For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright, Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
Lucinda shivered, closed the slim volume and shut her eyes. She rested the book on her lap and her head on the soft brocade. She was used to the jarring rhythm of the carriage and now knew why people rolled their eyes at the prospect of long journeys!
How much further did they have to travel today? Mr Ferris had not said.
She thought about the sonnet she had just read. She did not fully understand its meaning and yet she had felt stirred by its words? Mr Shakespeare was a clever man, far cleverer than even a nineteenth century young lady who has had the benefit of education. She was not certain that Mr Shakespeare's sonnets were suitable and had at first hidden the title page from view but Mr Ferris had shown not an ounce of recognition and had said nothing as he sat opposite her watching her read.
The carriage jolted, the horses reared and they came to a crunching halt. Lucinda was thrown forward and fell back nearly missing the seat. The volume of sonnets was hurled to the floor. Lucinda reached to pick it up.
What was that? A pistol shot? Her skin froze. Prickles of gooseflesh raced up her neck. She sat back, bolt upright, staring at Mr Ferris.
Mr Ferris's face was haloed in the double flash of light. He was as pale as chalk. Through the sudden, uneasy silence came the legendary words.
"Stand and deliver!"
Lucinda's heart stopped for a moment, then continued to thud all the more quickly.
Who had fired the pistol? Where had it been aimed? Lucinda longed to turn her head to the window and see what was happening but every part of her body remained frozen.
Birds were squawking now, disturbed from their perches. Mr Ferris sat as though pinned to the corner. His wide eyes stared straight ahead, fixed on something beyond what was visible. Would he not do something? Anything?
The carriage swayed. Lucinda heard the scuffle of horses' hooves and shouting made incomprehensible by the slicing wind, and the thick drum, drum, drum in her ears. Lucinda strained to hear what was going on and willed her heart to cease its painful pounding in her chest.
There was another stillness, this time punctuated by two voices coming closer to hand. They were coming to seize them from the carriage. Lucinda closed her eyes not wanting to see what happened next. If these were to be her last moments on this earth she wanted to face them blind.
One of the voices was John, the coachman, his country vowels immediately recognisable.
"Sir, Miss, have no fear. They have gone."
The other voice was unknown but, although it held a certain burr, it was the cultured voice of a gentleman.
A horse whinnied. The gentleman cleared his throat.
"Your attackers have fled."
Lucinda opened her eyes. She was still in the slightly dim inside of the coach. It was not all a dream but the menace had vanished for the moment.
"Thank the Lord!" Mr Ferris lost no time giving himself a cursory dust down, pushing open the door and leaping out.
Light and gusts of cold but welcome air came in. Lucinda found she was shaking as she followed him outside.
Their horses had bolted. John the coachman looked helpless, like a babe without its mother, while Mr Ferris glowed red with indignation and cursed under his breath.
"Murderous villains!" he thundered.
It was no band of heroes that had saved them, but one solitary cavalry officer, in full regimentals, resplendent on his handsome black mare.
"Captain Robert Monceaux of the 15th Light Dragoons at your service, sir."
Lucinda did not know if she imagined it, but she thought she saw a flicker of unease pass like a shadow over Mr Ferris's face. Did he know the gentleman already? It appeared not.
"William Ferris, who will ever be in your debt, young sir. I am afraid that without your timely intervention, my ward and I..."
"'Tis nothing more than my duty, sir."
"I had heard, of course, that Hounslow Heath was notoriously dangerous, but surely not now, not in the nineteenth century would I have expected to be accosted by such veritable cut-throats!"
Lucinda stole a glance at the young dragoon captain with the French sounding name. She could see he was as tall as the authority of his voice suggested, even though he was mounted on a fine horse. He did not sound French, but there was something to his accent she could not place. It had a burr to it suggesting he was from some unknown locality. His apparel was pristine, without a crease, his collar as stiff and straight as his back. Only in his eyes was there any softness to temper the unyielding conformity. Oh, and his thick eyelashes and tumbling waves of hair made her think of chocolate. At the same moment as if that very thought he turned as if to appraise her.
"And Miss, I trust you are none the worse for your ordeal?"
"La, sir, it was nothing!" she heard herself reply lightly, and felt an unwanted blush in her cheeks. Oh, foolish girl, she chided herself, to have a head so easily turned at the prospect of a uniform!
He was speaking to her guardian again now. "Highwaymen and footpads will always try their chances on an empty road, wherever it may be. Have a care, sir, for although the Dragoons do use the Heath as a training ground, that is not sufficient to deter them."
"I thank you for your warning." Mr Ferris shook his head gravely.
"There is an inn about a mile from here. It would be my pleasure to call in there and have them send horses, sir?"
"You are too kind!" Mr Ferris effused, brightening.
Lucinda felt an uncomfortable wetness on her toes and looked down to see her boots burnished with the damp. They were rather old. She shivered. It felt very cold despite her woollen cloak.
"The young lady may ride with me to the inn where she can wait in the warm." The Captain's voice sounded more like an order than a suggestion.
He must have noticed she was cold. Lucinda felt a strange warmth despite the chill of the air.
"Oh, she can, can she?" Mr Ferris immediately retorted, drawing himself up to the full height of his short frame. "Miss Handscombe is my ward and a lady of impeccable virtue and spotless reputation. I am afraid I am not about to entrust her person into the care of an un-vouched for dragoon."
The Captain nodded. "As you wish." His reply sounded gallant, without any trace of emotion.
Why, then, did Lucinda sense a tension in the air you could have cut with a knife? It was very curious. The dragoon had made a gentlemanly suggestion but for some reason her guardian had flown up in the boughs.
"Thank you," she said, struggling to stop her teeth from chattering. "I shall be quite contented waiting here until the new horses arrive."
The damp evening mist felt as if it was closing in. Oh, to be a hundred miles from this dreadful place and tucked up in a warm feather bed!
The Captain looked at her for a moment before he spoke to Mr Ferris. "Do you wish your ward to catch her death?"
His words sounded like an accusation.
Mr Ferris looked about to reply dangerously. His brows had knotted. It was the same indignant expression he had been wearing a moment ago but he tempered it very quickly into a more reasoned expression. There was a harsh edge to his butter-smooth voice and his eyes shone like hard ebony beads.
"Lucinda, go with Captain Monceaux."
She had no business judging her guardian or their rescuer but both were behaving insufferably. She felt like some playing token of little consequence and yet worthy of squabbling over? It was intolerable!
"Mind you secure a private salon, sir, and I would be obliged if you would wait with Miss Hanscombe at the inn until my arrival. I have no confidence in the safety of a young lady alone in these parts."
"Sir." The Captain nodded.
Lucinda bit her lip, but was unable to stop herself protesting. What was Mr Ferris thinking of to entrust her to a complete stranger? What if the highwaymen were also at the same inn? "Sir, I cannot go to an inn alone. Really, it is most unseemly..."
"Your modesty and strong sense of propriety does you every credit," the Captain replied and Lucinda fell silent. "These are, however, most exceptional circumstances and the inn is not a mile from here. Every haste will be made to ensure you are only parted from your guardian for as short a time as possible."
His voice sounded kind but it most certainly did not invite further resistance.
Her duty was to obey her guardian and there was something indefinable about the Captain that invited her to trust him.
Mr Ferris was still simmering and appeared not to be wholly satisfied. Lucinda said nothing and let John help her mount the magnificent mare. It was comforting to be on such a docile and yet powerful animal. What actually disturbed her was the fact that she was practically sitting in the Captain's lap.
"Hold on tight," he instructed.
There was nothing to hold onto apart from him. Lucinda had her reticule clasped tightly in one hand and the Captain's jacket in the other. The stiff braid dug into her hand. Whatever the exceptional circumstances, she should not be here, like this, trying to hold onto ... a gentleman!
"Hold on properly!"
He took her reticule and tucked it into his pocket.
She tried to ignore everything around her, but the idea that the highwaymen might be watching them, about to attack at any moment, persisted. If they were set upon, she reasoned, the Captain had a pistol. He had defended them already and he would do so again. Besides, the Heath was generally open with only small clumps of trees. There was nowhere from where the highwaymen might spring without giving them fair warning.
Lucinda shivered, but not because of the cold. There was an unexpected warmth as her body pressed accidentally against his. A feeling of assurance enveloped her. She was warm and safe for the moment. She hardly noticed the uncomfortable jarring of the saddle as he brought the mare up to a brisk trot and then quickly into a canter.
They reached the inn all too quickly and the cold air hit her once more on all sides as she dismounted. Lucinda glanced hastily around the inn yard. It was empty, thankfully, and all looked as it should. The lone ostler was watching them with a strange look on his face.
She supposed it wasn't every day that he must see a handsome dragoon with a lady come riding in. Lucinda felt a slight blush arise from her perceived impropriety. She fixed her attention on a cat gingerly trying to drink from one of the nearly frozen water troughs. Whatever the ostler might think, the circumstances were extraordinary but her guardian had given his consent. She had nothing to be ashamed of.
The Captain handed the reins of his horse to the ostler with a few low spoken words. "She is in good hands."
Lucinda started. Was the Captain speaking to her? He was standing across the yard, though the distance seemed shorter, and watching her with an expression that looked like curiosity. She knew she did not cut a fashionable dash. Her grey cloak was about as becoming as an old flour sack.
"Miss Handscombe, do you not want to go inside?"
Ah, now he was assured as to the comfort of his horse he condescended to consider her. "Thank you very much, sir."
Pleased that she was well mannered enough to have been able to suppress any sound of pique from her reply she followed him obediently with her eyes fixed on the solid frame in front of her. He was a man to be wondered at out of the saddle as well as in it, certainly a commander of men.
The Captain appeared to know the inn well and showed her directly into a small private sitting room. It was comfortable enough, well furnished, and with a well stocked fire.
"Sit near the fire and ask if you want anything," he commanded and then disappeared. Lucinda sank into one of the inviting armchairs.