Luckily Maggie required me to run errands in town immediately after I came downstairs, so I was able to vacate the rectory. If she noticed my wild hair and skittish manner, she didn’t comment on it.
I shrugged on on my coat, grabbed my shawl and basket and practically ran from the house. Halfway down the path I turned back to look up at Jasper’s window and thought I saw a curtain twitch but I couldn’t be sure. Let him watch me, I thought, hopefully he feels contrite about scaring me half to death in that uncalled-for manner. Yes, I had stolen his letter, but to scream and rant and pound the wall were the actions of a madman. For the first time, I considered that Jasper might actually be unhinged. Could I really be in love with such a person?
My errands in town took no time at all, and though it was freezing cold I lingered at each, drawing out the time when I would have to go back to the rectory. Any time not spent in the same house as Jasper was preferential.
It was almost dusk when I reluctantly turned to go back. To draw out my journey even further, I decided to take the long way through the woods that bordered the back of the town and eventually joined up with the rectory. I had been through once before, so I knew there was a clear, well-cut path and that I should be easily able to find my way home.
The growing dark did not bother me. After the events of the afternoon I welcomed the peace and quiet of the shadows and the muffled sound of my footfalls. The oak trees soothed my frazzled nerves and the late afternoon sunlight filtered down through the treetops, piercing the icy gloom. I felt at ease and breathed deeply as I trod the well-worn path.
Suddenly, though, I became aware of movement behind me, a kind of scuffling noise. I looked behind me but could see nothing. I quickened my pace. There it was again. I sensed something following me. With my heart racing, I started to run, the basket of food heavy in my arms.
Eventually I could run no farther and paused for breath, backed up against a tree. Let whatever it is attack me, I thought, better that than being afraid. I stood and waited, hardly daring to breathe. Then, right in front of me, a gypsy man appeared. I felt the urge to scream but bit my tongue. Dusk was falling so I could only make out that he wore breeches and a shirt and had a dirty old blanket wrapped around him. A tattered dark brown felt hat with a wide brim dipped low over his face. In his hand he held a butcher’s knife which he now brought up towards me. I stiffened in terror.
He spoke not a word but still came closer until I felt the warmth of his body and his rank breath as he proceeded to sniff my hair, and touch my clothes. I was glad of the ensuing darkness, for it meant he could not see my face. Even though he was a gypsy, I still had my pride. If I was about to be ravaged, at least let him think I was beautiful.
At this point I had not had a good look at my attacker but now I turned my head to look properly. The face that I saw was not male, however - it had high cheekbones, rosebud red lips, and creamy skin streaked with grime. Bright green eyes that were fringed with dark lashes looked into mine with a bitter expression.
“Miss, please let me go...take my money…some food, just please let me go. My master will be getting worried about me and will come looking for me”.
The girl spat violently into the ground beside me and stabbed her knife into the tree-trunk above my head. She was about my age but a good deal taller than me.
“Master, eh? Does he treat you good?” she snarled, her red lips curling in a sneer, “Or does he make you do chores after everyone else has gone to bed? Extra special chores.”
“I…I…don’t know what you mean, he’s a good man, he’s a rector.”
The girl laughed uproariously at this. “A rector! The worst kind of all.”
She peered intently into my face, raking my pox scars with her gaze. “Be grateful you’ve had that which makes men leave you alone. If I could have anything, I’d wish for The Speckled Monster”.
I was amazed. Trade her beauty for my ugliness? She must be half-crazed with hunger. I thrust my basket at her. “Here, take anything you want, just please let me go now”.
The girl searched through the basket and her eyes widened as she took out a loaf of freshly baked bread, soft cheese and ripe apples. She looked at me and her face softened.
“Thank you, I am very hungry. I left my place of employment last week and I haven’t eaten much, as you can imagine.”
Before I could stop myself I heard myself saying, “You should come with me back to the rectory. It’s nearly dinner time. Father Fannon won’t mind. You could have a proper meal and a wash.”
As if she suddenly realised what a mess she must look, and how she must smell, the girl self-consciously smoothed her hair and plucked at her shirt.
“Yes,” she said suddenly, “Yes, that would be very good of you, I will come”. She put the food back into my basket and lifted it. “Lead on to the rectory by all means, my name’s Rose by the way, Rose Baker.”
“Mercy Graham, pleased to make your acquaintance.”