Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sheer desperation



Snippet No. 4 is the opening of Desperate Measures. One day, I might even get round to finishing this novel. Somehow other things always seem to sneak ahead of it in the to do pile.

‘No! Put it back. Put it back.’

The sound of her shriek echoed down the grand staircase, to silence the mob below. Thea stared over the balcony at the sea of unfamiliar faces, the rough clothing and dirty boots. What were these people doing here? Where were the servants? Who’d let them in? The pair of ruffians eyed her warily as they removed a cumbersome portrait of herself and her husband. Had the talk of rebellion on the wind grown so strong that it had overtaken them as they slept?

No. These were not men-at-arms. They were a shifty rabble of thieves and scoundrels. She turned her attention back to the pair balancing her wedding portrait and scooped up a convenient candelabrum. ‘Get out.’ She rushed towards them, looking she realised, like some wild harridan off the moors. She was dressed in only her chemise and stays, with her long wavy hair flowing loose down her back. There’d been no maid to dress her, and the commotion outside her door had grown so loud that she’d been unable to ignore it any longer.

‘How dare you. Put that back.’

The pair jerked away from her, dropping the huge portrait in their haste. It toppled forward onto the stairs and slid down the carpet like an enormous pie tin. At the bottom, it crashed on to the marble tiles with the percussive force of military band. The echo of its landing throbbed in her ears as the two ruffians scrambled down into the safety of their brethren. Twenty or so faces peered up at her from around the fallen gilt-frame.

'Get out, all of you,’ she screamed.

Ignoring the response, she crossed the landing. Where in hell was her husband? ‘Phillip!’ There was no sign of him in his bedchamber, although his bed was rumpled. At least he’d come home. That was a good sign.

His day clothes were laid out, but missing the trousers. The rabble had obviously woken him. She’d find him abroad somewhere, making sense of this mayhem.

Was this how her grandmother had felt, she wondered as she headed towards the backstairs to the kitchens, when Cromwell’s men had ransacked her home in search of royalists? Why was it happening now? They couldn’t think them Jacobins, surely. No. But there’d been too many rumours of dissent recently, to brush off anything. She needed to dress, and she needed help. One woman against the mob was never going to achieve much. Presumably, there’d be someone below who knew what was going on. Someone must have let them in.

There was a rustle of fabric as she approached the linen closet. Thea wrenched open the door to find the dainty between-maid trying to conceal herself beneath a pile of bed sheets.

‘Lucy?’

The girl lurched to attention, and dropped a hasty curtsy.

‘Where’s Mr Roche?’

‘Begging your pardon, ma’am, but he’s gone. The bailiffs dragged him off about a half-hour ago. Said he owed too much, and that people wanted paying.’

‘What? They’ve taken him where?’

‘The gaol house, ma’am. It’s where they send them what can’t pay. They rest they send up to Durham.’

Impossible. They had money, didn’t they? Only last week he’d bought her a set of rubies. There was a mistake, had to be. How much was he supposed to owe that they needed to strip the house? Is that what the mob were, bailiffs?

Thea moved back onto the landing overlooking the hall, with Lucy at her heels. ‘What happened to the rest of the servants?’ There was a lump of fear in her throat now, a ball of rising panic.

‘Most of them have gone. They scarpered pretty quick once Stark and his men turned up. Nobody wants to stand up to him, and there didn’t seem much point in staying if there weren’t going to be anything left. Will we get our wages, ma’am?’

‘But you stayed.’

‘The village is a canny walk, and the owner’s coming down. I thought I’d hang about long enough to see if he needs any housekeeping staff until there’s a new tenant.’

Tenant! She wanted to scream in the girl’s face. Phillip’s family owned the property. It was theirs as part of the marriage settlement.

The girl curled her fingers into Thea’s shoulder. ‘Your trunks are still in your room from your visit to York. Not meaning to be forward, and all, but hadn’t you best go and pack? Stark’s known as being a nasty brute. He’ll turn you out as you are.’

‘Trunks,’ Thea mumbled. ‘Packing.’ Bewildered, she grasped the banister and headed back towards her room. The mob were still circling below. They’d stripped the furniture and furnishings from the entrance hall and they were now bringing things out from the adjoining rooms. Who was responsible for this? Her husband had friends. Where were they? Tears prickled behind her eyes. She sniffed, and blinked them away. No matter what, she’d keep her dignity. She’d hold her head high.

‘Mrs Roche.’ There was a blond man heading towards her up the stairs. Lucy ran, fleeing into the darkness of the servants’ passage like a rabbit bolting for its burrow. Thea held her ground and watched his approach. Unlike the ruffians below, he seemed refined, polished, of her class. He was dressed a la mode in a full-skirted coat, and knee breeches, which he’d tucked into his white stockings. ‘Mrs Roche, I’m Thieftaker Stark. Your servant.’ He bowed low over his beribboned cane.

‘My servants seem to have deserted me.’

‘Aye, so it would seem.’ He lifted his head.

Thea jolted away from him, though wished she hadn’t when a smile of satisfaction spread across his ruined visage. The skin across his left eye was creased into a web of red and silver lines. The eye itself was milky, while the rest of him was undeniable handsome. Once he’d have been painted, admired, celebrated, but the fates had turned a cruel hand. Thea clasped her fist to her chest. Stark turned his head to one side, then the other, showing her his flawless profile, then ruined one. The widest of the scars was the same breadth as her finger. It overwhelmed her with such a terrible urge to touch. Damn him, but he knew he was making an impact.

'Have you a message for me, Mr Stark?’ She dragged her gaze down to the square toes of his buckled shoes.

‘I do. As of eight o’ clock this morning, my men have taken your husband Phillip Roche of Frosterley into custody.’

‘On what charge?’ She fought to keep her voice neutral.

‘Substantial gambling debts, and an inability to provide any means to settle them or his accounts with tradesmen of the county.’

3 comments:

Bev(QB) said...

Well, that could turn out to be a pretty interesting story.

BTW, since you know English history better than I do, what year or era is that set in?

MB (Leah) said...

OK, you got me hooked. What happens next? :D

Madelynne Ellis said...

It's set in 1715.

As for what happens next... Poor Thea is left homeless and destitute.