That night I was awoken from a deep sleep by an army of wind and rain locked in battle outside my window. First the wind would howl like a wild animal and shake the window panes, then the rain would splatter against them with a force so considerable that at times I thought they surely should shatter.
Underneath this commotion I fancied I heard the crunch of a horse’s hooves on the gravel drive. “Surely there would not be anyone so foolhardy as to venture out in this!” I thought to myself. Soon curiosity got the better of me and I got out bed and stationed myself behind the blue curtain at the window. Sure enough, directly below me was a black cloaked rider astride a very wet stamping horse. As I watched, the figure dismounted amidst a flurry of whirling wind and the thumping noise of the door knocker reverberated through the house.
“Maggie will not be pleased to get up in this!” I felt irrationally annoyed on her behalf at having to tend to visitors at this time of night, I knew not the hour except that it was very late. For a while we waited, the visitor and I, and there was nothing but the sound of the wind screaming like a banshee round the side of the house looking for a way in, and the creak of the poplars on the road almost bent double by the force of it.
Then the door was inched open and a strip of light broke through the darkness. Maggie said something, I couldn't hear what but it was in a welcoming tone, and the visitor went inside.
“She knows them,” I thought and felt relief, though I had not realised I was anxious.
Then, overcome by tiredness, I crept back to bed and fell asleep to the muffled sound of hooves restlessly stamping the gravel outside, thinking “Someone needs to give that horse some oats, and where will it be sheltered?”.
When I awoke the next morning, the sky was if the storm had never been. It was clear, albeit with the odd scudding cloud here and there. When I looked down from my window the horse was gone, mostly likely removed to the large adjoining gardener’s shed out the back, I thought. But the debris the storm had left behind, branches and leaves, were scattered all over the lawn. The white dahlias were just stalks, the wind had guillotined their heads right off.
In the kitchen Maggie was in a flap, bustling here and bustling there but not actually doing anything as far as I could see.
“Mercy! Finally”, she said when I walked in, “We've got an unexpected guest, Mr Donne, Father Fannon's friend from Oxford. He'll be staying with us for a bit. Can you take them's eggs in? I've got to pluck a goose for lunch”.
My eyes strayed upwards to a bloodied goose dangling by its feet from a hook in the ceiling. Its neck was crooked. I shuddered.
It wasn't until I had entered the dining room and was walking towards the table that the feeling overcame me suddenly. I had felt it before on other occasions and I always got a little spooked by it. It was as if my body didn't belong to me and that I had walked into this room carrying this tray of eggs a hundred times before, an action so familiar, so perfect, so meaningful that I could imagine doing it over and over, for eternity.
For my soul had leaped the small distance from door to table and had seen before my eyes had, who was sitting there.
Sebastian looked up from the book he was reading and gave me a warm smile as I approached. His companion, presumably Mr Donne, was obscured by a newspaper.
“Good morning, Mercy, I trust the storm did not disturb you last night?”
“Good morning, Father,” I replied, transferring the heavy tray to the sideboard with some relief. “No, I slept well, I was awakened just briefly....by the arrival of your visitor.”
“Ah, yes, my friend here has quite the habit of turning up unannounced. Jasper, meet Mercy, she's the clever girl I was telling you about.”
The newspaper lowered and I just stared, for some cruel trick of fate had placed before me a man that I could never hope to win. And in that split second when my brain felt like it had been scorched by fire, I wanted to win him very badly. But Jasper Donne was the kind of man who wouldn't look twice at a girl like me, or in fact any girl of my class notwithstanding her beauty. Though I suspected beauty would help somewhat.
He was raven-haired, marble-skinned and so handsome that angels' eyes were leaking tears that he wasn't dead yet and fluttering his way up to heaven to join them. He was dressed impeccably in grey breeches and a fitted black morning jacket with green silk trimming. A white silk cravat was knotted loosely around his neck but his white shirt was slightly open, revealing a few dark hairs.
I saw his perfectly formed mouth moving as he greeted me, and I knew I'd never forget the way he impertinently raked his gaze from the tips of my boots slowly upwards. But when he reached my face and our gazes locked, his scathing dark brown eyes that were prepared to hold me in so little disregard changed, and I saw a flicker of something else. He looked at Sebastian quickly.
“She's had the pox,” he said gruffly. And while I just stood there, my poor pock-marked face turning blotchy with shame, Sebastian said something I’ll be forever grateful for:
“So she has. Not uncommon in these parts, my dear fellow,” then he took a large bite of poached egg and toast, and munched away unconcerned.
Jasper said nothing else and dismissively returned to his paper. Sebastian gave me a friendly wink and I dropped a quick curtsy. As I turned to hurry from the room, I noticed Jasper's right hand was holding the paper tightly, and it was shaking.