The beginning of a nightmare. Out of the frying pan.
Miss Harriet Ward had suffered another argument with her ill-tempered and controlling father. She had responded to him when she should have been more restrained and held her peace. It would have been better had she agreed with him as a dutiful daughter should have done, or have left the room without saying anything.
In her slow-simmering anger with her parent over his usual, arrogant intransigence, she deserted the house for her almost daily walk on the fells to get away from him, and to let her own turbulent thoughts settle down. Their disagreement this time, had been over something as simple as her choice of reading material; something trivial, but then even trivial things were enough to annoy him when his daughter chose to ignore him or go against his wishes. She should have learned that lesson enough times not to have repeated it, but she had a mind of her own so she had responded when she should not have. The heated exchange that followed had upset both of their days, though hers, much more than his.
Out upon the fell-tops she could not remain angry, and her mood calmed the further she went, but those continuing arguments had taken their toll upon her. She was resigned to the situation never improving for her. Her life as she had known it when her mother had been alive, was over. How could something have changed in such a drastic way and without warning? She had never known her father to be so controlling, or obstructive to her simple requests.
She would have taken a horse out, except he had forbidden that too, as though afraid she would not return. But where would she go? However, the thought had been implanted. One day she would take a horse and not return, or keep on walking.
With the day threatening to become as almost every day did, even before it had begun, she dressed for the outdoors after first looking at the weather, and then going to consult the barometer; giving it a gentle tap to settle it. The needle dropped, but the sky outside was clear and the sun was shining. Satisfied that nothing too severe was about to happen with the weather, she set out on one of her long walks, intending to get as far away from Shereton Park as she could get.
“You should not let another of those arguments with your father upset you like that, my dear.” Cook, had been able to hear him, even in the kitchen. She did not approve of the old man in any way, but worked for him only because he had to pay her well to have her work for him, as well as for the sake of his daughter. No one else would have put up with his curmudgeonly ways. Her heart had gone out to Harriet when she had first seen her, poor, lost soul.
“I know I shouldn't, Charlotte, but he will never change, and nor will I. I do not intend to be cooped up in here all day with him. It is bad enough that he dragged me out of London with him, but then to be trapped in this place with so few escapes…. What can I do but walk, garden, read, or occupy myself in seeing to my own comfort?”
“So he still has no plans to return to London.” It had not been a question.
“Not him. I don’t understand him bringing us out here, but he must know how much I would prefer to be back in London. I miss the modistes, the book shops, the coffee houses where one could at least meet people one might know.”
“You should not go too far, my dear. My husband tells me that a storm is on the way. A great one for seeing omens everywhere, he is. He said the bees were too defensive of things this morning and he got stung when he tilted the hive. They can tell what the weather will do. And there was all of that thunder and wind last night. We had some broken eggs in the henhouse this morning so something upset them from their nests. Omens for them as can read them. I can’t, and I don’t believe them anyway.”
Harriet had heard nothing, but maybe there had been something shake the old house while she had been asleep. That portrait of her mother, opposite her bed, had been tilted when she first woke up, and it had needed to be straightened. Had her mother been trying to tell her something, to send her a message from the other side?
“Should I expect you back for lunch?”
“No. Thank you, Charlotte. I’ll be out until much later.”
“Then take something with you, Miss. You only pecked at your breakfast.”
“I ate a good dinner last night. It won’t do me any harm to be hungry for once.”
Cook watched her leave. She had her own angry thoughts about that heartless, selfish man.
Harriet’s mind, as she walked away, went over the latest disagreement with her father, but she was soon distracted. There were twigs and occasional branches down, so there had been a wind. There was a raven somewhere close by, objecting to her presence. Another sinister omen? But of what?
One day, perhaps even today, she would not return. Then what would he say. With no one to nag at, her father would soon tire of his own company and do what he often threatened to do, return to London. He would not miss her other than as someone to nag at. London would have suited her almost as well as being here. It did not matter where she was, she would have been a prisoner wherever she had been; a prisoner of circumstance and financial constraints.
She would have liked nothing better than to return to London, and he knew it. However, being a spiteful individual, he was punishing her as well as himself, by avoiding what she wanted. In truth, she had long ago decided that she quite liked it here, better than London. Being exiled, as she was, suited her mood better than she would have admitted three months earlier, when they had arrived, but it had also been colder, then. The weather had improved since then.
Her father was petty tyrant, who—like a child—would throw a temper tantrum to get his own way. He also pleaded illness and infirmity, as an invalid often did to gain sympathy. It did not work with Harriet. She had learned about her father over many years, when they had been in London. She had been even more of a prisoner there, than here. Her much older sister, Fanny, and other remote members of their family, approved of the present arrangement as it kept her father away from visiting, and such a distance meant that they might never see him for as long as a year or more. It did his temper no good.
He fulminated about ungrateful children who cared nothing for him, and that he would know where to leave his money at the end of it all, and it would not be with either Harriet or Fanny. Not that he had a lot of money. He didn’t, and he made sure they knew it. However, the small income from what he had invested, kept the London house safe, and allowed him to rusticate at Shereton Park, a small property in the north of England, left to his late wife. He managed to see to his own comforts by getting papers sent up from London, though there were few letters from anyone. He had little fondness for books, but there was a good library that the former tenant had accumulated over the years. He spent little of his time there, which made it a fitting refuge for Harriet when the weather was against her going out and her father was on the prowl.
Harriet had learned to rebel, but only in private, and in her own way. She sought refuge in books, escaping her father, knowing that he never visited his own library, so she was safe there for hours at a stretch in one of the corners by a window, though she could hear him grumble as he scoured the house for her. The servants knew better than to tell him where she was. They liked Miss Harriet, and felt sorry for her.
“You will turn your ankle, or break a leg out there, clambering up those slopes, and then what will happen to you. You will also wear your shoes out long before their time.”
She had resisted pointing out that she had no choice but to walk, as he had forbidden her to take a horse, making some excuse that he may need to go into the village before she returned. He had also harped on about how expensive it was to get a Smith to re-shoe a horse. It was not that he could not afford it, but that he resented spending the money.
“You are gone before the rest of the house is out of bed and rarely return before it is getting dark. I do not often see you for dinner, even when you are in the house, so we would never miss you until it is too late. What do you do with yourself? We would never find you in such a dangerous and wild expanse of nothing, with open holes, mines and boulders. Stay close to home in the garden if you must go out. There is a tolerable rose garden, and I know that there are fruit bushes along the wall and even some apple trees espaliered up the house front. I thought you were fond of tending to such things.” She once had been, as her mother had, but that was in a happier life.
Her father could fret and fume all he liked. It could not touch her if she was not there to be preached at. She would ignore him for a day or two and then would appear for breakfast, though he was not an early riser. They bumped into each other, only once or twice a week and even then it was not often a civilized or considerate exchange that she could expect to have with him. He wanted her close to him at all times and to know where she was. He would always be disappointed.
His criticism of her that morning had been enough to drive her out and onto the fells. There were many good tracks that had once led to the mines, and the sheep had added their own over the centuries. She would not get lost, and she took care of her shoes. Her allowance might extend to getting another pair when she managed to get into the town, located a two hour drive away. A sudden boom, took her quite off guard. Thunder? She looked about. There was not a cloud in the sky. It can’t have been thunder. A neighbor’s cannon, perhaps, or someone blasting out a tree stump or a rock.
She preferred being out when the weather was as calm as it was, despite all those suggestions that the weather would soon change. She scorned to wear a bonnet. The wind in her face and hair would help blow her mood away. Also, she had already had a word with the lad who came in to look after the horses, and he was happy to tend to the garden in her place, and keep it weeded. He had also added to the vegetable garden at her behest, later than normal to-be-sure, but if the season was not too severe, and the cold weather did not set in too soon, they could eat well out of it, and even save seed for the next year.
On this occasion, she went much further than she had intended, agitated as always, over her father’s constant criticisms, and his nip-farthing ways. However, he did employ a good cook—thinking more of himself than anyone else—and there were girls brought in from the village to tidy around and see to the laundry. He liked his food, and his comforts, and his portliness showed it.
You should not have gone off in such a mood, my dear.
Her mother’s calming voice came into her mind.
She responded, talking animatedly to herself, where only the sheep would hear her.
Yes, I know, Mother, but I could not stay home to be bombarded by such rudeness and inconsideration. It is more peaceful out here where I can speak with you and gain from your wise counsel.
Harriet often had various conversations with her absent mother when she was alone, seeking her advice on difficult issues.
You keep reminding me that I should not be so impetuous in my responses to him, or so ready to fly off the handle, but I am sure you cannot so easily forget that he even tried your patience when you were with us.
On this occasion her mother did not respond as she sometimes did. During a difficult episode involving her father, Harriet would engage in several active discussions with her mother. Anyone witnessing such a personal exchange, would regard her as quite deranged, though she was far from that. It was a needed safety valve.
How could life have changed so much for her in such a short time? There had been a time when things had been so much more pleasant and peaceful. Harriet had strolled the streets of London with her mother without a care in the world, going from one shop to another; purchasing a book, or a bonnet, or had visited one friend after another.
Her mother had controlled everything to do with the household and its management when she had been alive, including her husband, but that time had gone, six years earlier. Their finances had suffered a similar set back. They were not church-mouse poor—there was always enough for what he wanted—but he made it seem as though they were one step removed from the sponging house. He denied his daughter the generous allowance she once had. The promise of her inheritance when she reached twenty-one seemed to have faded from sight altogether with the passing of her mother. Her father would not speak of it but grew angry when she raised the subject and tried to learn what had happened to it. He had become a miser and a recluse.
How she had avoided marriage was a mystery to those few who knew her well, but did not know her parent, not realizing the selfish role that he played in the outcome. Her not marrying had not been for lack of suitors.
However, her mother had turned them all away, and did not allow any of them to get close to her. Harriet knew that her mother had other plans for her in that direction and had already found a husband for her, but would not tell her more than that.
When the time is right, you shall meet him.
Harriet could not understand why her mother would not say any more of him, other than that he came from an excellent family, and that when the time came for them to meet each other, Harriet would approve of her mother’s choice. She trusted her mother and would rely upon her judgment. Except her mother had died without saying more.
Why did you have to die so soon, Mama, without telling me more of this paragon you had picked out for me to marry? That was inconsiderate of you. I would like to meet him about now, and hope that he would rescue me from Father.
She shook her head.
No, too late for that out here. Yes, I suppose I should not allow him to goad me so well, and drive me out of the house as he does. However, one day I shall not return, but shall keep on walking. Even today, if the weather holds off. I should warn you of that, so that you will not take me too much to task, as you so often do when I threaten to kick over the traces. No other life could be worse than this one.
Can you be so sure of that, my love?
Harriet rambled on again after turning her footsteps in a new direction.
But there again, you are right to warn me. It could be much worse couldn’t it? Yes, I should be careful what I wish for. It would help if I really were as beautiful as others say I am, but clearly I am not, and cannot be, else how did I escape the happy social entanglements that face so many young women in London?
She thought for a few moments.
Yes, yes, you are right, Mama. You are always right. I was too young. I keep forgetting. I suppose I should calm my rebellious feelings and settle down to write poetry and tend to the garden, as Father would prefer.
No, she would never do that.
Despite what Harriet believed of herself, in her more vulnerable and darker moods, she knew better than to give in to melancholy. Even with a pitifully small allowance, she dressed well, and fashionably. A little industry with needle and thread, and remnants of other dresses and material—of which there was an abundance—achieved remarkable results in her limited wardrobe. She should escape, and become a seamstress to society. Other young ladies, fallen upon hard times, and not having been rescued by marriage had done as much to achieve independence. Her mind wandered in directions as strange as those her feet followed, and with as little guidance.
She was about middle height, with a good and generous figure (she thought it was over-generous, at least as far as her breasts were concerned) and had a head of black hair that she constantly wore in a braid down her back, as a way of keeping it from blowing everywhere when she was out, or coiled upon her head.
Their modest estate, which was never self-sufficient, backed onto the fells and was well protected from the prevailing strong winds down the valley that laid the trees over at an angle, and had them growing with a permanent lean to them.
It was always deserted in that wild and remote area. She had grown to feel safe, as neighboring estates did not appear to harbor any hardy souls who also liked to be out in uncertain weather, or when it was as windy as it was.
There were many locations on the fells where she could take shelter from the wind, or relax, where she could sit and think about life; her life, and what it had become. When her mother had exhausted all that she had wished to say, Harriet could speak to the sheep and knew that—unlike in some of her more difficult conversations with her mother; though there were few of them that were difficult—there would be no argument. On those still days, it was pleasant to sit and eat her lunch (if she had brought one) while she listened to the birds nearby and tried to identify them by their song if she could not easily see them. She disturbed the occasional pheasant or partridge. She often intended to ask her sister, Fanny, in London, to send her a book on birds, so that she could learn more than she knew, but as soon as she returned home, to the atmosphere that awaited her there, that thought was driven from her mind. She would remember it when she next wrote to Fanny, but knew that she could not count on her for anything.
Spoil-heaps of loose shale, tipped over the valley edge, abounded from the older lead mines that had been worked out, and there were still a few ramshackle shelters that existed there, and in the old slate quarry that she passed by on some of her walks. She had extended her range as she became more familiar with what she could see. Her first walks had been no more than local explorations, following the stream, which soon became a small river after any heavy rains, which she had so far been fortunate to have avoided. Now, she could be out most of the day, and could go as far as several miles. She rarely saw anyone else walking, and even then, only at a distance. She was grateful for that. Only once did she see anyone on horseback, and they were far off, and heading away from her, so she did not have to think of walking off the track and staying out of sight, to avoid them. There were a few deer that she blundered across, but they soon took off, bounding through the heather, scattering sheep.
Many times she had arrived back home after dark, and had partaken of a fast supper from the deserted kitchen, after Cook had returned to her own home. Then she had sorted out her clothing for the next day, relegating to the wash, anything that had suffered in her walk. She was careful to see that her walking shoes were placed by the fire to dry out and were stuffed with rags. She would be sure to see to them in the morning. Without her shoes standing up to the rigors of her walking, she would soon become a prisoner.
Out on the fells she had no fear of being alone. She was fit, and felt that she could hold her own against man or beast if the need was there. Wolves had long been hunted to extinction, and the fox would soon follow them the way they were hunted. However, the fox-hunts were confined to the valley bottoms and the farmed areas, rather than where she walked. She could sometimes hear them in the far distance as they sounded their horns, and the dogs bayed in excitement on spotting their quarry.
Harriet was now twenty-two years old. She had never been presented in society. Her father saw no need of losing another daughter after Fanny had married and left home. The way he saw it, Harriet was required at home to look after him, and should be happy to do so, and grateful for it even though she had a mere pittance of an allowance. She had not minded at first. She did not approve of most of society, and it would not approve of her. She had been told, by her father and Fanny, that she was bookish, and she was. Men did not like bookish women. It did not matter. If it came to that, Harriet would not have liked a man who could think a woman to be bookish only because she liked books. She was not afraid to engage in heated discussion in her own family if the need was there, but was shy and quiet among strangers, loath to put herself forward.
She regarded herself as already on-the-shelf, but did not care to think about that, or what could have been possible for her, had her mother lived. Her future had been thrown off track when her mother, Josephine, had died when Harriet had been but sixteen. Her mother had shaped the household up to that time, deciding how everything would go forward, and dictating how things would be. Her husband had known better than to object, but in any case had been entirely satisfied at the way his own life had improved with that marriage. She had been a kind and considerate woman who had many plans for her daughters, especially for the younger, Harriet, but had not disclosed what those plans might be other than for a hint here, and a hint there. She had also managed their father well, despite his awkwardness. He had no head for business, and his wife saw that he did not influence what she decided would happen around them.
Fanny—her older sister by four years—had married and left home some years earlier. The little she had heard from Fanny after that, had not been of a happy existence, but one of misery, the way Fanny told it. But that was Fanny. She never could see good in anything, and had merely swapped her father’s tyranny for that of a selfish husband if Fanny could be believed. Harriet had come to believe that Fanny was quite capable of saying certain things which were almost the exact opposite of the way they were.
Yes, Mother. I remember you warning me of my sister and her jealousy toward me, and shall be careful what I say to her.
Harriet’s mind was soon brought back to where she was and what she was doing, when she began to realize that, despite turning back, she had wandered further than she had intended in a new direction, and along a path that was not so familiar to her. No. She had intended it. She had been gripped by this strange feeling that she should keep on walking and never look back; never go back. It had been a short-lived feeling when she felt the first pangs of hunger, and had been cognizant of her mother’s continued warnings.
She could see the valley she had left, behind her and the familiar peak, still in front of her and now to the right, so she knew where she was, even if she had never been so far out before.
No, Mama, I am not lost. I may not know exactly where I am, but I am not lost.
Nothing much deterred her for getting out, not even the threat of inclement weather, high winds, or any of the number of impediments that her father would try to throw in her way to dissuade her. He always wanted to know where she was and what she was doing, and constantly threatened to return them all to London, if she could not settle herself down. Why he had chosen to leave London in the first place, Harriet could not fathom, and he would never have told her anyway.
It was early summer, and she refused to be housebound, no matter the weather. She strolled out every day that she could, and explored the surrounding area, moving further afield as the ground became more familiar to her.
She was returning late, again. No one would be worried for her. They knew better than to worry after the first few days of her walking.
With the wind increasing, and the much heavier clouds rolling in, bringing a much darker afternoon with them, almost like evening, it began to rain hard. She still had the better part of three miles to walk. She should have listened better to Charlotte. She had gone further afield than she had intended with her mind as occupied as it was, contemplating her future, and the emptiness of it.
Her life’s course had already been decided for her. It was a bleak prospect; like the fells, empty, and entirely without promise, and would remain that way as long as she was under her father’s roof. But there was no escaping that now.
The wind strengthened, making walking difficult against it, and driving the rain almost horizontally. It felt as though the temperature had also dropped. There could even be wet snow mixed in with the rain, which ran down her face and down her neck, discomforting her even more. She could feel her dress getting heavier with the amount of rain that it had soaked up already. Where it clung to her legs it robbed her of warmth, but she could keep walking. She had no choice.
I know it was my own fault, Mama, for choosing to go so far, but that is what I intended to do, remember? One day, I shall not return.
Such a severe storm was unusual for this time of year, and she was high on the hills and still far from home. She should not have walked so far. She had not anticipated such a fierce storm appearing out of nowhere. She had dressed too lightly with the temperature being as warm as it had been when she had set out. It had been a sensible decision when she had left, but that had been hours earlier.
Her father would be sure to preach at her for getting caught in it, if he learned anything about it, and suggest she not go out again. She would say nothing and stay out of his way when she got home.
She soon became soaked through to the skin on her back as well as her front, and her hair sent dribbles of rain down her forehead with her leaning into the wind, with other cold trickles, creeping down her back. She knew where she was, and knew that it would take her at least an hour to get home, with the track beginning to run with water. It was becoming slippery where the water ran over the rocks, and with heavy mud in other places. What had been a small river beside the track she was on, would become a raging brown torrent in another hour or two.
The path she was on soon turned into a stream course along which she splashed. There was nowhere to shelter; no trees to huddle beneath, which would not have been wise anyway with her as wet as she was, and no walls to take shelter behind, out of the driving wind, so she continued walking. She would soon be home and getting dry.
Yes, I hear you, Mama. The belvedere is closer, and it will offer some shelter from the wind and rain until this blows over. So the belvedere it will be.
She could try to wait it out in the belvedere that sat upon the lookout between their own estate and that of the neighbor, Sir Percival Blunt. That was the closest place to shelter, until the worst of it blew over. Sir Percival had seen it built for his first wife, some forty years earlier, and it was now neglected. He was never there—so she had been told—but had gone to London. There was rumor that he had the place up for sale. He could even have died for all she knew. Her mother didn’t seem to know, so there was no point in asking her.
When she got there, she was not only even more wet, but was feeling miserable and cold. Was this what the rest of her life was to be like? And winter lay not so far ahead. She may not be able to get out at all for days or weeks at a time then. That prospect was not comforting.
The rain had a chilling effect on her. She knew she should keep walking, but it seemed that the rain was coming down even harder than before, and she had been right, there was a snowflake or two mixed in with it. She stood still. Her dress was no longer clinging to her legs, but water from it dripped steadily onto the floor. She was still a half-hour walk from the house, and she decided that she should try to dry out before she continued, but she had nothing to dry herself with. There was already a puddle formed around her feet. She could have a hot bath and change, once she got home.
She waited, and waited. It did not let up. She tried to wring the bottom of her dress out, and got rid of a lot of water, but there was no going anywhere until the rain stopped. She sat herself on the hard stone slab, which formed a seat, in the middle area of the building, out of the wind and rain, to wait. She tolerated her wet and cold dress touching her legs again, and brought her feet up onto the seat in front of her (she was alone, so would not make a spectacle of herself for anyone to see). She adjusted her dress to touch her as little as possible, while making herself into a compact bundle to stay warm. She began to feel more miserable as the temperature dropped. Today, was like her life. It had begun well, but had soon deteriorated.
She felt like crying. She had never felt so depressed before. They should never have left London. She should have insisted on staying with Fanny, as Fanny had desired, but only as long as her father stayed in his own home, but her father had put an end to that possibility. He had stated, without any expectation of being contradicted, that he needed Harriet with him. Harriet’s future was clearly to be that of a drudge, either taking on the burden of her sister’s impossible children, or looking after her equally impossible father. She had no choice in the matter. Either she went with him, or he would have cut off her small allowance and made life even more impossible for her. He had never threatened that, but it had been left sitting there as a possibility.
Harriet, huddled herself in as small a bundle as she could, constantly adjusting her position to find the least discomforting seat, feeling the rain running from her hair, down her neck, and she could even see small wraiths of water vapor rising from her wet dress, where it was held close against the top of her legs. She brought her feet closer to her on the seat, and leaned back into the hard marble. She would need to conserve her warmth, but the wind constantly blew in around everything, whipping leaves across the floor.
That was when she noticed that there was a fire laid ready in the central stone fireplace three feet in front of her, with a screwed up newspaper laid there; kindling on top of that, and then smaller pieces of wood. There were larger logs stacked off to one side. Someone must have been here, and not so long ago. That fire had not been laid when she had last come through two days earlier. There were other changes too. She could not recall having seen them before.
How would I know who laid it, Mama? It can do me no good anyway as I do not know where the fire-steel might be, or the char-cloth, either.
She knew that there must be a tinder box of some kind, or some lucifers on a shelf somewhere to get it started, but ruled against moving to do anything about it. She would not be here for long enough. The moment it let up…. She also became aware that the pigeons were gone. Their incessant cooing was no longer to be heard. They had been cleaned out from their nests up near the windows above her, and some attempt had been made to sweep the floor clean. It might even have been mopped.
Harriet let her head drop onto her knees and she cried.