A Death in Sheffield
They rode to the north and slightly west, rapidly when there were stretches of open land, and slowing to walk or trot where there was forest. Droughm avoided all roads, and stayed well away from any other persons they happened to see in the distance.
Artemis followed closely, and tried not to think of her weariness, or the fact that there was only more weariness to come. She was unclear on exactly how far they must travel, but tried to remain philosophical, as she’d done on so many advances in the past; hers was to follow without complaint, and provide support where needful.
And hopefully, she’d be providing support to Droughm beneath him in a bed—no question that she needed to improve, since there were plenty of others hoping to supplant her. That he loved her was a certainty, but men were men—as she well knew—and the bed-sport was a priority for them. She hated to admit it, but their less-than-spectacular first night was a cause for concern.
They stopped once to eat, and to rest the lathered horses, then pushed on through the long afternoon. Just as the light was fading, they pulled up to review the valley spreading out before them.
“I believe the lights in the distance are Kendal.”
“Excellent,” she replied, having no idea where Kendal was. “Are you husband or uncle, this time?”
He considered. “Uncle; I imagine I will have to sleep on the floor.”
Artemis nodded; it was just as well—despite her desire to improve on her bed skills, she truly, truly needed some sleep.
They circled around the village as darkness fell, and Droughm decided on an isolated farmstead located on the outskirts. Holding his horse, Artemis watched as he approached, and knocked on the door to be met by an older man, musket in hand. The two conducted a discussion during which she saw Droughm make a gesture in her direction. The terms having been agreed to, he approached and lifted her down.
“You are to go in, and Mrs. Manley will see to you while I help rub the horses down. We are Mr. and Miss Hardy.”
She nodded, and mounted the steps to meet Mrs. Manley, a stout, plain woman with cheeks like apples. Her cheerful smile revealed that one of her front teeth was missing.
“Come on in, lass. We’ll have ye clean and fed in a lamb’s shake—best take yer boots off on the steps, here.”
With a relieved sigh, Artemis removed her muddy boots, and then followed the woman into the warm kitchen, stepping carefully on the wooden floor in her stockinged feet. “Thank you so much for your hospitality,” she offered in her best niece’s voice, and wondered what excuse Droughm had given for their bedraggled appearance at this late hour.
“Wash yer hands and face ʼere at the pump, first; after ye eat, I’ll heat-up sum water fer a proper bath.”
“That would be wonderful,” said Artemis with heartfelt gratitude. “I would so love a bath.”
After washing at the pump, she dried her face with the rough-spun towel proffered by her hostess, who watched her with a speculating eye. “A pretty thing, ye are—sech bonny eyes.” The woman’s tone indicated that this was not necessarily to the good.
Artemis wasn’t certain how to respond. “Thank you.”
The woman shook her head. “Pretty is as pretty does, though; mark it well.”
“Yes, ma’am.” One could not argue with such an observation.
Gingerly, Artemis settled into a wooden chair at the kitchen table, and then watched as her hostess dropped eggs into boiling water and cut a thick slice of ham from the joint in the pantry.
“Ever been this way afore, lass?”
“No, ma’am—I’m afraid I am not very familiar with this area.” Artemis refrained from making any mention of Sheffield, thinking she should probably play her cards close to the vest.
“Where’s yer family, then?”
The sole representative is currently in the stables, she thought, but instead said vaguely, “Oh—they live to the south.”
“Hmmph.” Her hostess raised a brow as she served up the food.
Nothing loath, Artemis was wolfing down the meal when Droughm entered with Mr. Manley, deep in a discussion about the quality of the horseflesh now stabled in the Manley barn. Droughm nodded to Artemis, and indicated he would retire upstairs to wash before joining them.
With some amusement, Artemis noted that Mrs. Manley’s gaze was openly appreciative as she watched Droughm mounting the stairs. But as soon as he was out of sight, the woman suddenly turned to shake her coddling spoon in Artemis’ direction.
“Now missy; my mother didn’t raise a fool, and I can ken what’s afoot, ʼere.”
“I beg your pardon?” Artemis’ tone was as mild as milk, but she was suddenly on high alert. I hope we don’t have to flee again, she thought, annoyed. It would be cruel beyond measure to dangle a hot bath before me, only to snatch it away.
“Yer uncle’s fit to be tied, for all he’s tryin’ to keep it hid.”
This was an unanticipated tack, and Artemis could not fathom where it was headed. “He does tend to be fit-and-tied,” she agreed tentatively.
The woman pursed her mouth and regarded her with an admonishing eye. “None o’ yer sauce, if ye please.”
Mollified, the woman relaxed her posture, and tilted her head in a kindly manner. “What be yer name, lass?”
“Carena,” Artemis answered promptly.
Mrs. Manley folded her hands over her ample midsection and regarded her with a shrewd eye. “Well, Carena, p’haps ye’ll listen to an older woman, who’s been about, and has seen what there is t’see.”
“Willingly,” said Artemis, all attention. “Pray continue.”
“Ye’ll be wise t’marry who yer family tells ye to. It’s the way of it for good reason—yer nowt but a silly flibberbeget, at yer age, and its lucky yer uncle caught ye in time, and is draggin’ ye back home.”
The light dawned, and Artemis struggled to maintain her countenance as Droughm re-entered the room. Brightening, Mrs. Manley indicated he was to sit whilst she cooked up another batch of eggs. Simpering over her shoulder, the woman said, “I hope ye don’t mind, sir, but I bin scoldin’ Carena, here. An older woman’s advice is needful, betimes—she’ll nowt listen to the likes o’ ye, right now.”
Not surprisingly, Droughm slanted Artemis a covert glance of alarm, and Artemis was forced to cover her face with a hand, lest she burst out laughing.
The woman mistook her hilarity for distress. “Now, now, missy; I’m sure yer uncle won’t give ye what fer—no need to be cryin’. But ye canno’ be behavin’ in such a way—tyin’ yer garter in public with a runaway weddin’. Think o’ the disgrace to yer pur family.”
There was a small silence. “Indeed, Artemis has often been a trial,” Droughm offered.
“Carena,” Artemis corrected him.
“Carena,” he agreed.
The woman shook her head sympathetically at Droughm. “These young lasses—wi’ no respect fer their elders.”
“Deplorable.” Droughm began his meal. “The chit is entirely too hot-at-hand.”
“Unfair,” Artemis protested. “You are very hard on me.” She slid her gaze to him, but he did not dare look up.
“Ye may think yer sweetheart’s a good choice, lass, but yer family knows best—ye need to get yer father’s consent, and do it all proper-like.”
“They want me to marry someone too old,” Artemis protested with a great deal of heat. “It is so unfair—”
“You will do as you are told,” Droughm interrupted. “Is there bread and butter?”
Eager to please, the woman fetched a loaf from the pantry, and admonished Artemis as she unwrapped the cheesecloth. “The young lads may turn yer head, missy, but ye’ll wind up cryin’ by the wayside, wi’ no one willin’ to take ye in.”
“Exactly,” Droughm agreed. “Crying by the wayside.”
Artemis sulked, in her best imitation of young love thwarted.
Warming to her theme, Mrs. Manley sawed off a thick slice of bread. “And a weddin’ in Scotland’s the next thing to no weddin’ a’tall. The terrible shame—ye’ll never live it down.”
Artemis had to cover her face again with her hand.
“I was fortunate to put a stop to such a disgrace,” Droughm agreed. “I will keep her under lock and key, henceforth.”
“Where’s t’ boy?” asked Mrs. Manley.
“I shot him,” said Droughm.
Taken aback, the woman stared at him. “Ye shot him?”
“He’ll recover,” pronounced Droughm in a negligent manner, helping himself to more ham.
But this glimpse into her guest’s violent nature only seemed to fascinate the woman, and she gave him a coyly significant look from under her lashes. “I’m afeered if the lass is to sleep upstairs, sir, we’ll have to put ye on a pallet, down ʼere by the hearth. I’ll see to it that ye’re are comfy as can be, though.”
He considered this. “Is there a lock on her bedroom window?”
The woman admitted there were no such safeguard, and so Droughm said with regret, “I shall have to guard this vixen, then.”
Artemis crossed her arms and sulked.