“Ye checked the walls and hedges, aye?” Jamie was already moving, heading for the distant cornfield, Joe at his heels. That field was not fenced but was bordered by drystone dikes on three sides, a windbreak hedgerow to the north. The notion of Fanny jumping the walls was just this side of absurd, but she might conceivably have broken through the hedge; she was a powerful horse.
“Think I’m green? ’Course I did!”
“We’ll go round by the road.” Jamie jerked his chin toward the road that edged the property to the east; it was the border of Helwater’s land and made along the high ground, offering a view of the whole of the back fields.
They had barely reached the road, though, when Joe gave a shout of relief, pointing. “There she is! Who the devil’s that atop her?”
Jamie squinted for a moment into the glare of the fading sun and felt a lurch of alarm—for the small figure perched on Fanny’s back, kicking its heels in frustration against the draft horse’s great placid sides, was Betty Mitchell.
Fanny had been plodding stolidly along when first sighted, but now the big head reared up, nostrils flaring, and she broke into a thumping gallop. Betty screamed and fell off.
Jamie left Fanny to Joe, who seized the horse by the mane and was half-dragged toward the barn as Fanny made single-mindedly for her manger. Jamie squatted by Betty but was relieved to see her already struggling to rise, using the most unladylike language he’d heard since Claire had left him.
“What—” he began, seizing her under the arms, but she didn’t wait for him to finish.
“Isobel!” she gasped. “That frigging lawyer’s got her! You’ve got to go!”
“Go where?” He set her firmly on her feet, but she swayed alarmingly, and he gripped her arms to steady her. “Mr. Wilberforce, ye mean?”
“Who bloody else?” she snapped. “He came to take her driving, in a gig. She was already out in the yard with her bonnet on, getting in, when I saw her from the window. I ran down and said, whatever was she thinking? She wasn’t going off with him by herself—Lady D would have my head!”
She paused to breathe heavily, gathering herself.
“She tried to make me stay, but he laughed and said I was quite right; ’twasn’t proper for an unmarried young woman to be out with a man unchaperoned. She made a face, but she giggled at him and said, oh, all right, then, she supposed I could come.”
Betty’s hair was coming down in thick hanks round her face; she brushed one back with a “Tcha!” of irritation, then turned round and pointed up the road.
“We got up to the edge of Helwater, and he stops to look at the view. We all got out, and I’m standing there thinking it’s perishing cold and me come out with no more than my shawl and cross with Isobel for being a thoughtless ninny, and all of a sudden Mr. Wilberforce grabs me by the shoulders and pushes me off the road and into a ditch, the f**king bastard! Look at that, just look!” She seized a handful of her muddied skirt and shook it under Jamie’s nose, showing him a great rent in the fabric.
“Where’s he gone, do ye know?”
“I can bloody guess! Gretna f**king Green, that’s where!”
“Jesus Christ!” He took a deep breath, trying to think. “He’ll never get there tonight—not in a gig.”
She shrugged, exasperated. “Why are you standing here? You’ve got to go after them!”
“Me? Why, for God’s sake?”
“Because you can ride fast! And because you’re big enough to make her bloody come back with you! And you can keep it quiet!”
When he did not move at once, she stamped her foot. “Are you deaf? You have to go now! If he takes her maidenhead, she’s stuffed more ways than one. The bugger’s got a wife already.”
“What? A wife?”
“Will you stop saying ‘What’ like a bloody parrot?” she snapped. “Yes! He married a girl in Perthshire, five or six years back. She left him and went back to her parents, and he came to Derwentwater. I heard it from—well, never bloody mind! Just—just—go!”
“I’ll manage! GO!” she bellowed, her face scarlet in the glare of the sinking sun.
HIS FIRST IMPULSE was to go back to the house, to the main stable. But that would take too long—and embroil him in awkward explanations that would not only delay his leaving but rouse the whole household.
“And you can keep it quiet,” Betty had said.
“Aye, fat chance,” he muttered, half-running for the barn. But if there was any chance of keeping this from becoming an open scandal, he had to admit that it probably lay with him, little as he liked it.
There was no possibility of pursuing Wilberforce on one of the farm horses, even were they not knackered from the day’s work. But there were two fine mules, Whitey and Mike, who were kept to draw the hay wagon. They were broken to the saddle, at least, and had spent the day in pasture. He might just …
By the time he’d reached this point in his thoughts, he was already rifling through the tack in search of a snaffle and, ten minutes later, was mounted on a surprised and affronted Whitey, trotting toward the road, the three stable-hands staring after them with their mouths hanging open. He saw Betty in the distance, limping toward the house, her entire figure emanating indignation.
He felt no small amount of this emotion himself. His impulse was to think that Isobel had made her bed and could lie in it—but, after all, she was very young and knew nothing of men, let alone a scoundrel like Wilberforce.
And she would indeed be stuffed, as Betty inelegantly put it, once Wilberforce had taken her maidenhead. Quite simply, her life would be ruined. And her family would be badly damaged—more damaged. They’d lost two of their three children already.
He pressed his lips tight. He supposed he owed it to Geneva Dunsany and her parents to save her little sister.
He wished he had thought to tell Betty to seek out Lord John and let him know what was to do—but it was too late for that, and he couldn’t have waited for Grey to come, in any case. The sun had sunk below the trees now, though the sky remained light; he’d have an hour, maybe, before full dark. He might reach the coaching road in that time.
If Wilberforce meant to reach Gretna Green, just over the Scottish border, where he could marry Isobel without the consent of her parents—and without anything in the way of questions asked—he must be taking the coaching road that led from London to Edinburgh. This passed within a few miles of Helwater. And it had inns along the way.
Not even an eloping scoundrel would try to drive a gig all the way to Gretna at night. They’d have to stop overnight and go on in the morning.
He might catch them in time.
IT WAS A GOOD deal safer to ride a mule in the dark than to drive a gig, but still nothing a sane man would want to do. He was shivering—and not entirely from the cold, though he was wearing only a leather jerkin over his shirt—and cursing in a manner that would have outdone Betty, by the time he saw the lights of the first posthouse.
He gave the mule to an ostler to water, asking as he did whether a gig had stopped, with a well-dressed man and a young woman in it?
It had not, though the ostler had seen such a conveyance go by, just before dark, and thought the driver an idiot.
“Aye,” Jamie said briefly. “How far’s the next inn?”
“Two miles,” the man replied, peering at him curiously. “You’re after him, are you? What’s he done?”
“Nothing,” Jamie assured him. “He’s a solicitor, hurryin’ to a dying client who needs a will changed. He’s left behind some papers he needs, so they sent me on to bring them.”
“Oh.” The ostler—like everyone else in the world—had no interest in legal matters.
Jamie had no money, so shared the mule’s water, scooping it up with his hand. The ostler took his lack of money personally, but Jamie loomed menacingly at him, and the ostler took his disgruntlement off to a safe distance, muttering insults.
Back to the road, after a brief contest of wills between Jamie and the mule, and on into the night. There was a half-moon, barely up, and as it rose, he was at least able to see the edge of the road and thus not fear going badly astray in the dark.
Biddle was not a posthouse but rather a small hamlet boasting one tavern—outside which stood the Helwater gig, its traces unhitched. Jamie said a quick Hail Mary in thanks, added an Our Father for strength, and swung grimly off the mule.
He tied Whitey to the rail and stood for a moment, rubbing his stubbled chin and thinking how to proceed. One way if they were in separate rooms—but another if they were together. And if solicitor Wilberforce was the man that Betty thought him, Jamie would put money on together. The man wouldn’t want to risk being caught before he’d put the matter beyond question; he wouldn’t wait for marriage before deflowering the girl, for once he’d taken her virginity, there was no going back.
The simplest thing would be to walk in and demand to know the whereabouts of Wilberforce and Isobel—but if the aim was as much to prevent scandal as it was to rescue the fat-heided wee lassie from her peril, he’d best not do that. Instead, he walked quietly round behind the tavern, looking at the windows.
It was a small place: only two rooms upstairs, and only one of those windows was lit. The shutters were drawn, but he saw a shadow pass by the crack, and as he stood there in the sharp-smelling dark, he heard Isobel’s giggle, high and nervous, and then the rumble of Wilberforce’s voice.
Not too late, then. He drew a deep breath and flexed his hands, stiff with cold and long riding.
The words of an old Highland song echoed in his mind as he rummaged about the ramshackle shed behind the tavern. He had no notion of the music, but it was a ballad, and he recalled the story, which had to do with an abducted bride.
… in one bed they were laid, were laid, in one bed they were laid.
In the song, the young woman hadn’t wanted to be abducted, though, and fiercely resisted the attempts of her would-be bridegroom to consummate the marriage.
“Before I lose my maidenheid, I’ll fight wi’ you ’til dawn, ’til dawn, I’ll fight wi’ you ’til dawn,” he murmured absently, feeling round the walls. A good-size beer barrel would be enough; tall as he was, he could reach the sill, he thought.
The valiant maid succeeded—owing as much, Jamie thought, to the unmanly feebleness of her would-be husband as to her own efforts—and, come dawn, emerged triumphant from the boudoir, insisting that her abductors restore her to her home, … virgin as I came, I came—virgin as I came!
Well, he hadn’t heard any screeching yet, so there was a chance Isobel would come home in the same condition. He didn’t find a suitable barrel but did come across something better—a thatcher’s ladder, laid on its side. He carried this out, walking as softly as he could, and laid it carefully against the wall.
There were noises from inside the tavern—the usual clatter and voices, and a smell of roasted meat that made his mouth water, despite his preoccupation. He swallowed saliva and set foot on the ladder.