By the time we reached the rectory night had fallen, and it was very dark and very cold, but as soon as we entered the warm kitchen the chill fell away. To my surprise, Jasper was there and he and Maggie were in the middle of a heated discussion, which stopped as soon as they saw us.
Maggie recovered first and immediately bustled forward, wiping her hands on her apron, her face looking hot and flustered.
“Mercy, we was getting worried about you, you’ve been away some while! And who’s this you’ve got with you?”
I looked at Jasper warily, his handsome face didn’t look worried, it looked livid. He glanced at Rose and gave her the once over. Dressed as a man and covered in grime, she still radiated an ethereal beauty.
“This is Rose, I found her starving in the woods,” I said pointedly and Maggie, as I knew she would, immediately hustled us to the table and started loading some plates with hot beef stew.
My stomach was suddenly gripped with a gnawing hunger and I was so concerned with eating my stew that I forgot Jasper was still there, until he slammed his fist down on the table so hard our plates jumped a foot in the air.
He stared at me fiercely and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. He leaned forward menacingly across the table and growled “I know you have it, Pox, don’t play the innocent maid with me!” and then swept from the room rather dramatically.
Rose looked at me her eyes wide and shocked, “Who the blooming heck was that?” If I hadn’t of been so petrified I would’ve laughed at the expression on her face. I tried to shrug nonchalantly but I was shaking in my shoes.
“Oh don’t mind Mr. Donne,” said Maggie airily stirring something briskly on the stove, “His bark’s worse than 'is bite. He’s got some fool notion into his head that you’ve got some letter or something of 'is Mercy. He wanted me to search your chamber until whatever he’s lost was found. Being quite demanding he was just now but I stood my ground. “Miss Mercy’s a good girl” I told him, “She would no’ take what’s not hers.”
I gulped down a chunk of bread and quickly drank some water. Rose looked at me and I blushed. She grinned and looked approving. “Not such a good girl after all,” her expression seemed to say.
Meanwhile, Maggie had moved on to a more interesting topic. “So Miss Rose, where is it you are coming from?”
She looked curiously at Rose’s outfit and her obvious hunger; she was shovelling food into her mouth like there was no tomorrow. Perhaps in her mind this would be the last meal she would have for a while. My heart contracted in pity. What had happened to make this girl choose the life of a common thief?
Rose eventually stopped chewing and the story came out. She had been working at Lord Bradnor’s manor up until last week as a scullery maid. Her job was to help the cook in the kitchen, as well as other duties such as lighting the fires in the dining room, drawing room and main chambers. Apparently Lord Bradnor had come across her clearing out the ashes in his chamber and had tried to accost her.
“He had ‘is hand up my skirt when his wife walked in. It didn’t look too good from where she was standing. I was instantly dismissed without my wages which I was owed for the last month. I had nowhere to go, my family lives up north and I had no money to get there. After a night of almost freezing to death in the woods with only a small blanket I decided if I didn’t do something drastic I would die. So I stole these clothes and a knife and I’ve been holding people at knife point until they gave me money or food. Oh, I wouldn’t have hurt them, not really. I just scared them a little. Mercy here’s the first one who actually offered me a proper meal, though.”
Maggie and I were riveted. I couldn’t imagine being so alone and so on the brink of death that I would do something criminal.
“But child, why didn’t you turn to the parish? Father Fannon would’ve helped you without question,” said Maggie. Rose scowled and looked as if she wanted to spit. “The church and I don’t exactly get along,” she said, looking shifty. I sensed there was more to the story but Maggie didn’t press her.
“Well you’re here now,” she said briskly “And upon my honour as a Christian I’ll not turn out someone in need of food or shelter. I’ll talk to Father Fannon and see if we can’t find you a few jobs around here in exchange for a decent meal and a bed. You can share with Mercy.”
Later, when we were safely ensconced upstairs in my chamber and getting ready for bed, Rose asked me about Jasper, as I knew she would. I could tell she was burning with curiosity.
“So he’s some kind of lord, but he’s living here and coming and going as he pleases? Sounds a little odd to me. Why don’t he have any family?”
“He does,” I said brushing my hair a little too vigorously, “An uncle but he seems to prefer living here with Sebastian. He’s travelled a lot, perhaps he wants a more settled life now.”
“Oh, does he?” said Rose throwing back the covers and hopping into bed. She had given her face and feet a thorough scrubbing at my washbasin, but the rest of her was still a bit grimy. I hoped she kept well to her side of the bed.
“You seem to know him quite well,” she continued, “Despite the fact he looked ready to murder you just before. You have got it, haven’t you? Whatever it is that he’s missing?”
I slid into bed and lay still. If truth be told the burden of the letter was becoming more than I could bear but I didn’t know how much Rose could be trusted with my secret. That I loved Jasper so passionately that my heart was breaking in two. She would probably laugh herself silly if I told her. In the end I compromised.
“Yes I have got it but I didn’t know it meant that much to him,” (a small white lie) “I was just being nosey but things got out of hand, and now I don’t know how to rectify them.” (another white lie, I could just put the letter back).
“So what does it say?" she asked.
“What does what say?”
She snorted. “The letter, silly, what does it say in the letter?”
“Oh, nothing too exciting, just inheritance gaff, he must need it to claim his fortune or something.” I yawned. “Anyway, I’ll give it back to him and he’ll leave me alone. Let’s stop talking and go to sleep, I’m really tired.”
I snuffed out the candle and the subject was dropped, but not forgotten. In the coming days Rose’s time in the woods would prove to give her the strength and determination she needed to overcome a very different situation to my own.