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The Girl in the Gatehouse
By Julie Klassen
Bethany House Publishers
Copyright © 2010 Julie Klassen
All right reserved.
September 1813 The end of the only life I’ve known, thought Mariah Aubrey, looking back through the carriage window at the shrinking figures of her mother and sister. Nineteen-year-old Julia stood in the foreground, shoulders heaving as she wept. The sight seared Mariah’s heart. Their mother stood behind, hand on Julia’s arm, in consolation, in empathy—perhaps even in restraint. And there came their father, down the steps of Attwood Park. He had not come out to bid her farewell. He would not, he insisted, “sanction vice, nor seek to lessen its disgrace.” But now he draped one arm around his wife and the other around his younger daughter, turning and shepherding them back inside, back into the only home Mariah had ever known. And might never see again.
Mariah turned back around. Miss Dixon, on the opposite bench, quickly averted her gaze, feigning interest in the fringes of her reticule, as if she had not noticed any tears.
Mariah bit the inside of her lip to control its trembling. She stared out the side window, despite knowing it would make her ill. She barely saw the passing countryside as events of the last month whirled through her mind. She winced, but the life-rending scenes neither altered nor disappeared.
“Long journey ahead, Miss Mariah,” Dixon said. “Why not try to sleep? The miles shall pass more quickly.”
Mariah forced a smile, nodded, and obediently closed her eyes. She doubted she would sleep, but at least with her eyes closed she would not see the pity on the face of her last ally in the world.
* * *
They traveled for two days, stopping at various coaching inns to change horses, stretch limbs, and take hurried meals. Late in the second day, Mariah fell into exhausted sleep at last, only to be jostled awake when the hired post-chaise careened, sending her slamming into its side.
“What happened?” she asked, righting herself.
Dixon straightened her hat atop blond hair threaded with silver. “I believe the driver swerved to avoid a lamb.” She surveyed the pasture beyond the window. “We are definitely in sheep country.”
Mariah rubbed her offended shoulder and looked out the windows on either side of the post-chaise. They were following a gentle, sparkling river on one side, and on the other, a rolling meadow dotted with white-faced sheep and nearly grown lambs. The river curved before them, and they crossed it on a stone bridge, passing a pair of red-brick mills on its bank. They entered a village of blond-stone cottages, with an inn, apothecary shop, stonemason’s, and steepled parish church clustered around a triangular green.
“Is this Whitmore?” Mariah asked.
“I hope so.” Dixon sighed. “My bones have had more than enough of these poorly sprung seats.” Her former nanny was barely fifty, but she complained like a much older woman.
They left the small village behind, and only a few minutes later, the carriage made a sharp turn. Mariah looked up in time to see the imposing entrance to an estate—its high wall broken by an open columned gate.
Dixon leaned toward the window, like a potted plant seeking light. “Where is the gatehouse?”
“This must be the main entrance,” Mariah said, explaining what she recalled from her aunt’s letter. “The gatehouse is at a second entrance no longer in use.”
Mariah could still barely grasp that she was now expected to live on her own, with only Miss Dixon as companion. Her father had insisted that even had there been no other young lady in his house to be endangered by Mariah’s character, still he would not so insult the neighborhood by continuing to harbor her. How his words had cut, and cut still.
The carriage passed through the gate and followed a drive encircling acres of landscaped grounds—shaped hedges and a rose garden around a reflecting pond. At the apex of the curved drive stood impressive seventeenth-century Windrush Court. The manor house of golden blond stone stood two-and-a-half-stories high with dormer windows jutting from its slate roof. Banks of tall mullioned windows winked from both ground and first floors.
The carriage halted before the manor and lurched as the groom hopped down to lower the step. The front door of the house opened, and from between the columned archway stepped not her aunt but rather an odd figure. A man in his late fifties, in a plain dark suit of clothes, without the livery or regal bearing of either footman or butler. There was something unnatural about the way he held himself, as if one shoulder hitched slightly higher than the other.
The groom opened the carriage door, but the approaching man held up his palm to halt his progress. “Hold, there. One moment.” He gave Mariah a stiff bow. “Jeremiah Martin.” He lifted his balding head, wreathed in silvery grey hair. “Are you Miss Aubrey?”
“Yes. Is my aunt not expecting me?”
“She is. But I am to direct you to the gatehouse.”
“Thank you.” Mariah hesitated. “May I quickly greet Mrs. Prin-Hallsey first?”
“No, madam. I am to take you to the gatehouse straightaway.”
Her aunt had offered her a place to live but refused to receive her in person? Mariah glanced at Dixon to see how the opinionated woman would react, but Dixon was not looking at her. She was staring at the man, or rather at the hook that protruded where his left hand should be.
“I see.” Mariah hoped her disappointment and embarrassment were concealed behind a stiff smile.
The man’s blue eyes held hers a moment before flitting away. “I shall climb up and direct the coachman. Big place, Windrush Court.”
A moment later, the carriage again lurched to life and rounded the other side of the curved drive.
Mariah glanced back at the house. The curtains on one of the first-floor windows parted and then closed. Then the carriage turned right, away from the manor house, and entered a copse of redwood and horse chestnut trees.
As they bounced along, Mariah swallowed back the hurt that her aunt had not at least greeted her. When the woman had been married to Mariah’s uncle, “Aunt Fran” had shown an interest in her, even invited her to visit on several occasions. Though never an overly warm person, her aunt had been kind to Mariah in her youth, which only made this rejection more painful.
Impulsively, Mariah reached over and squeezed her companion’s hand. “Thank you for coming with me.”
Dixon pressed her hand in return, her blue eyes bright with unshed tears. “And what else would I have done?”
The carriage passed a gardener’s cottage, with a wheelbarrow of potted autumn mums before it and a glass hothouse beside it. Then a carpenter’s workshop, evidenced by long planks suspended between sawhorses. Over these hunched a thin middle-aged man who paused to tip his hat as they passed.