HER heart thudding in growing alarm, Emma entered the stable yard and looked wildly around her. Everything gave the appearance of recent abandonment. A wooden pail lay overturned beside the pump, which dripped water, the sound magnified in the stillness of deepening dusk.
A coil of frayed and discarded rope draped the gatepost of the field where Hamilton had ridden Cygnus with a view to purchasing. It seemed a lifetime ago.
Reminded of that sun-filled day in May, the scent of new grass, swallows swooping, deep-blue eyes smiling into hers, Emma gave a gulping sob. Where was Josh? Why had he deserted her? No word, not so much as a scribbled message to explain his absence.
On the heels of this came another thought. What of Josh’s father?
Heedless of the pain in her blistered feet, Emma sped across to the cottage. She tried the door but it was locked, so she moved on to the window. The shutters were closed and, lifting the wooden bar that secured them, she peered in. From what she could see in the dim evening light the room was unrecognisable – the furniture pushed aside, fire dead, all evidence of her old friend gone.
What should she do?
Numb with shock and bewilderment, she stood mute in the silent stable yard, whilst around her the darkness thickened and behind the hills a pale moon rose, gleaming between reeling clouds in the troubled autumn sky.
Suddenly a single white owl wheeled ghostlike overhead with a piercing cry that jerked Emma out of her apathy. One for sorrow, she thought. Dear Lord, hadn’t she sorrow enough?
Desperately she searched the sky for a second bird and was unashamedly relieved to see the female glide past. Josh had spoken of the barn owls that roosted in the loft above the stables. He believed that as long as the birds remained, the place was protected.
Samuel Brookfield had smilingly said it was his Irish blood speaking.
As she watched the hunting owls it struck Emma how vulnerable she was, a woman alone and unarmed, easy target for the bands of vagrants that roamed the district. She saw the male bird swoop on some small, unsuspecting prey and return to its nest via the round owl-hatch in the gable end of the building.
Maybe it was trying to tell her something. There, at least, would be refuge for the night.
Picking up her carpet bag, Emma went into the shadowy stables and climbed the ladder to the loft and the summery smell of hay and straw. She scooped together a makeshift bed of loosened fodder and, removing her confining boots, she pulled her cloak around her for warmth and sank down, closing her eyes against the dark, inhospitable outdoors.
Utter weariness washed over her. Emma’s last thought before drifting off to sleep was the comforting maxim that things would be better in the morning.
* * * *
Thin slivers of daylight slanting through the slats in the roof woke her. She lay a moment, wondering where she was.
Realisation came all too swiftly. Swallowing hard, she sat slowly up in the prickly straw. The movement caused the purse of coins in the deep pocket of her petticoat to brush against her with a heartening nudge and her spirits lifted.
She was young, in good health and, thanks to Aunt Maisie, she had the means to survive, at least for a short while.
She took out the purse and counted the money. It totalled nearly six pounds, more than she had dared hope for. She should have enough to rent a room while she sought work. She wouldn’t think of the past. It was the future that mattered.
On that positive note she put the purse away and stood up. A few agonising moments were spent in easing her still-swollen feet into her boots. Then, shaking straw from her skirts and collecting her luggage, she descended the ladder and went out into the cold grey light of dawn.
At the pump she swilled her hands and face and drank thirstily, conscious of a growling emptiness in her stomach. How long since she had last eaten?
Noon yesterday, her mind supplied. It had been a perfectly normal meal taken with Granfer Trigg and the family. Who would have thought her circumstances could have swung so disastrously?
In her carpet bag was the package of food her aunt had hastily assembled for her. Emma pulled it out. The bread was stale, the cheese hardening, but she swallowed it down to the last crumb.
Feeling better, she left the yard, her one thought being to put as much distance as possible between herself and Chester.