, my darling.”

Rosalind lifted a trembling hand to her brow and winced as she lightly touched the swelling there. “What happened to me?”

“We were hoping you might enlighten us,” Nathaniel said.

She closed her eyes and attempted to sort through her jumbled thoughts, but she was too exhausted, too weak to concentrate. Her only desire was to sleep. Recalling the events that had led her back to Nathaniel, she decided, would have to wait.

“She was awake and speaking,” Nathaniel informed Grace as she entered the chamber.

The housekeeper moved to place a wet cloth on Rosalind’s forehead. “That horrible savage is to blame for this,” Grace muttered. “Lord only knows what vile acts the poor child was forced to endure.” Her expression softened, becoming motherly as her fingers smoothed back Rosalind’s hair.

“Aye, the savage is indeed to blame,” Nathaniel coldly agreed, his hands clenching into fists. “But he will not trouble anyone any longer.”

 

* * * * *

When Rosalind again awoke, the room was dark, save for a single candle that burned on the table at her bedside. The flame cast a glow on Nathaniel, who was seated on the edge of the bed, his hand still clasping hers.

“Water,” Rosalind whispered.

Nathaniel leapt to his feet and filled a cup with water from a nearby pitcher. Returning to the bed, he gently lifted Rosalind’s head from the pillow and pressed the cup to her lips. She took several sips before collapsing back onto the pillow.

Nathaniel set the cup on the table, then again sat on the bed and stared at her. “How are you feeling?”

“As though I fell off a cliff,” she replied. “Please, Nathaniel, tell me how I came to be here. I cannot remember a thing.”

He reclaimed her hand and took a deep breath. “When Mr. Stoddard informed me that you had departed without me, I immediately set out to catch up with you,” he explained. “I felt confident it would take little effort to gain on you and your escort, seeing that your lead was so short. But to my confusion, my search turned up naught.”

Rosalind’s memory began to return as Nathaniel spoke. The reason he had been unable to find her was because she had been hiding in Adam’s brother’s house…with Shadow.

“I kept moving forward,” Nathaniel continued, “hoping to pick up your trail, all the while becoming more and more frustrated. It was then that I made the decision to circle back, wondering if perchance I had missed some clue to your whereabouts. Call it instinct, but I had a strong feeling something was amiss.” He took a deep breath. “’Twas dusk the next day when I heard it…a woman’s scream in the distance. I ran in that direction, and the Lord must have guided my path because I arrived just in time.”

Rosalind stared unblinkingly at him. “In time for what?”

“To save your life. ‘Tis fortunate for you that I am an excellent shot.”

Rosalind clamped her eyes shut and desperately attempted to recall what had occurred. She remembered trying to find her way back to Adam’s house and wandering in circles, then stumbling upon Roger’s body. She shuddered as she recalled how frightening Roger had looked, and how she had screamed at the sight of him – the scream that apparently had led Nathaniel to her. “I swooned,” she said, mostly to herself.  She opened her eyes and looked up at Nathaniel. “But what did you shoot? Was it an animal?”

He chuckled humorlessly. “You might say that. I spied you, lying lifeless near your dead escort, and there he was, standing over you. I thought for certain I had arrived too late.”


He?

“The savage, Shadow Runner. He was just about to finish you off. Had I not shot him, I have no doubt you would have been murdered, just as your guide had been.”

It took several seconds for Rosalind to find her voice. “But my guide, Mr. Beckford, died the night before! ‘Twas his heart! I witnessed his death.”

“You are distraught,” Nathaniel said, his tone condescending. “And confused. The savage obviously killed your guide, you swooned, and he wanted to make certain you never awoke again. How do you think you came by that bump on your forehead?  He must have bashed you as your were awakening. Had I not happened upon you when I did, I have no doubt he would have finished the deed.”

When Nathaniel noticed the look of undisguised horror on Rosalind’s face, and her wide eyes filling with tears, he thought it best to cease discussing the incident and instead make some attempt to soothe her. “But take comfort in knowing ‘tis all over now,” he said. “The Indian shall never bother you again.” He smiled tightly. “I suppose you could say I sent him to meet his ‘Great Spirit.’ Now, all you have to concern yourself with is getting strong again…for our wedding and our future together.”

Rosalind’s throat tightened until she feared she might suffocate. Her fingers closed around Nathaniel’s hand, her nails digging so hard into his flesh, he winced.

“What troubles you?” he asked. “Have you pain?”

She heard the scream then, shrill and piercing. It took her several seconds to realize the scream was her own.

Her outburst sent Grace scurrying back into the chamber. Nathaniel tossed a frantic, helpless look at the woman.

Grace moved to sit on the edge of the bed and then pulled Rosalind into her arms. “There, there, child,” she whispered, patting her on the back. “You must not upset yourself this way. ‘Tis not good for you. You are safe now, you need not fear anything.”

Rosalind sobbed against the plump woman’s breast. When she finally was able to catch her breath, she whispered, “I wish to die!”

Grace directed an accusing look at Nathaniel. “What on earth did you say to her to upset her so?”

“She asked how she came to be here and I told her,” he responded.

“Obviously you made her relive her terrible ordeal with the savage!” Grace said. She smoothed Rosalind’s hair and murmured several soothing words into her ear before turning back to Nathaniel. “Perhaps ‘twould be best if you left us alone for a while, sir.”

Nathaniel shook his head. “Nay, I wish to remain here by Rosalind’s side.”

Rosalind lifted her tear-stained face and choked out, “I mean you no offense, but I truly wish to be left alone right now. I beseech you both to leave.”

Grace eyed her, her concern evident. “Are you certain that is what you want, child?”

Biting down on her quivering bottom lip, Rosalind nodded.

“Then we shall take our leave.” Grace stood and grasped Nathaniel by the elbow. “Come, Captain.”

Nathaniel gazed at Rosalind and hesitated. “If you need anything,” he finally said, reluctantly allowing Grace to lead him toward the door, “just call out.”

Ignoring him, Rosalind rolled onto her side and turned her face toward the wall.

Once out in the hallway, Grace attempted to calm the distressed captain. “You must have patience, lad,” she said. “The girl needs time to heal her mind as well as her body. After all, we have no way of knowing what terrible things the savage did to her ere you found her…and killed him. Please try to get some rest. I fear you are going to make yourself ill.”  She headed down the stairs and called over her shoulder to him, “Get yourself to bed, Captain.”

Nathaniel sighed and ran his hand through his hair. He blamed Rosalind for everything that had occurred since she left Adam’s house. Had she not been so eager to run off with Stoddard’s guide in the dead of night, he thought bitterly, the savage never would have been afforded a second opportunity to assault her.

But something occurred to him at that moment that even he could not comprehend. He suddenly realized that Rosalind’s purity, which previously had been of the utmost importance to him, no longer mattered. All he desired was for her to get well and strong again and become his bride.

“Lord in heaven,” he whispered, closing his eyes and leaning back against the wall. “Could it be that I actually
care
about a woman for the first time in my life?”

Left alone in the silent, dark chamber, Rosalind cried until her pillow was wet and cold against her cheek. Shadow was dead…murdered by the very man to whom she was betrothed. She hated Nathaniel, despised everything about him at that moment, yet she could not blame him for killing Shadow. After all, had she not, by her own words, convinced him that the Indian had held a knife to her throat and taken her hostage? Was it any wonder that Nathaniel had feared for her life when he heard her scream and then spied Shadow standing over her? She had no one to blame for Shadow’s death but herself.

Fresh tears spilled down Rosalind’s cheeks as guilt and remorse consumed her. Shadow had died believing she hated him – that he was not good enough for her. Why, then, she wondered, had he chosen to follow her? And why had he not made his presence known sooner, when she was lost and wandering alone?  The feeling she had experienced in the woods – the feeling someone was watching her – must have been Shadow stalking her, she realized.

She did not believe for one second that the bump on her head had been inflicted by his hand. Even if her words had angered Shadow, she still could not imagine him doing something so violent to her.  He had been naught but kind and gentle to her, even though she had caused him nothing but trouble ever since their first meeting. Had his path never crossed hers, he still would be alive. And for that, she never would forgive herself.

Rosalind slept restlessly that night, her tears frequently waking her. The pain in her head worsened until every move caused her to grit her teeth. She assumed that the lump above her eye actually had been caused when she had swooned and hit the ground.  She could not help but think, with a shiver of revulsion, about Jonathan and what had happened to him when he had fallen on a rock. At least, she thought bitterly, her own head still was intact.

When Rosalind did manage to doze for a spell, she dreamt of Shadow, holding her hand and smiling as the two of them walked through a great field of wildflowers. Abruptly, the dream transformed into vivid, terrifying images of Roger Beckford’s blue, contorted face and Shadow’s bloodstained body, each flanking Jonathan’s corpse as it lay in a shallow grave. Trembling violently, Rosalind awoke, her body soaked with perspiration, her bottom lip bloody from biting down on it to keep from screaming.

 

* * * * *

The next morning, Grace visited Rosalind’s chamber a number of times.  The housekeeper fussed over her, fed her, brushed her hair, washed her and helped her into a fresh nightdress. Her visits never were lengthy, for Grace had far too many other chores to tend to, but Rosalind found herself looking forward to seeing the woman’s cheerful, apple-cheeked face in her doorway. She welcomed any diversion that afforded her a respite from lying in bed and dwelling on the deep sense of loss and guilt she was feeling.

Rosalind had considered her bedchamber to be warm and comfortable, but now it seemed cold and depressing. As she lay on her back and stared at the white canopy overhead, she desperately wished she could be a child again…to return to a carefree time of pillow fights, snowmen, girlish giggling with her sisters, and sitting by the fire and listening to Ben’s tall tales before bedtime.

She drew a long breath. Never again would her life be simple, she thought. Her father once had told her, “You can return to a place, but not to a time.” Only now was she able to fully comprehend the meaning of his words.

Grace came in to fill Rosalind’s water pitcher later that afternoon.

“How is Abigail?” Rosalind asked her. “No one has made mention of her, nor have I heard her in her chamber since my return.”

Grace moved closer to the bed and spoke in a hushed voice. “Truth be told, she did not fare well at all during your absence. She refused to eat or take her medicine, and she fretted constantly. She does seem to be doing somewhat better now since your return, however…and she is most eager to see you.”

“Think you that it might be a good idea to open the door that adjoins Abigail’s chamber with mine so that perhaps we may share some conversation?” Rosalind asked.

BOOK: Too Far to Whisper
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