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  Escape Fiction For Eager Minds
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Cover of Acts of Faith by Patricia Wynn

.. excerpt from

Acts of Faith

-- Chapter One --

July, 1716

It was a quarter to four in the morning when Mrs. Hester Kean, trailed by two liveried footmen, arrived on foot at the Black Swan in Holborn. At the entrance to the inn yard, illuminated by a hanging lamp, Hester paused to take note of the activity in the street. Already at this hour, people were bustling with the tasks of opening their houses or setting up shop before the daily onslaught of business generated by the Inns of Chancery clustered nearby. Hawkers had awakened to ply their trades, and servants emptied chamber pots, swept entries, and rushed to market before the streets filled with pedestrians and horses. Directly across Holborn, the Bell and the Black Bull vied for custom, but the Black Swan was the only inn in London that offered stagecoach service to the City of York.

Will, one of Lord Hawkhurst’s footmen, carried Hester’s portmanteau through the entrance to the inn yard, where the coach stood waiting for passengers, and handed it to the coachman to be lodged in the basket on the rear. Her trunks with the clothing she would need for a long visit, and gifts for her cousins, had been sent ahead by carrier. With luck, they would arrive soon after Hester. The one change of gown in her bag would have to suffice until they did.

The second footman, John, toted a basket of food put up by the cook for Hester’s journey. Four o’clock was too early for the inn to supply breakfast to travellers, even the ones who had lodged there overnight.

“Here you are, mistress,” John said, anxiously presenting his burden to her. “God give you a safe journey.”

Returned from seeing her bag carefully stowed, Will echoed the sentiment in an equally fearful voice, “Take care of yourself, Mrs. Kean. We’ll all pray for your safety.” Leaning forward and lowering his voice to a reassuring note, he said, “The coachman looks like he knows his business.”

Indeed, Hester thought, casting an eye over the driver for the initial stage, he did look capable. With a worn pair of jack boots up over his knees, sturdy gloves, and a broad-brimmed felt hat with a high crown, he looked every inch the reliable coachman, checking and re-checking the horses’ harness as they stood swishing their tails in the pre-dawn light. In spite of the warm summer weather, he had hung a large cape over his shoulders, prepared for any inclement weather they might encounter on the road.

Assuming a bravery she did not feel, Hester smiled and thanked both footmen for their good wishes, while trying to still the nervous stomach that had kept her awake most of the night. It was useless to fear for her life over the four days it would take the stagecoach to reach York—“if God permits,” as the advertisement read. The hazards of the road were too numerous and real to dismiss, but as the dire possibilities were too many to foresee, it was best to deal with each if and when it came. Aside from the usual problems of deep mud and broken axles, and the perpetual threat of highwaymen, other dangers had recently been thrust on her mind.

Only a few weeks ago in the Strand, some drunken officers of the Guard had attacked the carriage of the Earl and Countess of Bristol. The assault had been especially frightening because Lady Bristol was heavy with child. Before he had left for Hanover, King George had ordered a court martial for those involved, but if an episode of that nature could happen on the streets of London, Hester wondered what might happen on the open road. Whenever large numbers of men were assembled, there was sure to be violence, and the army had been doubled in the past year to put down the Jacobite rebellion in the North.

Reports of rioting in Norfolk, Gloucestershire, Shropshire, and even Yorkshire, too, had reached her ears. Although the King had garrisoned the houses of known Jacobites, she wondered how much his new security measures would provoke others working in secret. There would be no newssheets in Yorkshire to inform them of any disturbance in the country. They would have to rely upon letters sent from London, and any news they did receive would already be a week old.

It did no good to concern oneself with things that could not be helped, so Hester tried not to think how much she would miss the daily newssheets. She did mutter a prayer that the carriage would not overturn in a river, as the York coach had done just a few years ago, drowning most of its passengers; but beyond that one prayer she cautioned herself to be patient, the better to deal with whatever adventure or misadventure the journey might bring.

She felt the pocket beneath her skirt to assure herself that her purse was still there. She had been told that in addition to the fare she would need seven shillings to tip the coachmen and to pay for their drinks on the stops.

Will and John insisted on waiting to wave her off, though it was apparent that not all the passengers had arrived. As long as they had purchased tickets in advance, the coach would await their pleasure. She could only hope they would not be too late. As reluctant as Hester was to enter the box that would be her virtual cage for four days—at the very least from five in the morning till nine at night—if she wanted a good spot, it behooved her to take her seat. Already three of her fellow travellers, all men, had claimed theirs. She doubted that any of them would relinquish his superior place, even to a lady.

After paying the coachman what remained of her fare—earnest money having been paid to reserve the place—she accepted his help into the coach. She chose the remaining window seat, though it meant sitting with her back to the horses. This was preferable to a center seat, in case she wished to sleep. Besides, she was used to facing the rear in a coach, since her aunt and her cousins always claimed the better spots. As waiting woman to her cousin Isabella, Countess of Hawkhurst, Hester must always defer to the comfort of her employers.

As she settled her basket upon her lap, two of the passengers tipped their hats. The third, sitting across from her, merely nodded and said, “I bid thee good day.”

This manner of address confirmed the impression she had got from the plainness of his clothes and his hair, which hung limply by his face, that he was a Quaker. Her other two companions consisted of a pale, thin-featured clergyman, in black cassock, plain white neckcloth, and low-crowned hat, and a robust country gentleman in an open coat, woolen waistcoat, breeches, and jack boots up over his knees.

When the Quaker had greeted her, the clergyman had pursed his lips in distaste. Hester’s father, an Anglican clergyman, now deceased, had had no patience with the “Friends” as they called themselves, but she had always found them exceptionally honest and hardworking. Their unconventional beliefs did not particularly offend her. Of course, she had never been witness to the extreme antics of certain members of their sect; but such demonstrations as they had made in the past for the most part had ended before she was born. She hoped the clergyman’s obvious dislike would not lead to any unpleasantness on the road.

She was about to offer each of the men something from her basket of food when a flurry of activity in the yard announced the arrival of another passenger. A raised male voice with a trace of a foreign accent asked if this was indeed the coach to York. The ostler answered him curtly. Then, a debate with the coachman over the passenger’s baggage ensued.

Peering through the small window, Hester saw the coachman and another man struggling with a large portmanteau trunk. This was followed by a thump that rocked the vehicle as the trunk presumably made its way into the basket.

In a few moments, the face of a young gentleman appeared at the door. He glanced at his fellow passengers and, receiving a glare from the Quaker, cast an anxious look about for a friendlier face. Hester and the clergyman, both, who shared the backward-facing bench, nodded and smiled at him encouragingly, so removing his braided and cockaded hat, he squeezed himself through the door and set himself down between them.

Hester supposed it was the gentleman’s clothing that had drawn the Quaker’s frown, for though not overly rich in adornment, it displayed the unmistakable imprint of France. Like the others, Hester had elected to wear older garments, which could easily be ruined on a journey of this length. The men wore dark colours—the Quaker in plain drab—with heavy boots or sturdy shoes in case it became necessary to tramp through deep mud. The new gentleman, whom she estimated to be a few years younger than herself, wore a modest amount of lace at his neck and cuffs. His habit à la française, though of a cloth designed for riding, was elegantly fitted and braided. The only concessions he had made to the rigours of the road were his high-topped boots and a tie wig, the latter thickly powdered, though.

The clergyman gazed upon these signs of nobility with favour. Inclining his head politely, he inquired of the young gentleman whither he was bound.

Before he received an answer, the door flew open again to admit their last travelling companion, who peered in with a severe, officious air. With no choice of seats remaining, he stepped over the legs of the country gentleman and sat between him and the Quaker.

After bidding this newcomer good day, the clergyman repeated his question to the young gentleman.

“To Yorkshire,” the young man replied. He darted a wary look at the others before fixing his gaze on the hat in his lap.

“Then we shall be companions for the entire journey, for I, too, am bound for York.”

When the young man declined to elaborate, the clergyman appeared to realize that a slight towards the other passengers could have been implied. With a condescending smile, he asked how far he and the young gentleman could expect to enjoy the others’ company.

“I be bound for Yorkshire, too,” the Quaker stated, “though I don’t get down till Thirsk.”

The young man’s head jerked up, as if he would have spoken, but apparently thinking better of it, he lowered it again.

When solicited, the last man to take his seat gave his name as Foxcroft and volunteered that he was heading into Yorkshire on the government’s business. This statement was greeted with curiosity by the country gentleman and a polite nod from the clergyman, but the Quaker eyed him askance. The young gentleman shifted in his seat. Hester noticed that the knuckles gripping the hat in his lap had turned white.

The country gentleman, who gave his name as Woodson, said that he would ride with them as far as Doncaster, from which town he would hire a horse to take him home to Moorends. “And happy I shall be to get home, I assure you, for I have been in the metropolis for nigh on two months.

“And what about you, mistress?” he inquired kindly of Hester with the hint of a bow.

“I am heading to Yorkshire as well, on a visit to my family.”

“On a happy occasion, I hope?”

Regardless of her expectations, Hester replied in the affirmative, since there was nothing in the reason for her visit—neither illness nor death—which could politely be characterized as unhappy. Then, while the clergyman loudly congratulated himself on a pleasant set of companions, she reflected that, now that she was used to the idea, she was not particularly sorry to be undertaking the trip.

There was no denying that the news of her impending journey had come as a shock. She had just begun to settle into the lodgings her cousins, Harrowby, the Earl of Hawkhurst and Isabella, his countess, had rented in Royal Tunbridge Wells when her plans for the summer months had been overset.

Their establishment at the popular resort had been delayed for a number of reasons. First had come the celebration of King George’s birthday near the end of May, when the whole Court had turned out in finery to see the illuminations and bonfires at St. James’s. Then the King had appointed the eighth of June as a day of solemn Thanksgiving to God for putting down the “late, unnatural rebellion.” Prayers and sermons had been offered up in every church, the kingdom’s standards displayed, bells rung, and the guns of the Tower fired as the evening had concluded with bonfires, illuminations, and further demonstrations of public joy.

Harrowby had been detained in Parliament for a few more weeks, while the King urged the passage of a number of acts designed to secure his kingdom before he left to visit his Electorate of Hanover. With the rebellion only recently put down, Parliament had taken measures to protect his reign from every possible source of unrest.

Finally, near the end of June, King George had granted Parliament a recess until the seventh of August, instructing all members to return to their “respective countries” in full confidence that they would use their “best Endeavours to secure the Peace of the Kingdom, and to discourage and suppress all manner of Disorders; since,” as he assured them, “as the first Scene of the late Rebellion was opened and ushered in by Tumults and Riots,” his enemies would be “restless and unwearied in their endeavours to renew the Rebellion and to subvert the Religion, Laws and Liberties of their Country.”

With little more than six weeks in which to secure the loyalty of his countrymen in Kent and to divert himself, Harrowby had elected to spend the greater part of it frolicking in Royal Tunbridge Wells. If his mother-in-law, Mrs. Mayfield, Hester’s aunt, had been consulted, she would have opted for the Bath, where the stakes at cards were much higher. At the Bath, however, the rules of decorum were reputed to be so strict that Isabella feared there would be a restraint on flirting. And, chastened by a recent experience in which he had fallen under the influence of a mistress, Harrowby was ready to humour his wife.

Before King George took ship for Hanover, however, in order for Harrowby to fulfill his duty as a peer, the family had set off first for Rotherham Abbey, his country seat in Kent. It had been Mrs. Mayfield’s intention to send Hester there in May to supervise the move of Harrowby’s heir, George Lord Rennington and his wet nurse; but by the time the spring rains had ceased and the roads were passable, Harrowby and Isabella had become so attached to their son that they had been loath to part with him. They had put off his removal until they could journey down with him. Hester was gratified by this proof of their affection, since it was due in no small part to her efforts that they had overcome their initial indifference to their child.

It was, therefore, not until the last week of June that they finally travelled down, the baby, his wet nurse, Isabella’s maid, and Harrowby’s valet in the ancient travelling coach, and Harrowby, Isabella, Hester, and Mrs. Mayfield in a handsome new vehicle purchased to accommodate the growing family. Even in the beauty of summer, however, the country could not hold Harrowby’s or Isabella’s interest very long. After less than a fortnight of tending to business, the earl ordered up his carriage again, and bidding cheerful goodbyes to their son, they headed for the fashionable resort of Royal Tunbridge Wells where they would meet with their friends and be amused without the oppressive rules of Court.

Harrowby had purposely taken a house with too few rooms for his household in order to rid himself of his mother-in-law for the summer. He had decided that Mrs. Mayfield should return to Yorkshire to visit her son Dudley and his new wife Pamela, and to see to her other children who dwelt in their care. For months, Mrs. Mayfield had been hinting that her daughter Mary, the next of her children ready to leave the nursery, would soon be old enough to marry. She wished to bring Mary to Court to arrange an advantageous match for her. Since Dudley did not have the money to provide his sister with an attractive dowry, Mrs. Mayfield had wheedled and nagged until Harrowby had promised to settle sufficient funds on Mary to help her nab a noble husband.

Mrs. Mayfield’s journey into Yorkshire had been delayed when she begged to accompany her “precious Rennington” into Kent to help Isabella see that all was properly set up in the nursery, when in reality the task would fall to Hester. Harrowby and Isabella were so ignorant about the running of their household that they failed to recognize Mrs. Mayfield’s ploy. Hester could only bite her tongue and postpone the pleasure of seeing the last of her aunt for a few more weeks.

During their brief stay at Rotherham Abbey, Mrs. Mayfield’s behaviour was surprisingly good. Hester suspected that her aunt still entertained hopes of a reprieve from impending exile. The lodgings at the Wells, however, did not begin to approximate the size and comfort of Harrowby’s mansion in Piccadilly, so into Yorkshire she must go. Hester was grateful for any plan that would free her from her aunt’s hostility for at least two months. Selfish and greedy, Mrs. Mayfield neglected no opportunity to take advantage of her daughter’s position as a countess, and she resented Hester, not only for her attempts to protect the Hawkhurst fortune from her extravagance, but also for the influence she had on Isabella.

Isabella had been too much indulged. She was not very bright, but she was generous in her own way and capable of fondness, if not selfless love. Fortunately, she was attached to Hester, or Hester believed her aunt would have found a way to banish her from Hawkhurst House.

With the prospect of a few months’ freedom from her aunt’s jealousy, Hester turned her thoughts to self-improvement. She needed to steel herself from the sorrow of a recent and deep disappointment. In love with Gideon Fitzsimmons, the outlawed Viscount St. Mars, she had finally faced the probability that he would never offer her marriage. His situation in England was hopeless. As long as the Crown suspected him of murder, he could never be restored to the title he should hold as Earl of Hawkhurst, which Parliament had stripped from him and awarded to Harrowby. But in France, where he owned a considerable property, he could live in the open. He could make an advantageous marriage and be a member of the Regent’s court. The last time Hester had seen him, he had declared his plan to smuggle himself into France with no mention of returning. She could not blame him for choosing freedom over life as an outlaw, but the fact that he had not asked her to accompany him or even to wait for his return had forced her to accept the end to foolish dreams.

She had almost succumbed to a different proposal of marriage, which would have solved the greatest of her problems, except for the dispiriting fact that neither she nor the gentleman who had proposed to her had been in love. To accept him, knowing this, had seemed to her to be committing a great wrong.

If only one did not feel so apart! She had learned that being surrounded by people she did not love could be far more painful than being alone.

It had taken all her fortitude to conceal this episode from her family, to hide her sadness, to devote herself to her duties, and not to dwell on things that could never be. Her greatest solace had been playing with Georgie. She already missed his infant smiles, the warm feeling of holding a baby in her arms, but the allure of a pleasant change of scenery was difficult to resist.

She found Royal Tunbridge Wells delightful with its wide, shaded walks, its shops, a bowling green, pure air, and rustic charm. Every day, if the weather was clear, the ladies and gentlemen strolled the pantiles of the Upper Walk, took the waters of Lord Muskerry’s spring, and made merry in the evenings. Their daily pleasures were enlivened by games of bowls and horse races on the downs. Harrowby and Isabella soon forgot their son in the promise of assemblies and parties, gaming and balls, made even more entertaining by the informality of the setting.

For the first few mornings they were there, dressed in déshabille, Hester accompanied Isabella and her mother to the Wells to take the recommended dose of water. At nine o’clock, they returned to their lodgings to dress. Then at ten, while Isabella and Mrs. Mayfield put finishing touches on their finery before strolling the Walks, and Harrowby set off for conversation at the coffee house, Hester attended church to pray for patience until her aunt left for Yorkshire at the end of the week.

The Church of King Charles the Martyr had been built by subscription as an assembly room and chapel for the visitors to the Wells. As the popularity of the spa had grown, the church building had been doubled in size to accommodate a greater number of worshippers. The result was an unusual square shape with an upper story of pews on two facing sides.

The interior with its dark wooden pews and cream-coloured walls was brightly lit by tall arched windows, which let in the summer light and warmth. The glory of the church was its plaster ceiling, sculpted in circles and domes. In the short time Hester had to herself every day at this hour, she bathed in the peaceful surroundings and prayed for the strength to live out her life in service to a family she could never respect.

She could tolerate Isabella, for whom she had a kind of motherly affection. When she thought, however, of being treated like a servant by her aunt for the remainder of her days, she had to question her decision to pass up the only offer of marriage she was ever likely to receive.

On the fourth day of their stay at the Wells, after the service was over, she returned to their lodgings in Mr. Ashenhurst’s house to find the household in an uproar. She could hear Mrs. Mayfield’s shrieks all the way down the path to the street.

A maid anxiously greeted Hester with the news that the tooth-drawer had been summoned, Mrs. Mayfield having been struck suddenly with intolerable pain in her jaw. According to the maid, she had been crying out for Hester this half hour and more.

With a sigh, but not without a twinge of sympathy, Hester quickly put her things away and followed the maid upstairs to the chamber she had been sharing with her aunt the past few days. There she found Mrs. Mayfield propped up in bed, vigorously resisting the tooth-drawer’s attempts to rid her of one of her few remaining teeth. He loomed over her, brandishing a fearsome instrument, his voice raised in an effort to be heard over her screams.

“Now, now, my lady,” he shouted, wincing from a slap that caught him on the chin, “I can see that you have been through this many times before. You know how much better you will feel once the offending tooth is out.”

“It’s not my tooth, you bloodthirsty leech! The pain was in my neck and now it’s moved into my chest.” In this moment she caught sight of Hester and, bursting into a wail, reached out a trembling hand. “Oh, Hester, thank God you have come! You must make this horrid man leave! I know when I have a rotten tooth and this one is not!”

The fear on her face was unquestionably real. Hester hurried to the bed and clasped her aunt’s outstretched hand. “Indeed, sir, if my aunt insists that her tooth is not the source of her pain, it would seem useless to remove it.”

“Do you suppose I do not know my own business, mistress? Do you think me a fool? Why, all that is needed is one glance in her mouth to see how severely it’s rotted. She’d be better off to let me draw all the teeth she has, so her false ones can take a better hold.”

There was some sense in what he said. Mrs. Mayfield’s teeth were a constant source of complaint. Hester had been sent on countless errands to purchase every tooth powder and mastic touted in the newssheets, but none had been of any help. One look at her aunt’s livid face, however, informed Hester that she would never give her consent, and Hester would pay—and pay dearly—if she did not take her side.

“Nevertheless,” Hester said to the tooth-drawer, “I see no reason to put her through the agony of an extraction when her current problem may be due to something else. I thank you for coming, but I must ask you to leave.”

Furious now, the tooth-drawer jammed his instruments into his leather bag, fretting and fuming. “I will go,” he said, taking up the bag, “but you’ll be calling me again soon enough, I make no doubt. And perhaps I will not be so quick to come next time.” He donned his hat with a vicious shove and stormed from the room.

“Oh, Hester, my dear, thank goodness you were come in time. I had such palpitations, I do not know how long I could have fought him off.” This was said in such a weak voice that Hester grew genuinely concerned. Her aunt never called her “my dear.” Such uncharacteristic behaviour increased her alarm.

“Perhaps we should call for a physician.”

“Yes, I’m afraid you must. I am not at all well.”

“I shall do so directly. But where is Isabella?”

Mrs. Mayfield gave her a startled look. “Why, she has gone for her morning walk.”

“Does she not know of your pain?”

“Yes, but I told her to run along. I knew you would be returning shortly. It was that fool of a housekeeper who called for the tooth-drawer, and all because I put a hand to my cheek, I suppose. But do you go and find a physician, and have some tea and pastries sent up. And don’t dawdle!”

Mrs. Mayfield sounded more like her irritable self. If that was how she had addressed Isabella, Hester could hardly blame her cousin for leaving the house. The truth, however, was that Isabella was no more a nurse than her mother was and fled the scene whenever the faintest sign of illness appeared. Always robust herself, she had no understanding of symptoms and no patience with weakness.

Well, Hester had prayed for patience, and the brief show of gratitude on Mrs. Mayfield’s part had been her reward. If her aunt would only continue in that pleasant vein, Hester could much more easily reconcile herself to wait upon her.

She went out into the street and made several inquiries before sending a note to a Dr. Brett, who soon came. He took her aunt’s pulse and declared it to be slightly elevated. Although there was no fever, he could not like the feverish gleam in her eyes.

Mrs. Mayfield fidgeted in the bed, as she bemoaned the unlucky timing of her attack. “For you must know, Doctor, that I am under the greatest need to be well before Thursday next, for I am taking the York coach.”

“My dear lady!” The doctor was patently shocked. “I am not at all certain that an activity of that nature would be wise. If you were to travel in a private conveyance, I should be more sanguine, but the public carrier?”

“Indeed, just thinking of the risks gives me palpitations. Not that I believe that to be the only cause, of course,” she added, sitting up suddenly as if she would snatch back her words.

A suspicion entered Hester mind, and she frowned. Her aunt darted a look at her, then gave a moan and fell backwards onto her pillows.

Dr. Brett took her pulse again, this time reporting that it was erratic. “Clearly something is affecting your heart. I shall give you a sedative now and come back later to see how you are getting on, but I should reconsider that journey, if I were you.”

“Thank you, doctor.” Mrs. Mayfield submitted meekly to being sedated, only telling Hester to be sure to relay the doctor’s findings to Isabella and Harrowby as soon as they returned.

As Hester escorted Dr. Brett from the bedchamber, he spoke to her in a grave voice. “Is it true that your aunt intends to undertake such a journey?”

Hester had begun to doubt her aunt’s intentions, but it was too early to speculate aloud. “It is true that she has planned to take the stagecoach.”

The doctor tsked. “I cannot believe his lordship would wish to subject his mother-in-law to such an ordeal. Perhaps I should speak to him or to his lady myself?” The notion of advising the Earl of Hawkhurst on the health of a member of his family appeared to gratify him.

As Hester certainly did not wish to be the one to tell Harrowby that his mother-in-law might be too unwell to leave, she invited Dr. Brett to return after dinner to speak to them both.

This he did, and after reexamining his patient and finding her quite agitated, and reportedly suffering from mysterious pains that ranged from her head to her toes, he diagnosed a nervous complaint and prescribed her a long course of the local waters. Hester, who was with her aunt when she received this advice, noted a triumphant gleam in Mrs. Mayfield’s eyes. It was quickly countered by a dolorous sigh and a pitiable lament that she would not be seeing her precious children.

“And who is to prepare Mary to come to town, I do not know, for Dudley’s wife has never stirred outside Yorkshire. And wealthy as her papa may be, there’s nothing so improving to a girl as a sojourn in London. I fear my poor Mary will seem the veriest country mouse when she arrives.”

The doctor was sufficiently moved by her concern to state that if Lord Hawkhurst could send her in his private coach, providing she broke her journey often, he might be prevailed upon to withdraw his objections to the trip.

Mrs. Mayfield barely managed a civil reply, but she clenched her teeth and emitting a few moans said she doubted she could rise from her bed any time the next week. And, besides, she could never so impose on her “dear Hawkhurst” as to deprive him of his vehicle for a whole fortnight.

“No,” she said, shaking her head with a brave smile, “I must not go. I succumb to your advice, Doctor. Besides, I have thought of a plan which will do just as well. Hester can go in my place.”

Dr. Brett seemed relieved that he would not be losing his noble patient, or the next best thing in a nobleman’s mother-in-law. He beamed at Hester and congratulated her on her youth and excellent health.

When he informed the earl and his wife of his diagnosis, Harrowby closed his eyes and groaned. Then, a thought occurred to him and he asked with a hopeful look, “I don’t suppose she’s on her deathbed, is she?”

Isabella gasped. “Mama might die?”

Dr. Brett responded gravely, “No, my lady. I do not think we need fear that. At least, not yet.”

Harrowby’s face fell and he sighed. “I didn’t think so. But you are certain she is too sick to travel?”

“Oh, Mama must not attempt it!” Isabella cried. “Why, she cannot abide being shut up in a carriage. She says it gives her the worst sort of headache.”

Dr. Brett agreed. “I greatly fear it, my lord. I should not like to risk my professional reputation by giving her my leave to go.”

“Oh, you wouldn’t, eh? Then, where will I put her for the next two months? Just tell me that if you can. If she has to share a bedchamber with Mrs. Kean, we shall never hear the end of her complaints.”

Isabella was nonplussed, but the doctor proved eager to relieve them of this worry. “I believe Mrs. Mayfield came up with a solution to that problem herself by suggesting that her niece go to Yorkshire in her place.”

Isabella brightened. “Yes, Hester can go! Now we can be merry again and not give the matter another thought.”

Harrowby was not so certain that a summer with Mrs. Mayfield would be as merry as one without her, but at least the problem of the bedchamber had been solved.

The very next day, Hester found herself on the way to London, where she packed and made arrangements for a much longer trip. It had been too much to expect that Harrowby or Isabella would see through Mrs. Mayfield’s pretence. She had out-manoeuvred her niece and fooled the others, probably having concocted her scheme weeks ago.

But there was no use dwelling on her aunt’s chicanery. By the time Hester boarded the York coach, she had become reconciled to the trip, and except for the rigours of the journey, she would not regret a visit to the North Riding where she had been raised.

She would have been happier if she were not to stay with her cousin Dudley, who had inherited most of his mother’s bad qualities and was boorish to boot. But Mary was Hester’s favourite cousin. It might be amusing to prepare her for a London visit.

At least she would be in the country, surrounded by scenery she loved and away from London, where everything reminded her of St. Mars and what she greatly feared had been their final farewell.

She only hoped the journey would not be strained by the tension she felt developing among the passengers in the coach.

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Last updated: 3 October 2017
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