EMMA had reached the main highway to Nantwich, signposted Salter’s Lane, when the clop of hooves alerted her to a fellow traveller. Alarmed, she threw a glance over her shoulder and was relieved to see the harmless figure of a carrier aboard his cart.
The man drew up beside her.
“Morning, missie. Tes early to be abroad. Can I offer you a lift? I’m bound for Tarporley.”
Emma didn’t think twice. Her feet in her cramped boots were throbbing and Tarporley seemed as good a place as any to begin a new life.
Tossing her carpet bag on to the back of the cart with the other packages, she climbed up beside the driver.
Chilly autumn air brushed her face as they clopped along, the driver keeping up a lively chat that was cheering. He readily answered Emma’s query about accommodation.
“The Swan’s your best chance. Tes a staging post, mind. You’ll get the coaches coming in at intervals, but the place has a sound reputation.”
They were passing a copper mine on the slope of a hill. Distracted by the bustle in the shacks that surrounded the pit face, Emma turned impulsively to the driver.
“Wait! I’m looking for work. Could there be a vacancy there?”
Her mind worked feverishly. Chance was she’d get lodgings nearby, thus she’d be to hand should Josh return to the area . . .
The carrier was horrified.
“Forget it, maid. A young miss like you in that rough place? You dunna know what you’re asking.”
He whipped the horse to a faster pace, effectively putting an end to Emma’s thoughts in that direction.
Tarporley church clock struck midday as they rumbled into the straw-and-dung-strewn courtyard of the Swan Inn. The hostelry stood off the high street, its two canted bay windows testament to recent refurbishment of what was clearly a much older structure.
For a moment Emma’s heart failed her. What would they make of a girl travelling alone?
The carrier was reaching for her carpet bag, and she had no choice but to disembark and take her luggage from him. She made to fumble in her cloak pocket for the few coins she kept there, but the man waved the gesture aside.
“Nay, missie. ’Twas my pleasure.”
He began sorting out his delivery and, feeling herself dismissed, Emma steeled herself and entered the building.
The foyer was oak-panelled and smelled of beeswax, damp wood from a fire burning sullenly in a stone hearth and cooking from the nether regions of the building.
A maidservant was flourishing a broom over the floor with desultory movements.
“Please,” Emma said to her. “May I book a room?”
The girl looked up and Emma saw evidence of weeping in the smudged eyes and cheeks.
“You’re just in time, miss,” she said. “The London coach is due. Us’ll be burstin’ at the seams then. Single, was it?”
“Pardon?” Emma stared blankly. “Oh, yes. A single room.”
“That’ll be one-and-sixpence daily bed and board. ’Tis extra if you want a fire.”
The girl took a key from a numbered keyboard by the reception desk and gestured for Emma to follow. She was shown along a maze of creaky corridors and up a flight of stairs, eventually coming to a stop outside a door numbered twelve.
It was a perfectly adequate room comprising a bed with blue counterpane, wash-stand with floral bowl and jug, tallboy and easy chair. A fire was laid in the brick fireplace.
“If you was wanting food, I could bring you some up,” the maidservant offered. “Luncheon is from twelve till one an’ supper’s from six onwards, but we’re flexible. Well, we have to be, what with the coaches coming in all hours.”
Emma considered. A tray in her room was preferable to facing the unguarded stares of strangers.