Certain that my hearing had betrayed me; I sought out his eyes suffused in the amber flow from the flickering candle beside us. They were large and earnest depicting the most genuine emotion I had seen in a long, long time. They tempted me, excited me, and hinted at a world full of possibilities and sweet escapes. For an endless moment, I merely stared at him. No words seemed fit to vocalise. No words seemed apt. Instead, I could only stutter a barely comprehendible ‘What?’
‘Forgive me Mila - Christiana, I know it is not my place to say, but I know you are unhappy. I have seen if often enough, it pains me.’ He exhaled slowly. ‘Run away with me. You don’t need fancy riches or high class suitors. I can make you happy.’
‘Joseph!’ His name fell from numb lips, shocked and astounded. I was completely taken aback, unprepared for what he had confessed. The minority of my mind whispered to an unwilling listener that it might be what I’ve waited so long for. Maybe, just maybe, for once I should listen to the reckless, hasty side of myself… Just as quickly though, the rational, practical side of my mind smothered that voice, quieted any improper agreements that were threatening to surface rather vehemently so.
Joseph seemed perplexed by my reaction and I had no doubt that it was something he had not been anticipating. The smooth skin between his brows creased, his lips fell apart slightly. ‘Forgive me for speaking out of place.’
The words that came next took a lot of effort to speak: ‘We mustn’t talk of such things. It has been a long day and I am weary.’
‘Of course,’ he ducked his head before putting out the candle and retreating back to his place on the armchair. My eyes lingered on his departing form more than I should have liked. Something churned within me, seeming to emanate from within my chest, where my heart was still beating frantically. It was not something I was overly familiar with and its presence unnerved me. Why should I feel anxiety over this? No, it wasn’t anxiety. It was something else entirely. But what, I did not know.
The room was cast in shadows, only a thread of the blue light of dawn touched the floorboards through the gap in the decrepit curtains. The air was still and silent, but the atmosphere was thick with tension, almost tangible. Neither I nor Joseph would sleep tonight, I knew that. Too much had been said. Too much had happened.
I closed my eyes in a vain attempt to be lulled into some sort of peace. But then images flashed behind my eyelids. My sister’s face, dull and dreary stared at me with lifeless eyes. Beside her, her husband stood sneering, a representation for what I was due to suffer. Children surrounded them both; the girls dressed in prim, pressed dresses, the boys in smart waist suits and polished shoes. Nausea and dread overwhelmed me, just imagining my fate.
But then Joseph was there. In my mind, he was there. Wide, brown eyes full of love and life, laughter and lustre. His mouth stretched into a genuine smile, his hand reached out towards mine, waiting for me. He would always wait for me. Not a day would go by when he reconsidered his proposal for me. I could not leave him waiting. It would be cruel of me, callous. Even though it was considered improper, certainly frowned upon, was it what I truly wanted?
Footsteps brought me out of my reverie. My eyes snapped open and my body tensed, expecting Joseph. But to my intense surprise, he was asleep. I had apparently been wrong about a restless night for us both. It seemed only I was due for that. But then if Joseph was asleep, who did the footsteps belong to?
The rhythmic pat-pat noises told me that there was somebody right outside my door.
For a fleeting moment, I debated whether or not to awaken Joseph, but I decided against it. The person was probably just passing by and I did not need to cause unnecessary fuss. I shut my eyes again, choosing to ignore the quiet alarm I felt at this stranger right outside the bedroom and opt once again for sleep.
However, they did not leave. I heard no retreating footsteps but instead a very quiet, very gravelly inhalation of air, as though they might have some trouble breathing. A heavy smoker, perhaps. The idea did not come as a surprise to me, given the place I had wound up in. But then I might have mistaken the gravelly texture of the voice. It could be anyone.
Against my better judgement, I called Joseph’s name. He awoke at once.
‘Milady is something the matter?’
‘There is somebody outside our door,’ I said in a hushed tone.
What I had just said did not register with him until he must have seen the poorly hidden fear in my eyes and he rose at once, a perfect attempt at bravery. He crossed the room in one fluid motion, threw open the door and…faltered.
I did not understand why he had done so until I saw who was standing on the threshold.
‘William?’ I gasped.
William was another one of my father’s servants, although he held a higher status than Joseph and it wasn’t unheard of that William would display his superiority to Joseph, often bossing him around and putting him down. I had never gotten involved of course, the servant’s business were none of my concern.
‘Milady,’ William gave a small bow. ‘Your father sent me here to request that you return immediately.’
‘But we cannot,’ I replied, dumbfounded. ‘Our transport suffered a mishap and is unable to take us anywhere.’
‘Transport has been sent.’
‘How did he know we were here?’
‘The boys helping with the horse informed your father. It was in your best interest. I must say though, Milady, your father isn’t best pleased.’ William’s eyes flickered to Joseph, whose hand was still frozen to the door handle. I knew Joseph was scared.
‘And why is that?’
‘The keeper of the inn informed me of the situation at hand that only one room was rented for the night. Your father would not be best pleased with Joseph, that he would forget his gentlemanly duties and rest in the same room as you. It is improper.’
‘This was the only room available,’ the words that escaped my mouth were an outright lie. This was not the only room available, but I had not bothered to rent another room for Joseph. The idea did not cross my mind. I tried to argue that it was because I did not feel comfortable staying alone in a place like this, but deep down I knew it was different.
‘Even if that is the case, your father has given me permission to deal with Joseph effectively should a situation like this arise.’ William turned to Joseph. ‘You are hereby relieved of your duties as servant of the household and all that the job may entail. You will not be in charge of transportation of Lady Christiana Adams and you are expected to depart from the house by noon tomorrow.’
My own sharp intake of breath coincided with Joseph’s beside me. I could not believe what I was hearing, that William could dispose of Joseph on the spot like this!
‘William, I do not think that you are making the correct choice. My father does not know of this if I am correct?’
‘With all due respect Milady, I would not keep a thing like this from him. Please collect your belongings and proceed to come downstairs for your carriage. I shall be waiting outside for you.’ William bowed once more before leaving.
‘Joseph,’ I whispered. ‘I am so sorry for this.’
‘Do not apologize Milady, this is not your problem. I found myself in this situation; it should have been my gentlemanly duty to rest in a separate room. William is quite right.’ Joseph’s usually warm eyes lacked the usual contentment and happiness. ‘Let me fetch your belongings for you.’
I could do nothing as I said a final goodbye to Joseph. I wanted more than anything for William to change his mind, but I knew he would not do so. He did not want to upset my father. The journey to the carriage seemed an impossibly long journey; my mind was in a completely different place. With each step that I took the feeling of despair grew, like I was leaving something invaluable behind.
‘Milady,’ William greeted me at the door of the inn. ‘Your carriage awaits you.’ I let him assist me into the hansom where I sank down onto the cushioned seat. The small window to my right allowed me to get a final glimpse of the inn before I would be taken away forever.
A figure was standing at the window, immersed in shadows. I could identify easily who it was though.
‘William!’ I called out. ‘Would you mind waiting please, I appear to have forgotten something.’
‘Of course Milady, would you allow me to help you?’
‘No, no, it’s fine. Thank you William.’
I did not look at William as I stepped back onto solid ground for fear that deceit was written all over my features. Upon re-entering the inn, I was hit once more with the solid stench of smoke and alcohol. This did not bother me as it had the first time as my mind was focussed solely on the person upstairs, waiting for me.
As I pushed open the door, the figure at the window turned to face me.
’Milady? Did you forget something?’
‘You are right. I do not need fancy riches or high class suitors. When William spoke of his unfortunate decision to relieve you, I was far unhappier than I should have been, than what would have been acceptable of me.’ I looked up at him, knowing that I was doing right. ‘I could not imagine living a life that you are not in. Let us run away together. Let us be happy.’