August 18th, 1800
The hot, straw-scented air was heavy and thick, even in the morning. The black clouds coming from the west threatened heavy rain that would doubtless last well into the evening. The children were sleepy, even though they had only just had breakfast, and everyone felt listless in the heat.
No one noticed Rebecca in general, nor that she disappeared as soon as she had made some mild excuse for being finished with breakfast.
Thunder rolled in the distance as Rebecca fingered the slim note that crackled in her pocket as she walked hastily out towards the stable-block.
Beloved - meet me in the carriage-house as soon as you are able to get away. I have urgent news.
A giddy smile touched upon her lips as she walked, her mind whirling with the great upheaval in recent days. Mr. Lewis had proposed--declared his ardent attachment and determination to have her hand in marriage. Rebecca, then fully able and willing to surrender her heart once she knew she was in possession of his, eagerly agreed to a planned elopement. Richard had long since deduced her desire to be from home, though she had not been so uncharitable to Sir Rowan as to make him known as the cause of such feelings. Richard's hesitant suggestion that they go away as soon as possible was music to the girl's ears, and she consented to any plan he might devise, happy to have Mr. Lewis make the arrangements, trusting him utterly and loving him so completely that she felt she would go to the ends of the earth with him.
He spoke of his reservations regarding keeping their understanding a secret, which Rebecca quickly banished, assuring him that there would be no impropriety in the matter--there could not be. If they stole away early, and made good time with fresh horses and good roads, they might be in Gretna Green and return home whilst it was still light out--they were not so very far from the border with Scotland. Richard had made himself indispensable to her, quickly becoming a regular caller at the house these past weeks, and often catching Rebecca when she ventured on her own into town--to which end she began to find more and more errangs to run, hoping to meet with him, which she often did. She was charmed by his being charmed, and the staggering bolt of first love struck her as squarely as lightning may shatter the staunchest of trees.
We will be so happy together--so free.
For fortune, Rebecca thought nothing. She could live quite simply, she was sure, and if Richard did not mind it, nor would she. She made every promise to be the worthiest and best little wife to such a fine young man, to assist and comfort him as he struggled in his profession--he was sure to go far; she had no doubts as to his prospects and talents. It was settled that they would get away the day after she turned seventeen--when the family no longer had any reason to single her out for attention. They would be married before dinner-time, and return to surprise the family.
She could have sung with joy--there could be no objection once they were married, and it would be done properly, in the course of a single day, Richard had promised her so solemnly. And now this note--such a note must be alright, given their engagement, clandestine thought it was, she reasoned to herself--he must have details of the arrangements, which must not be committed to paper lest they go astray and some gossipmonger spoiled their hopes. Rebecca hugged herself, tapping her toes on the flagstones as she stood in the deserted carriage-house.
"Ssst! Rebecca!" She whirled, seeing Richard peer around the end of a wagon, and ran to him, smiling.
Taking her hands in his, he kissed her fingers, and Rebecca's breath hitched in the back of her throat.
"Here, let us sit down," he said, guiding her to a low bench along one wall and sitting beside her, still holding her hands.
"Well," said she, her blue-grey eyes sparkling with laughter. "My lord and master has bid me here--what is his message?" Richard's fine lips, set in a smile, twisted slightly.
"It is as I feared--we shall not be able to get away..."
"What? Why ever not?" she cried.
"Shhh! Hush!" He pressed his fingers to her lips and they both fell silent as their eyes met. Lightning shuddered blue and white in the sky beyond the wide open doors of the building, and rain began to fall heavily outside. "Becca..." he sighed, moving a loose curl back from her face. She smiled at the tender gesture, but worry remained apparent in her eyes. "I will marry you," he said fervently. "I must. If I do not--" he broke off for a moment. "...I'll be damned if I do not," he murmured, more to himself, it seemed, than to her, glancing about with evident agitation. "Are you certain you were not followed?"
"No one noticed my leaving the house."
"Hmm. Rebecca--your stepfather knows."
"Sir Rowan?" She was on her feet before either of them knew she had meant to move. "--but...how? I was so careful!"
"A town gossip? Who knows?" he said, remaining gloomily calm as she began to pace.
"He will be so angry...is he angry?"
"How should I know? He only just found out, as I heard it...and I came here right away. Perhaps he has gone to my uncle's house to find me."
"He will not disapprove! We can leave this moment, hire a carriage--it is not late..."
"We would not make Gretna Green before nightfall--not in this rain. The roads will be too wet. Come, Becca, I have a plan." She let him take hold of her hands once more and sat beside him, her posture utterly defeated, her head hung low and her shoulders slumping with misery. "Becca..."
Something in his voice made her look up, his grey eyes glittering with some passion that touched upon mania, and she felt hope rise within her heart. He loved her, and his love would move mountains that they might be together, and her faith had been brought low by some paltry report concerning a stepfather who cared nothing for her. Why should Sir Rowan object? She saw more clearly now that it was foolish to keep their attachment a secret. Why, he might even be pleased!
An apology hung on her lips, but nothing issued forth but a small gasp of surprise as Richard softly took her mouth against his. He had never yet kissed her in this way, and she froze, stunned into ice that all at once melted to a sensuous ripple, his skin warm against hers like a stone falling into still water. He kissed her nose, her forehead, her eyelids, returning to her lips, then, with deeper fervour. She sighed briefly, certain her soul had left her body, so weak and trembling was the poor mortal shell. His lips had moved to her chin for a moment when Rebecca went rigid with shock at the sensation of a strong, warm hand brushing the back of her calf, then her knee.
"Richard!" She jerked backwards, once she had recovered her powers of movement, wrenching her limbs out of his grip and turning her face away from his. "I--we--you--" She shook her head, unable to find the words.
"Rebecca, do you love me?"
"Y-yes...of course, but--"
"You have promised to be my wife."
"Yes, but when we--"
"If you let me..." he cleared his throat. "If we take these liberties, we must marry. No one can stop us--they will insist upon it."
"I have been thinking--Sir Rowan may not object. Indeed, I am sure...he does not think badly of you at all. Perhaps we may just go and speak to him...tell him the truth." Richard was shaking his head even as she spoke.
"...then we risk forever being parted. There is the chance he may object, for whatever reason, and then take you away somewhere, and that will be the end of it. Any chance is too much of a chance to take." Her head was spinning. She could taste the tobacco he had been smoking, and the heat suddenly seemed oppressive, even as the rain washed the earth outside. Her skin prickled with the electricity that wove itself in the very air and flashed across the sky, her breath coming in short, painful gasps.
"No...no, we go too far to--" She could not say it. She could hardly think of it. She did not know what to think. She was weak and faithless and Richard may well hate her for refusing him this, for taking the risk of honesty with her family. "It might pain Mamma, to not see my wedding..." Why need it be hidden? They were not so very different in situation or fortune.
"Your Mamma?" scoffed Richard. His gaze hardened. "I will not lose you."
"I never said you would, only--" Here, again, his hand silenced her swiftly, only this time he dragged her to her feet, striding to a corner where sat a pile of empty sacks, whereupon he lowered her to the ground, not as gently as he might have, freeing his hand to grapple with her gown.
"I will be swift," he promised, avoiding her eyes, which darted frantically from side to side. She struggled to breathe, and terror burst open inside her like a terrible flower, causing her to claw blindly at his shoulders, then sink her teeth into his fingers. He cursed, snatching back his hand long enough for her to sob aloud--
"Please, stop. Stop, please, Richard!"
Silence rolled thick as thunder in the moment following the stern command of Sir Rowan Selkirke. Richard paused only a moment before he backed off, gingerly lifting himself from his would-be fiancee, standing and tucking his shirt-tails back into his breeches, having only just managed to tug them loose in the moments before they were discovered. Streaks of red smeared against the fine linen, drops of blood running freely from his hand where she had bitten him. He bowed solemnly to Sir Rowan in a kind of mockery of polite greeting. The older man's gaze revealed nothing, only flickering once to the trembling figure of Rebecca, who sat up, re-arranging her skirt and passing her hand over her cheeks, flushed scarlet and streaked with hot tears.
"Marry her, then, if you wish," he said shortly. "But she is all I can offer."
Rebecca's befuddled mind glowed with hesitant joy for a moment as she managed to deduce that Sir Rowan would allow the marriage, despite the humiliation of the present situation. Richard, however, knit his brows together.
"I do not understand you, sir." Rebecca thought his wits must be more addled than her own--clearly Sir Rowan would not object, even if he was plainly not overjoyed. She cared little for his approbation now that freedom was at hand.
"Take her to wife, and you may keep her, entirely." Sir Rowan smiled, but it had more of chilling malice in it than anything else.
"But your daughter, sir...?"
"She is no child of mine," he said curtly.
"Richard..." said Rebecca, her hoarse, soft voice a vague warming. Too vague.
"Keep her? On two hundred a year?" he spat, incredulous.
"Generally a man procures his fortune before or through gaining a wife; but who am I to deny your affection?"
"You mock me, sir!"
"I mock you and it is only for your uncle's sake that I do not have you bodily thrown off my property but rather allow you the opportunity to leave of your own accord. That is, unless you take Miss Garrison to church."
How many moments passed, Rebecca could never be certain. All she knew later was that she watched helplessly as Richard turned and strode out-of-doors and into the downpour, never looking back.
"...Richard?" Confused and shivering, Rebecca ran past Sir Rowan and into the rain, but Richard was already fast disappearing into the silvery blur of the distance. "Richard!" she called louder, in case he had not heard her above the rain. "Richard!" The last came as a drawn-out scream that culminated in a sob as she pressed a hand over her mouth.
She swayed on her feet for a moment before she doubled over and heaved the contents of her stomach upon the muddy ground, retching until she was empty, and yet the sick numbness remained at her core. The pain would not leave her, and was, in that moment, too great to quite hurt her, as when a roar overpowers the ear and becomes silence when the mind can no longer comprehend it. She could not feel her heart breaking, and savagely wished she might, and so die from it at once; but she would not die that day, nor for many days yet to come; and the deadened reprieve from pain would not last long beyond those first moments of reeling shock.
"Come here." Her stepfather's voice was low, but the words cut clearly through the fog of her despair, and she slowly turned and walked back into the carriage-house, standing before him in her light gown, soaked through with the rain, mud and streaks of slick bile. "Turn."
Rebecca obeyed without understanding in that moment, though she saw the buggy whip he had taken in hand. It seemed to her unreal, a horrible nightmare, and she must soon wake up.
She came to believe the truth of it all when the first blow took her breath away. By the third she had regained her presence of mind enough to shove her palm into her mouth and stifle her screams, biting her own flesh until she tasted blood, now far beyond tears in her despair. The tongue-tip of the lash spiralled beside her ear, licking at the delicate skin below the lobe, drawing out a line of glittering blood the width of a hair, glowing like a brand atop the ashy welt that rose beneath it. Later, much later, the sinuous white curve of that single scar would be the only mark she bore as a reminder of that terrible day, well-hidden beneath the shadow of her hair.
The lashes fell chiefly on her back, her shoulders. She scarcely heeded her stepfather's words, grunted in time with his exertions, though he had the bantam strength of a country-dwelling man, and he handled the whip with great skill.
"Ungrateful! Brat! Worthless! Whore!" The blows bit and burnt all at once; but even as her flesh crawled with agony, she felt a deep darkness within her--a dry-eyed snowstorm that blanketed everything in ice, a limitless ache and silence like a tomb.
When Sir Rowan coiled the whip and set it aside, he glanced back where Rebecca had fallen, white hands blindly scrabbling in the dirt and straw, as if unconsciously trying to dig herself into a hole as she audibly gasped for breath after painful breath.
"I will not have you influencing my children with your sullen disobedience and wretched impropriety. Nor will I allow you to grow complacent and sullen at my expense. I have given you every comfort and advantage for your mother's sake; but no more. I am sending you to London--I know of a place for you--and from the day you depart you will no longer be welcome under my roof. Is that understood?" Rebecca scarcely moved, now, sitting numbly upon the cold stones, the shivering breaths she dragged into her lungs her only response. "Understood?" he growled, louder. Rebecca, who would have quailed at his tone but an hour before, merely nodded once, her gaze blank.
Sir Rowan then departed, and by-and-by a well-paid and thus utterly loyal servant (that is, silent and malleable,) was sent to fetch the girl up to her room. Nothing seen or heard was to be repeated, on Sir Rowan's orders; still, the woman gaped to see the young miss so bedraggled and broken like a mad-woman. Covered in filth and wretched beyond repair, her gown would certainly have to be burnt or used for rags. Her hair was tumbled loose and tangled into wet snarls that might well break every comb in the house.
"Come miss--you'll catch your death."
That didn't sound too bad to Rebecca; but she let herself be led away, her hurts silently seen to and spent the next fortnight in her room; whether by Sir Rowan's orders or her own volition, no one was ever quite certain. Further tirades from him or tears from her mother had no effect on her, and for once, Lady Selkirke could not persuade her husband to change his mind. He would not risk poisoning the minds of his own children by associating them with a deceitful girl capable of such staggering impropriety, a girl who had so nearly ruined not only herself but them all. Lady Selkirke herself was the one rather regretfully persuaded, in the end; though she cried copiously the day Rebecca was sat upon the back of a cart and sent to meet the post on the long road to London; but she soon comforted herself with her other children. Their few friends and neighbours did not remember to ask after the young girl, presuming she had gone back to visit her childhood home in Devonshire, then never noticing when the girl did not return. Town gossip soon turned to the news of Mr. Richard Lewis' impending marriage to a Miss Glover, a merchant's daughter from the next county.
As for Rebecca, she could only gaze at the road before her, or the landscape as it slid and rumbled by.
Free, at last.