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, Miss?”
“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 suddenboom,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.