'F M M MacLeod brings us an extraordinary new novel which transcends the usual categories of genre. A story of violence and desire set firmly in the past yet startlingly fresh in its treatment of historical figures such as Charles Edward Stuart and Lord Newcastle.' James Aitchison
How do you begin to write a story about an unknown woman who lived over 200 years ago? For this book, the settings of eighteenth century Ashbourne, of Arisaig in the Highlands, of Chantilly and of London were essential ingredients. If I didn’t get that right, then the story of Ann Dance and her three escapes, first from prison, secondly from the spymasters and lastly from the hopelessness of her impoverished life, would never ring true.
Ann was only half real—a name on a gaolkeeper’s notice— I was free to explore and recreate her as I wished but the settings of Impostor are real, they are walked over every day. People run down stone steps, turn to look at familiar tree lines on the horizon; smell the bread in a cake shop and listen to the talk in a market place pub as they did 200 years ago and I strove to be as true to all of this as I could.
Below is the first chapter of Impostor, I hope you enjoy it.
Sweep down over the fields and the tiled roofs. See the wedges of garden, carefully bounded by thick smudges of green hedge. See the power lines, the telephone poles, delicate connections to light and power and the world.
Come closer and note the cars set beside each home. Biarritz blue, gunmetal grey, opalescent white. We can just make out the colours, half washed by light, for it is dawn. In the distance the glow of a city fades as the sun raises a wild majestic red across the eastern sky.
Rip up the tarmac road beneath us. Roll it back, push it aside. Pile it up against the bungalows, let the walls sag and burst with its weight. Let poles snap and lines of power tangle and snag. Be decisive. Go deeper, pull aside the neat sewers, see the rats arrow away on either side in fear.
Look around you. The world has changed. You have changed it. You are standing on the hard packed soil of an old track. Feel it beneath your naked feet. The smooth surface, dimpled by the stone which lies underneath the clay and dust, is glinting white as the sun lifts up above the hills. Now we will travel forward along the line of the turnpike and enter a wood.
A small wood, made of scrubby deciduous trees. Field oak, maple and straggly elder. It is dawn. But it is still dark in this wood, the sun has not yet penetrated beyond its boundary. Over to the left, at the foot of the largest tree, lies a bundle of brown cloth. The cloth merges into the brackeny soil around it. It would easily be missed. Just a sodden mass of fabric. But there is something lying beside it. Light in colour and curved. Perhaps a stick, a sliver of rock. You come closer and see that it is a human hand. Half open as if begging, with the thumb turned up. Now the bundle of cloth begins to take shape. Here is the bend of an arm. There the ball of a head. The rounded curve of a hip. There is no movement. You move forward. You are curious. Is this a dead body? With a thrill of excitement edged with fear at what you might touch, you flick the hood of the cloak, for that is what it is, away from the head.
And you see the white face of a young woman. Her mouth is open and edged with blood, her eyes are shut. Her face is turned away and you hold your hand to her cheek. It is cold and damp. You touch her shoulder. It too is cold and damp. There is no feeling of life. The body inside the cloth is still. After the slightest hesitation you slide your hand across her ribcage to feel for a heart beat. A last check. An act of care. Sanctioned. But you are well aware that it is a violation. As you touch her torso you are startled by the unexpected softness of a living body. There is some life in her, stored in the central core. She moves, twists round and moans. For a moment you hold the warm weight of her left breast in your cupped hand and then you stumble back, making your apologies. She sits up, gasping for air as if she had been drowning. Now she is on her knees, now standing. But she is unsteady. She stumbles and lunges forwards at you and you put out your arms to catch her.
And she goes right through you.
For a split second you feel the ageless beat of another human heart pass dangerously close to your own, like two great liners passing unseen on a dark ocean. You feel another body’s struggle for breath harsh in your own throat. Panic rises in you as your body senses its rhythms being disrupted at their very core and you begin to suffocate.
And then she’s through you and you stagger a little with surprise at what has happened. You were expecting the weight of a body against you. You turn around clumsily, gulping for air and clutching your chest. There she is, on all fours on the ground behind you. In one swift movement she turns, still crouching, and looks back. She has heard something. She is afraid. But not of you. She is not looking at you. You do not exist, not yet. For this is the past and you have no place here.
February 26th 1755 Bradley Wood, outside Ashbourne
The woman crouched on the wet ground, muscles strained and tense. Something had woken her. She shook her head and opened her eyes wide to clear them. She darted her head from side to side like a wild animal. A mist was rising off the ground and enveloping everything. She could see nothing. By her reckoning she was over ten miles out of the town – but was it enough? She held her breath and listened into the whiteness of the mist. Nothing.
Nothing yet. But they will follow her. That was for sure.
She became aware of the weight of the damp cloak across her back and the ache in her arms. She sat back on her haunches and shook her arms to release the stiff muscles. She crawled forward and positioned herself against the base of a tree, curling her body up and holding herself tightly, her arms wrapped around her knees. She pulled the damp hood up over her head and then forward and down around her face. She made herself as small as possible. It began to rain steadily. The sound of the water on the leaves above her had a soporific effect. Against her will, her head began to fall forward. She began to sink back into sleep.
And then suddenly her head jerked up. There it is again. The sharp chinking sound of metal on metal. They have come.
Then a softer sound. Bells. Intermittent, faint. She recognised them instantly. Her heart slowed and relief flooded through her. She knows what this is. And it is not a danger to her. She stands up, leans against the tree for a moment to gather her strength, and then begins to walk towards the sound.
The packman stood up slowly, rubbing the side of his face. He had a bad pain in his head and neck, probably from sleeping on the wet ground. There had been no choice for him but to stay out in the open last night. He had to wait here for a while, he could not risk going into the town too early. The pain in his head intensified and located itself at one side. He couldn’t shake it. It was beginning to affect his thinking and he had to keep alert. He bent down and wet his hands with dew from the grass then wiped them across his face. As he straightened up he saw a woman coming slowly out of the wood towards him.
As she drew nearer he could see that the left side of her mouth was streaked with what looked like blood and the bottom edges of her brown cloak were heavy with caked mud. She kept her eyes on him as she walked towards him. The pain in his head receded, overtaken by this new problem. She stumbled slightly but ignored it and kept on walking. Her eyes on him. He scanned the woods behind her for any movement. There seemed to be no one else. The wood was quiet. He looked back to the woman. He had no contingency plan to deal with anything like this.
She stopped some way from him.
They stood in silence looking at each other. He pushed back his leather jerkin and freed his sword. His hand closed over the hilt as his eyes scanned the wood behind her. Checking again.
He’s looking for the rest of the gang, she thought. He is standing like a soldier, not a packhorse man. A soldier. She was confused, unable to decide whether to go forward or not. This was not what she had expected. The relief she had felt when she heard the bells of the packhorses disappeared.
‘Sir,’ her voice faltered and died away. She found she was too tired to make up a convincing lie, and the truth would mean he would turn her away. She had wanted a simple packhorse man. She needed to sit by the fire he had built, to eat some of the food he was cooking there.
‘Sir, I…’ She must think of something. But nothing would come. She was unable to think. It was hopeless. Overwhelmed by cold and exhaustion, she turned slowly and started to retrace her steps.
He watched her. What did she think she was doing? Did she think she could simply disappear back into the wood? She must be far gone. He caught up with her and took hold of her arm.
‘What are you doing here?’
She attempted to release his hand. Fear at last made her brain quicken. She had to find something convincing. ‘Walking to my home. I am in service at the Hall up there. I have leave.’
‘You have blood on your mouth.’
She raised her hand up to her face, finding the roughness of dried blood, genuinely surprised. Looking down, rubbing the flakes between her fingers.
‘It must be a small scratch… the bushes.’
‘The bushes. People don’t usually walk home through bushes.’ He brought his head down close to her, tipped his face up slightly and sniffed. Startled by his action, she pulled away.
‘Prison. I can smell prison on you. Even under the mud.’
He heard her quick intake of breath as she leaned forward, closing the gap she had just tried to make between them. ‘You must know prison if you can smell it so well… sir.’ The last word was a challenge.
He was not what he seemed and she knew it. Her voice had been low, sharing a secret. Anyone standing more than two feet away would not have heard what she said. Her face was less than six inches from him. Her hair was dark where it was wet and clinging to the sides of her face but dry wisps curled up fair. There was a faint blue bruise on her forehead, tiny veins smudged and broken under the skin. Her eyes were fixed on him, wide and bright blue but red rimmed with exhaustion and shining, not with defiance as she hoped, but fear.
He relaxed his grip on her arm. She would be no danger to him. Unless she was being followed. He looked back down the road, in the direction from which she had come.
‘What is your name?’
‘Ann’ she replied. ‘Ann Dance.’
‘When did you escape?’
Ann thought. The dark, the fear, the cold, had all confused into one desire to get away. Keep moving. How long had it been?
‘Last night. No, the night before.’ It seemed days.
‘Will they follow you?’
‘You need to get through the next town, then.’
She nodded again.
‘Where have you come from? Derby?’
‘Where are you going?’
She shrugged. She had no idea. ‘Away. North, I think.’
‘The next town is Ashbourne. You must get through it and onto the Leek road.’ Shared information. Help. She felt weak with the relief of it. Her legs buckled. She must sit down and eat. She looked across at the fire. He saw her glance, understood her need but was not prepared to give her anything until he had secured what he wanted. She realised he was bargaining. But did not understand what she had to offer.
‘You can get through it as my wife. It would serve me well too.’
‘Your wife?’ Now she understood. They both needed cover. She looked at him. His eyes were constantly flicking up and down the road as he spoke. She saw that there was a greyness to his skin. He had his own exhaustion to contend with. His own dangers to face. He turned his attention back to her.
‘Well?’ There was an urgency in his voice.
She dipped her head once in agreement.
He took her hand in his and shook it in a parody of formality, and then looked up and gave out a great laugh of relief. One sharp bark, like the sound of a dog on the morning air. Surprised, she laughed back at him. The noise exploded into the trees, startling the crows, black flags which spiralled upwards, flapping and crackling above them in response. He smiled at the woman as they both turned towards the fire and the pot which was steaming there.
He stepped forward and turned slightly to catch a clearer sight of her face. He smiled again. ‘Clean your face of that blood. I don’t wish to be known as a wife beater.’
She did not reply. Her eyes were already on the pot.
He slipped the hilt of his sword back behind the jerkin. This would make the next few hours easier.
His mind turned to Cluny, who should be riding towards him from the north. Where was he? How did it go with him? His mind swooped up over the countryside and he could spy the small figure of a man on horseback, moving slowly across the road ways of England. Inching further and further south into this dangerous terrain. Dark forces gathering around him. Around them both.
He rubbed his thumb over the familiar emblem on the hilt of his sword. He did not look down at it. He knew it held the profile of a man. A king. Around this face were inscribed the words. ‘Look, love and follow.’
The call to the heart which had killed thousands.
‘You are Ann Rudge. My wife.’
He ducked down to tighten the girth. She was to ride on the second horse in the line.
‘We are going back to Nantwich.’
‘Nantwich,’ she repeated.
He had given her food and water and as she settled down into the space between the two bales of soft cotton she allowed herself to enjoy the comfort of a full stomach and the certain increase in safety of her new role. The packhorse train moved forward, steadily covering the mile of road before Ashbourne, the warning bells on the lead horses tinkling as they moved. Rudge, if that was his name, swayed ahead of her. Saying nothing. Resting before the next danger had to be faced and overcome.
Ahead of them Ann could see the houses of the town beginning to line either side of the road. And the red sign of the Plough Inn, their destination. She closed her eyes. ‘Mrs Rudge. Ann Rudge.’ She sounded the words out.
The horse beneath her faltered in its step then stopped. They must have arrived. Ann opened her eyes and looked ahead to the pack man.
Something was not right. She saw that he was flopping sideways in his saddle. There was something slow and graceful in his movement, but it was frightening in its incongruity. Something was wrong. He had fallen asleep. She yelled at him to wake him up but his body carried on sliding to one side. He fell to the ground. And lay there. Not moving. The horse stepped delicately to one side to avoid standing on him. Ann scrambled off her horse and ran to crouch beside him on the road. She pulled him over onto his back and slapped his face. From his throat came strange grunting sounds and froth was appearing on his lips. She wiped it away with her sleeve and looked around desperately for help. They were outside the Plough, first inn of the town. She heard her voice saying, ‘My husband. You must help my husband.’ Her desperation was real. What would happen to her now? People were crowding around. She was exposed. Her face seen. In the most memorable way possible – as part of a tragedy.
A crowd herded around the body on the ground, lowing their sympathy for the woman looking so wildly up at them. Her husband was going to die. Looking at the inert body on the ground with the strange noises rising up from it, it was easy to see that.
Some of them lifted the man up and in through the door of the inn. All the time he made the same strange inhuman sounds. And Ann followed behind them. ‘Here you are, my dear.’ Hands. A white apron. Dark wood, a glint of pewter.
She was aware of people standing up to come to the side of her, behind her.
Someone took her by the arm and she was taken upstairs to a small bedroom. Then she was sitting alongside the nearly dead body of her husband.
She had to escape. Get away. A doctor had been sent for. She had to get away before he came and questions were asked of her to which she had no reply. But it was difficult. How could she get out? She left the room and climbed down the stairs into the tap room. As she entered all eyes turned to her. She was a curiousity. An excitement. The longer she stood there the more clearly they would remember what she looked like. She explained that she had to check the horses and the load and was taken outside to the yard. The horses were tethered at one corner, the bales stacked against a wall. There were less people here. The yard was almost empty. Just the boys tending the animals. Ann walked over to the stack of bales. Beyond them was the open gate. She began to walk slowly towards the gate. And then her eye was caught by a wooden box beside the bales. She stopped. It was a small strong box of some sort. It must belong to Rudge. She hesitated. She should run. But if she opened it she might find some identification. Some papers which would give her story credence. Every minute she stood there doing nothing made her capture more certain. Go or open it.
She bent down and tried to prise open the lid. She tried to pick the box up. It was surprisingly heavy, and then, as she shifted it around, she heard the dull chink of heavy coins sliding against each other. She stood up and looked up at the window of the room where Rudge lay. The packhorse man had money. She pushed the box with her foot. It was so heavy it hardly moved. A lot of money. She looked out of the gate. What was he doing carrying this much money on the open road. What did it mean? One thing was for sure, left here it would be stolen. She picked up the box, balancing its weight on her hip, and carried it back to her room.
Minutes later, Ann sat in the hot little room and watched the breath continue to force itself in and out of the body of the man in front of her.
In her hand she held a key; under her feet stood the box. She had found the key when she had returned to the room. It had been thrust down a deep pocket on the inside of his leather jerkin. It was well concealed, tightly wrapped in a linen cloth; but as soon as Ann’s fingers closed around the neat little package she recognised it for what it was. The key to the money box.
She thought about it. Money; a lot of money. A lot of money in an inappropriate place. More money than a packhorse man should have. Much more. Gold. French Louis D’or. Ann recognised them. She had seen a fair few in 1745, when the Jacobite army had come into Derby. Business had been brisk. But what would a packhorse man be doing with French gold, and so much of it? Under the gold Ann made another discovery. Cut to lie flush with the edges of the box was a letter. Ann had pulled it out and shut the box.
The letter was not written in English. Ann could not read it. What was its purpose? Ann tried to make out the address. Janvier 2nd 1755, Chantilly, and the name signed across the bottom with a flourish. Choiseul.
Choiseul… Janvier… Dutch? French? It didn’t matter. A letter. Or a bill of sale – or a receipt? The important thing was to destroy all trace of it. She took the letter to the fire and threw it in. It fluttered over the coals and then flared up and was gone. She should leave this well alone. Take a few coins and slide away as quickly as possible. However tempted, however hungry, desperate or greedy, all of her acquaintances would put the money back and melt away from the situation, leaving no trace of their involvement. They knew that if they did not do this sometime, somewhere, there would be retribution. Not prison, but a sharp knife quietly given. By those much more powerful than them.
Ann knew this as clearly as any other thief living off the streets of Derby. She had climbed the stairs with the box lodged on her hip, the gold solidly shifting with each movement of her body, intending to take a few coins and wait for a chance to escape. The coins lay in the small pocket of her over skirt. She would leave the box by the bedside. The remains of the letter were nothing but grey ash in the grate.
The door slowly opened. Ann’s body tensed and she put her hand to the pocket where the coins lay. But it was only a young girl. Her face round with curiousity as she paused in the doorway. She brought over a jug of milk and some bread to the bedside. She looked at Ann, taking in every detail of her clothing, of her face, of her mood – it would be described again and again downstairs and beyond. ‘What is your name?’ she whispered. ‘No one knows.’ No one had thought to ask. But the girl needed it for her story. No one at home would believe her without a name.
Ann did not reply.
‘What is your name? Please?’
The packhorse man lay in front of Ann. She stretched out her hand and touched the coverlet. He should be dead before morning. And his name could be dead with him. Ann Dance could be gone too. And the trail cold. It was her chance.
‘I am Mrs Challinor, Ann Challinor, and this is my poor husband, James. James Challinor, of Nantwich.’
It seemed to Ann that the name hung uncertain in the air between herself and the girl. Then the moment passed, the girl left the room quietly and Ann was alone again with the box of money and the dying man.
Mrs Challinor. Mrs Challinor. She had created another territory and passed into it. At this very minute, the child would be speaking that name out loud.
If Rudge had never been here, then those who asked for him would be turned away.
Unless they asked to see the man lying on the bed. In which case they would recognise him.
If he lived long enough. If they came before he died and was buried. She let that thought find its own place. She circled around it and then faced it again. If they came before he died.
The money sitting beneath her feet would have trapped her here. She should get away. She half rose, then sank back onto her chair again.
How long would he take to die? It could be days. And every day that he lay in this room brought danger closer to her. But he could die quickly.
Another thought asked to be considered. It waited. Then became impatient.
It broke down the flimsy barriers she had created against it and flooded in. She should kill him.
She thought it through.
Holding the pillow over his face.
Being caught. The door opening. Disbelief, then outrage, disgust. The child’s face.
Back to prison, this time for murder. She could feel her hand closing again over the stone balustrade at the top of the prison steps as it had done six months ago. She could smell the stench rising from the dormitories as she descended. Prison. Walking to the gallows. The crowd jeering.
And she rushed back from it, trying to take her mind elsewhere. Insidiously, it would begin again.
Holding the pillow over his face. The door opening.
But – if the door did not open. The gold coins, used with care, would last for a long, long time. For an hour she sat teetering on the edge of action and then retreating from it. It was not murder, although it would be seen as murder. The man was dying. To all intents and purposes he was dead already. But he could lie here for days, and each day trapped here as his wife would make the chance of her being found out more likely.
She looked at the man on the bed. A thin trail of spittle was being sucked in and out of his mouth with every breath.
Under his head lay a feather pillow, the only one in the place. Donated for his comfort by the landlady. It was dirty but thick and soft. Ann gently raised Rudge’s head and slipped the pillow out. She laid it on her knee and continued to stare at him. Her hands were sweating and she wiped them on the pillow. Her mouth was dry and she swallowed uncomfortably.
The breath continued to hiss moistly in and out of his mouth. The thin trail of spittle continued to appear and disappear. Ann leaned forward.
Then she jolted out of the chair as she heard footsteps on the stairs. She fumbled to lift up his head, heavy and lolling, and put the pillow back. As Ann sat back down steps passed by her door and entered the next room. She sat perfectly still. Someone was making up a bed. Walking round, tucking in. Closing the curtains. The bed would be for her. So that she could be near her husband. The steps passed by her door again on their way downstairs.
For twenty minutes, Ann continued to sit perfectly still, staring at the wall opposite as every part of her attention strained to hear any more movement on the stairs. Then she began slowly, methodically, to eat the bread and drink the milk. This was the first action. When it was all finished she would take the second action. She put the plate on the floor beside her chair. She pulled the pillow out from under the head of the pack man, leaned forward and pressed it over his face. At first she pressed too lightly and the pillow seemed to make no difference to his breathing.
Sitting in the chair meant that she could stop quickly if anyone entered the room but the angle was wrong, she couldn’t get any leverage. She stood up and put her weight on her outspread hands. She could feel the contours of his face underneath them. Then his body started to buckle and twist. She could not hold the pillow on to his face. It slipped and his body fell back on to the bed and then lay still. His breathing steadied. She saw that the spittle had gone from around his mouth. She felt some wetness on the pillow and dropped it quickly. Her legs gave way and she sat down suddenly on the chair. She heard the rapid tap of one of the chair legs against the uneven floor and realised that it was caused by her body shaking violently as she sat there.
She took a deep breath and stood up again. She touched his face. ‘Wake up. Can you?’ There was no response. She tried to shake the body, first gently and then she was on her feet shoving him from side to side with more and more force. ‘Come on. Come on.’ She was shouting. Her voice was loud in the quietness of the room. She must be quiet. She must stop this. Those movements, which had so shocked her, did not mean that he had real life in him. It was just a reaction, an involuntary survival mechanism which caused him to move so powerfully. The physical cage of him fighting for itself. With no direction, for the mind had gone already. She had to carry on. He must be got rid of before someone came who could name him as Rudge and then ask for the money. For that was what would happen. She was certain.
Quick and hard. She had to be quick and hard. She parted her legs and braced herself against the side of the bed. She closed her eyes and put the pillow over his face again. Then pushed down. And held on as the body beneath her hands convulsed and writhed. The arms and legs flailed and the torso arced upwards. He was going to roll off the bed. Ann got on to the bed and knelt on his chest, all the time keeping all her weight on the pillow. It was a fight now. She had forgotten how uneven the odds were. She was fighting a strong man, and she had to win. His arms came up. The fingers of his hands were stretched apart. One hand found her skirt, gripped it, and she couldn’t shake him off. She lurched forward and almost straddled his face. She stretched her neck back, arched her spine, and pushed with all her strength down through her rigid arms, down to the face beneath the pillow between her thighs. Her arms and legs shook with the tension and she could feel herself weakening. His other hand scrabbled on her back.
He would win and she was finished. She brought her left knee up to his throat and gave one final, terrible push. Suddenly she realised that the inhuman grunting sounds had ceased, the body had gone limp. The room was still. Ann kept the pillow on his face and crouched over him, her head resting on the bed head. She could hear the low murmur of voices coming from the tap room below. She listened for any change, anything to indicate that this struggle had been heard. But the voices continued to rise and fall gently. Doors opened and shut, men laughed and from outside she could hear the faint sound of the warning bells on the pack horses as they dipped their heads into the feed buckets. Then she started, for she heard a low moaning. It was coming from within the room, and she thought with horror that it was him, coming back to life, but it was not. It was her own voice.
She looked down at the shape on the bed and then she slowly brought her hands up and lifted the pillow from the man’s face. The skin was discoloured, mottled blue and purple, and the mouth hung open. The tongue was beginning to protrude between the teeth. She wriggled her body backwards, still straddling his body, and looked further down. The body was contorted, twisted to one side, and the hand which had gripped her skirt was still held stiff and tightly closed. The other hand had fallen open, the fingers slightly curled as if expecting to be taken and held. She shuddered and felt the milk and bread rise in her throat. She slid off the bed and turned away, holding one hand over her mouth. She took a deep breath and put her other hand on the chair for a moment. She was not finished with this business yet. She had to continue. He had to look as if he had died in his sleep.
It was easy enough to straighten his legs and arms. But his fingers were stiff and she had to massage them, bending them back until they lay flat and limp. She worked quickly, aware that someone could come up the stairs at any minute. She avoided looking at his face. Then came the part that she had left to last. She put her finger against his pink tongue and tried to push it back into his mouth. But it would not go. She put fingers from both hands in to his mouth and gently pulled his jaws apart. His mouth was still warm. The tongue strong and springy. She had to hook her fingers around it and push it sideways. At last she was satisfied. Now to tell them. She smoothed her dress, rubbed her hands on the coverlet and went to the door.
Before she could reach it, the door swung open and the girl stood there again.
‘Mrs Challinor,’ the girl’s eyes widened as she took in Ann’s stricken face. She looked beyond Ann to the bed. ‘What has happened? ’ The girl took a few steps into the room. ‘Oh! he has died!’
The simple, incontrovertible statement of a child. Innocence. It had to be believed.
Great sobs of relief began to rack Ann’s body.
Noise. Voices raised. Steps on the stairs. The room became crowded. Every kind face, every comforting hand on her shoulder, leading her further towards safety. People murmuring to her about arrangements. At last she was taken to a smaller room on the same floor. The door was shut quietly. She was alone.
She lay fully dressed on the bed, her eyes staring into the darkness while she listened to the distant sound of her story being repeated and passed around the room below. She waited, expecting an excited rise in the voices, incredulity, and feet returning on the stairs. Wanting to get up and leave but preventing herself from doing it. She had to hold on. Pushing down the panic which rolled in waves across her. She waited. The sounds grew less, and then fell away altogether.
Only a formless noise filled her ears and beneath it the steady whoosh, whoosh of her own blood. After a long time it seemed to Ann that she was apart from everyone, a sentinel on the furthermost edge of darkness, listening.
She got out of bed, wrapped a shawl around her shoulders and quietly entered the room next to hers. The dead man lay on the bed, covered by a sheet of linen. The doctor had come. Taken a cursory glance at the body, pronounced the man dead, and gone back to his dinner. There was no coffin yet, but the undertaker had washed and laid out the body, ready for burial.
Ann sat down in the chair by the bed. The chair she had sat in earlier in the night. She took the sheet away from his face and upper body. The room was dark. She stood up and opened the curtains. She wanted to see him. Now she could make out the shape of his face. The skin with the curious matt density of death. The eyes closed. The tongue beginning to protrude again between his lips. She sat down again and after a moment she laid her hand lightly on his chest. It felt cold and she realised that she was surprised by that. She was still locked into an intimacy with him. Could still feel his body moving under hers and feel the wetness of the spittle on her hand as she stood clutching the pillow. She looked around the room and saw his sword lying on the floor. She got up from the chair and picked it up. On the hilt was an emblem of some sort. She took the sword to the window and turned it curiously in her hands. She could make out the image of a man and the words encircling it.
‘Look, love and follow.’ She looked back at the body on the bed.
Now she understood.
She laid the sword back down gently, crossed the room and stood looking at the dead man for a moment longer, then she bent down, pulled the linen sheet over his face, and went back to her own room.
She lay back down on her bed, her mind too agitated for sleep. Look, love and follow – the motto of the Jacobites. The money. The dead man. No wonder she had thought he was a soldier. He was, but not in the pay of the government. What did this mean for her? Did it make her safer or did it increase the danger of her recapture? At least she was unlikely to hang for killing a rebel. On and on she went, turning each piece over in her mind.
And then the early morning wind came, bending trees with its rushing weight and bringing with it the light of the next day. She heard a boy shout and a gate being swung open. The daily rhythm of the town began.
What did she now know and what did it mean? No matter. What was important was what she had done. What she had changed.
Mr Challinor had first existed and then had died in his sleep. There was no Rudge, there was no murder and there was no Ann Dance. She closed her eyes and slept.
As Ann Dance had stretched her hand out to place it on the dead body of Mr Rudge, another man was riding into Ashbourne on the last part of his long journey from the north. Half an hour before, as Ann had stepped from her bed, he had stopped at the foot of Swinscoe Hill and swung heavily out of the saddle. He was tired, near the end of his strength. He looked down at the lights of the town ahead of him and laid his hand on the trembling flank of his horse. The animal was finished, he knew. And he was sorry. He had ridden it too hard. But there was so little time. Every moment he was here, this far down into England, the danger to him, to them all, increased.
Echan. The Green Man. In the town of Ashbourne. He was almost there. His heart filled with a sudden rush of exultant hope. He grasped the top ridge of the saddle, put a foot in the stirrup and heaved himself back up on his horse. He needed to get to the Green Man before too many people were about. He had to stay out of sight until the next night and the time came for his rendevous with Echan Dhu.
Twenty four hours later Cluny left the safety of his room and climbed down the narrow back stairs to the ground floor of the inn. He waited by the door to the tap room for a few moments and then slipped in amongst the crowd of drinkers, walking along by the wall until he could slide into a bench in the fire recess. Here, with his back resting against the bench, he could see both the door from the street and the door to the narrow staircase. For many hours, he sat, a darker shadow in the darkest corner of the tap room at the Green Man. A silent man whose face was drawn with the fatigue of travelling. But as time passed and Echan Dhu did not come, Cluny’s body crept with the need for action - and with fear. He imagined Echan fighting to get to him - or trapped. Perhaps being followed. Perhaps wounded.
He took a deep breath, half closed his eyes, forcing himself to sit still and wait out the long hours of the night.
Hours later, Cluny watched as a long strip of light gradually fattened and spread across the tap room floor. He was sick at heart. Like Ann, he heard the early morning wind rise. And as she fell into a deep sleep, Cluny stood up, stiff from his night-long vigil and asked the sleepy bottle boy to prepare him a room. The boy could not understand his northern accent at first. Cluny had to repeat his request. A man, one of the few left in the room, raised his head from his drink and looked across curiously. Their eyes met. For a moment Cluny held the man’s gaze and struggled to prevent his hand moving upwards towards the dagger. Was he being watched? The man turned back to his drink; Cluny’s hand relaxed back down by his side.
He sat down again, leaned back against the seat and briefly closed his eyes. There was no danger to him in this room. But something was wrong, and if Echan Dhu was lost they would all fail.
Late that morning, when Echan Dhu had still not made contact, Cluny knew he could wait no longer. He left the Green Man by the side door. He visited the stables and made sure that a new horse was got ready for him. He had to be able to leave this place quickly. He wrapped his plaid cloak tightly around his body as if to protect himself from discovery and under it he kept his right hand near his short sword. As he walked through the streets, he could feel his skin prickling with a strange mixture of excitement and dread, as it did before battle. He did not expect to survive this day. Somewhere in this town they would be waiting for him to show himself. What he was about to do would lead his enemies to him even more quickly but it had to be done. It was the course of action he had decided upon as he had lain awake in the half light of his room at the Green Man. He could not simply turn and go back north. He had to trace Echan. He had to find out as much as he could. And if he survived, take that information home. He must visit every inn, every stables, asking for a packman named Rudge. There was a small chance that Echan had gone to the wrong place. But Cluny thought of the careful, meticulous Echan repeating his instructions, folding his map, edge to edge, and knew that this was not likely.
Echan standing by the boat at Arisaig. ‘I’ll see you, my friend, on the 26th day of February, in Ashbourne, at the Green Man inn. Tha Dochas an.’ The Gaelic soft from his throat. His firm hand grasping Cluny’s shoulder in farewell. Ashbourne. The furthest any known Jacobite could go into English territory with any chance of returning.
As the day progressed, and people shook their heads at him again and again, briefly wondering who this strange man was and what was his business, Cluny felt despair overtaking him. He almost hoped for a flash of recognition, a hesitation before answering – anything which might tell him that one of the people he spoke to was lying. At least then he would have found a lead, however dangerous, that might take him to Echan. Fear for himself was lost in this despair. Somewhere in this inhospitable place Echan lay dead, or worse, was captured and faced torture. And he could do nothing. Nothing.
In the late afternoon, as the sun was casting its long shadow before him, Cluny reached the Plough Inn.
The inn was dark and cool and almost empty. Cluny felt safer than he had all day. He wanted to eat. He did not want to ask his questions again. He wanted to be just an ordinary traveller for a few moments.
‘A pint of ale and bread, if you would, mistress.’ Cluny eased his cloak off and laid it on the bench beside him.
The landlady of the Plough Inn brought the food and drink to his table. Cluny ate without tasting, his mind going back and forth over the day. Echan. He had repeated the name so often in his mind that day he was sure he must have said it aloud. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye and he looked up in time to see the back of a young woman as she went slowly up the stairs. He had an impression of a narrow waist, a downward turn of the head and a delicate hand as she bent to gather her skirt away from the stairboards. In her other hand she carried a tray of food. She paused to regain her balance and as she did so the landlady called to Cluny, ‘More ale, sir?’
‘No, thanking you, mistress. I still have plenty.’ Cluny raised his pot. As he spoke he had the impression that the young woman had turned to stare hard at him, but when he looked back, she had gone.
Ann pressed herself close into the curve of the stairwell. From here she could hear what was said in the tap room but she could not be seen. She tried to still her harsh breathing. She would be heard. The voice of that man. The accent - the same as the packman. She listened as Cluny asked his questions. The landlady couldn’t help him. No one named Rudge and, no, certainly no big man with fair hair and who spoke Scots under any name. Only packman they had seen was flat on his back, couldn’t tell his height, name of Challinor and had died last night. Her customer was immediately curious – had there been a fight? No, the man had died natural, poor chap. Couldn’t be the man he was looking for – had a wife, poor creature, said they came from Nantwich, not Scotland. The landlady dropped her voice. Ann could feel that they were both looking at the stairwell, thinking about the young widow who had stood there a moment ago. She swiftly carried on up the stairs, entered her room and softly closed the door. She listened to the muffled voices from below. There was no rising excitement in their tones. No discovery. She went to the window and watched until she saw the man leave and walk back down the lane to the middle of the town. He looked dejected, tired. He did not look like a man who has a lead. Who knows that behind him in the inn is a woman who could tell him about the last few hours of his friend, Rudge. She wished he would turn around so that she could see his face, she might need to recognise him in the future. But he did not. And try as she might that evening, she could not bring his features to her mind. She had had too little time when she had felt the shock of hearing his voice and she had turned. The sun was behind him in the window. All she got was an impression of straight shoulders, a certain holding of the body… a soldier, like the packman. What was this? That now she was a part of. What did it mean?
That night, as the wind got up and the rain splattered on the glistening cobbles, the solitary figure of a horseman could be seen riding down St John’s Street. Cluny was travelling north by the Leek road. He had only bad news to carry with him. All the evidence told him that Echan was dead and his precious cargo had been lost. The Scottish clans gathering below Letternich would have to be stopped. Sent back to their glens. Their leaders would have to understand that without the French money and information there could be no glorious third rebellion. The prince would have to wait in France a little longer. Cluny pulled his reluctant horse into the wind as he rode up Swinscoe hill. The horse slowed to a steady walk. Cluny did not urge him on. There was a long journey before him and, at the end of it, only disappointment for the men who waited.
Ann twisted both of her arms around to the back of the black dress. It was too big for her. She pinched the fabric together at the waist. Then let it go and swung from side to side looking at herself in the mirror. The stiff wool dress swayed around her body like a bell. It was not made for her. But it would do. The landlady had rushed up the stairs twenty minutes ago, carrying it proudly like a prize.
‘It was made for Hettie Ffoulkes when her man died – but she’s out of mourning now – doesn’t need it any more.’ She leaned forward. ‘Between you and me, she’s on to a new man, any road.’ The landlady’s happy smile faltered. She wasn’t sure if that had been the right thing to say to a new widow. She helped Ann into the dress, pronounced it a perfect fit and left. Now, alone in her room, Ann took the matching black bonnet from the bed and placed it on her head. She had never worn a bonnet before. Her hands were trembling slightly as she carefully tied the ribbon under her chin. She pulled on the black silk gloves and picked up the bible the church warden had pressed into her hand at the funeral. She stood up and examined herself in the mirror. Ann Challinor, widow. She took a deep breath and stepped out of her room.
‘Two pence please, mistress.’
Ann opened the beaded purse and took out two coins. Her fingers were stiff and clumsy. She put the coins down on the glass counter top and the shop woman scooped them up. ‘Wait here would you , Mistress…?’
‘Challinor,’ replied Ann. The woman hesitated. Ann cleared her throat. ‘Challinor,’ she said more loudly.
The woman disappeared behind a curtain of lank fabric which concealed the back shop. Mistress Challinor’s purchase, a set of tortoiseshell combs, her first purchase in this town, lay on the other side of the counter. She could stretch out and take them – but there was no point – she reminded herself that she had already paid two pence. She looked around, it would be easy to steal from this shop. Ann tried to quieten her breathing. Challinor. Challinor. She sounded the name out in her head.
The shop bell rang. She started, as guilty as if she had actually been caught in the act of stealing. Three women entered the shop, talking to each other. Ann felt her mouth become suddenly dry. She would be found out for sure. She turned away to hide her face but, with horror, she felt one of them touch her arm.
‘Mistress Challinor, is it not?’
‘Yes,’ Ann’s dry lips fumbled over the word.
‘Let me introduce myself. Mistress Martin.’ Ann caught a drift of sweetish perfume as the woman leaned forward, taking Ann’s hands in her own. She was offering her condolences. Talking. Shaking her head from side to side in sadness.
Behind her, Ann heard the shopkeeper clatter back into the room and the rustle of tissue as the tortoiseshell combs were wrapped. Good. She would be able to get out soon. She forced herself to give her full attention to the woman in front of her.
‘St Oswald’s – our church.’ Mistress Martin included the women behind her with a wave of her hand, ‘The funeral. The sexton tells me that you had no family there. It was so sudden, of course. But Mistress Wibberley at The Plough was saying that no one has come to you since?’ Curiosity swam in the woman’s eyes. ‘We,’ she glanced back over her shoulders at the other women, ‘we wondered why you had not left Ashbourne – have you no-one to go to. No family?’
The other two women moved back as if to distance themselves from Mistress Martin, their skirts rustling in disapproval. This was a little too much – Mistress Martin could be accused of being impolite. For an uncomfortable moment the question hung in the air. Then Ann began to cry. It was all she could think to do. The women rushed to her, glad to make redress for being part of this. Someone brought her a chair, a glass of water.
‘My dear,’ said Mistress Martin, full of guilty sympathy and searching wildly for something to make amends, ‘you must come to our church meetings. Come tomorrow, please.’
Through her tears, Ann nodded agreement. ‘I would be glad to,’ she said, although the prospect terrified her.
‘…and for this we are truly thankful’. The prayer came to a close and for a brief moment the last syllable echoed faintly in the silent hall. Ann kept her eyes closed and continued to listen intently. She heard a multitude of small sounds around her as people shifted in their seats. She opened her eyes and raised her head slowly. Mistress Martin, who sat beside her, was handing her prayer book to a child who was eagerly collecting them. Ann leaned across and added her book to the pile the child was carrying.
‘Now, come and take some tea.’
Mistress Martin stood up, brushed down her skirts and set off across the floor. As Ann followed her she was conscious of many eyes taking in every detail of her appearance. She was handed a cup of tea and, as Mistress Martin bobbed between one person and another, Ann was able to slip away from the throng to a chair by one of the huge stained glass windows. For a moment she felt as if she was completely alone in the room. She closed her eyes again and let out a sigh of relief. How to speak, how to move. She had to learn all of it. And once more she doubted her ability to do it. Every day, for the rest of her life. That thought surprised her. The rest of her life. Here. A curious idea. She tried to imagine her future in this town. She felt a kind of longing for it. For the ordinariness of it.
She opened her eyes and saw Mistress Martin coming towards her with her hand firmly under the elbow of a tall, fair woman in a pale blue dress.
‘Mrs Challinor, Mrs Challinor,’ Mistress Martin, unable to hold back her good news, called out before she reached Ann, ‘Here I have some one who says she might know you. Isn’t that delightful?’
Ann lurched to her feet; her tea cup fell forgotten from her hand. As she stared at the woman being propelled towards her, she heard, as if from a long way away, two loud separate cracks as the cup and then the saucer hit the floor. She had the impression of all the faces in the room turning towards her. In a flurry of skirts the two women bent to pick up the shattered pieces of cup and saucer while Ann simply stood there, her mind racing. As they stood up she stared dumbly at a dark streak across the front of the woman’s blue dress. Tea from her cup must have splashed it. Ann raised her eyes to find the woman staring back at her.
Mistress Martin, now a little breathless, continued her introduction. ‘This is Jane Horsfield, who also comes from Northwich. Is that not fine?’ She beamed at Ann, confidently expecting her pleasure.
Jane Horsfield put her hand out to Ann, ‘I am indeed from Northwich,’ she frowned, ‘but I do not think that we have met, have we?’
Ann took the woman’s hand, it was cool and slightly damp from the tea. Northwich. Where had the packman said? What had she said to the landlady at the Plough? For a moment she had lost track of it. She thought back frantically. Remembered the packhorse man saying the name to her. Nantwich. It definitely was Nantwich. Not Northwich. Ann felt a great flood of relief. This was a simple mistake on the part of Mistress Martin. The two women were looking at her expectantly.
She took her hand away and shook her head sadly. ‘Oh, I am afraid that there is some mistake. I have come here from Nantwich, not Northwich.’ She tried to look suitably upset.
Mistress Martin was immediately contrite. ‘My dear, I am so sorry. To raise your hopes like that… my silliness, I misheard you…’
After drinking a new cup of tea, and making small talk with the woman from Northwich, Ann explained that she was tired and left the hall.
At the bottom of the graveyard, she found a seat secluded by yew trees. She sat there for a long time until she felt calm enough to walk slowly back to her room in the Plough Inn. She thought about her story, the story she didn’t yet have. In a town like Ashbourne, where everyone knew everyone else, it was not good enough for her to simply look like the poor widow – she had to have a credible past, to be able to deal with a situation like the one today. She shuddered when she thought of what might have happened in the church hall… the confusion and then suspicion spreading on the face of Mistress Martin – and all her friends. She had to be prepared for meetings like this. If she wasn’t careful, it wouldn’t be a bounty hunter, but a woman from Nantwich who would expose her for the imposter that she was. If she had come from the right place, that woman in the blue dress could have sent her back to prison.
At the next meeting, surrounded by a circle of townswomen whose faces were strained with curiousity, Ann told her story. It was sad. As sad as Ann could make it in the week that she had had to invent it. A romantic story of a young woman marrying beneath her and then being disowned by her family. A young woman whose family had moved around the country, and who would now be difficult to find. The reconciliation she had hoped for would, by now, be impossible. She indicated all of this without being so crude as to actually say it and, in this way, allowed her listeners to discover her story for themselves. As she walked back again to the Plough Inn, she knew that the women she left behind were comparing their impressions, creating Ann Challinor for themselves and looking forward to offering their new creation to the rest of Ashbourne. Ann considered the women who had listened to her so intently. The story of the untimely death of her husband, the story of someone else’s life being shattered, had both fascinated and comforted them. But they had also looked at her with genuine sympathy. If she wanted it, she could create a place for herself in this town. It would be her protection.
She considered the practicalities of her position. How to have enough money to settle here but not so much as to arouse suspicion? To start buying with the French gold was too dangerous but she could sell the pack horses and their cargo. She looked up. She had walked quite far down the street and now above her, she saw the sign for the Green Man. Underneath it was the great arch where the daily London coaches rolled in. Without any hesitation, she turned and walked into the yard. The ostler, Mr Shoesmith, came out of his tack room to see the small, black clad figure of a woman picking her way towards him across the cobbles. It was that poor young widow. He went forward and reached out his hand.
‘Mind yersel, lady. It’s slippery here.’
Ann took his hand and smiled at him, ‘I am hoping that you can help me sir,’ she said. Her voice was hardly above a whisper so that Mr Shoesmith had to lean closer to hear her. As he helped her across the yard towards the only chair in the tackroom, Ann knew that she was going to get a good price for the pack horses and the loads.
With the money from the sale of the horses Ann was able to buy more clothes and pay for her room at The Plough. The French coins she kept secret. She would only use them sparingly. One at a time. Exchanging them for English coinage at the jeweller’s shop on the market place in town. Every day she walked down Church Street, wearing her black dress, to visit her husband’s grave in St Oswald’s churchyard. A slender symbol of piety and a constant reminder to everyone in the town of who she was and of why she was here. And every day she fought the desire to run, to get as far away from the Gaol in Derby as was possible. Sometimes, when she walked out on the streets, a kind of blind panic threatened to overwhelm her. But reason kept her hand steady and her walk slow and measured. She made herself meander when she wanted to slide quickly from doorway to doorway. She stepped forward to pick up fruit or cloth on a market stall, quelling the desire to merge back into the anonymous crowd of shoppers. She spoke in shops, asking for soap, thread, a cake, mimicking the tones of the women around her and dreading all the time to hear someone behind her say. ‘Why, I recognize that woman, that voice…’. She scanned the bills pasted up on the walls of town buildings, expecting to see an announcement of the escape of Ann Dance. Offering a bounty for her recapture.
And one day it appeared. Ann had been walking towards the main street of the town when her name sprung at her from the wall of the town hall.
A good Reward offered for the capture of Ann Dance, pickpocket and thief, who escaped from Derby gaol on this day February 25th 1755. A handsome faced woman of young age, being five foot five inches high, pale complexion, fair hair and blue eyes, looks very sharp, commonly known as The Sparrow and belongs to a notorious gang of Gamblers. Her father is well known as a pickpocket and lately is imprisoned in Leicester Gaol to take his tryal at the next assizes for the stealing of Great Coats from Melton Fair. Whoever will apprehend and secure the said Ann Dance, in any of his Majesty’s gaols in England, and give notice to John Greatorex, Gaoler at Derby, shall receive 10 guineas Reward.
She pulled her bonnet further down on her face, afraid to even glance up and down the street. She took a step closer. The poster was old and dog-eared but she was sure it had not been there the day before. It must have been lying in the town hall for weeks. Someone had finally noticed it and felt duty bound to put it up on the notice board. She plucked up courage and looked around quickly – no one was watching. She put her hand up to take it, then she stopped. She glanced up at the windows on either side of the street. They looked blank and empty but she could not take the chance of being seen tearing the poster down. She must leave it there.
Every day after, no matter where she intended to go, she found herself taking a route which brought her past the town hall. She had no need to go up to the notice board for she could easily tell from a distance that the white rectangle with her name on it was still there.
Now her reactions to every inflection in a voice, every look towards her became heightened. Where were the bounty hunters? Had they been and gone? Would they come back? She changed her back room at The Plough for one which had a window overlooking the Derby road. She began to sit at the window of this room for hours, anxiously trying to make out the demeanour and face of every man who came riding in to Ashbourne – it would be a lone man – bounty hunters never wanted to share their prize money. For days she hardly left her room and the landlady began to talk to her customers in a hushed voice about the way grief can lead to madness.
On the sixth morning in her new room, Ann woke late. In one rapid movement, she swung herself out of the bed, intent in getting to the chair by the window.
She had only taken a few paces, when she stopped and stood still in the centre of the room. She could hear the shouts of the stable boys in the yard below as they led new horses into the stalls. How many had she missed already that day? How many horses had ridden into Ashbourne that morning – with riders whose faces she had not seen?
She wiped her bleary eyes, walked forward, picked up the chair and moved it back to its original place by the fire. She either ran or she stayed. Either way only luck and wit would save her. She sat back down on the edge of the bed. Waiting to be caught was pointless; she needed work and a place to live. So far, she had managed to convince people of her story. She was accepted as Ann Challinor, but living in The Plough like this was dangerous; it kept her connected to the death of Mr Rudge. And only a rich woman would have no need of work.
She got up from the bed, went to the writing bureau by the window and sat down. She took a piece of paper, folded and ripped it until she had a small piece about the size of the palm of her hand. She took the quill pen from its wooden slot in the table top and unscrewed the ink jar. She sat for a few moments, staring out of the window with the pen raised in her hand, and then she wrote with large, curling letters on the scrap of paper:
Fine work for ladies
Fine work for ladies
She held it up to the light and looked at it. Her calling card. She imagined offering it to prospective customers. Taking it from her purse, smiling.
Sewing. Mistress Greatorex, the gaoler’s wife, had said Ann was her best pupil, even though she was a prisoner. Ann had not forgotten any of it. Cross stitch, fern stitch, overlock, then a bowl of thin soup before she went back down to the prison dormitory. For the first time since she had come to Ashbourne, she thought of Mr Meynell, the prison doctor. She shivered, suddenly aware of the cold air through her thin nightgown. She had thought herself lucky then, when Mr Meynell had chosen her for his great experiment.
Later that day Ann stood in front of a house in the business part of town. She carefully read the brass plaque on the door:
Solicitor and Notary
Magistrate and Attorney at Law
Solicitor and Notary
Magistrate and Attorney at Law
She looked down at her sombre grey gown, shook some of the dust from the street off its hem and smoothed the black gloves she wore. She reached up and knocked on the door.
As she was led up the curving staircase by Mister Waldron’s clerk, she had an impression of cool, dark quiet; of time being measured more carefully than on the street outside. She was ushered from the dark upper hallway to a room at the front of the house. She sat down on one side of a large desk, blinking in the sudden brightness. On the other side of the desk, framed by the light from the huge windows, she could just make out a figure rising from its chair to greet her.
Before the figure could speak, she blurted out, ‘Sir. I wish to rent a property. A shop, here in Ashbourne. ’
The figure stood up and leaned over the desk. Her eyes rapidly adjusted and she saw a small neat man, holding his hand out to her in greeting. He looked a little annoyed. She knew immediately that she had been too abrupt. There was a formality to everything, to every occasion she entered now. She must learn that, or it would be her undoing.
‘Mr Waldron, madam. How pleasant to meet you, Mrs…’ He looked down at the sheet of paper in front of him, ‘ Mrs Challinor.’
He sat down again and leaned back in his chair.
‘Madam, pray continue. You say you wish to rent a … shop?’ There was the faintest hesitation and then a slight incredulous rise in his voice as he spoke the word ‘shop’. Perhaps shops were beneath him or perhaps she did not look as if she could run a shop.
‘I am a seamstress. I have need of employment – my circumstances have changed…’ she proceeded to explain about the death of her husband. As she spoke, he nodded. He looked at her sympathetically. He held his hand up to stop her.
‘Madam, I fully understand your position. Please accept my condolences for your loss…but…I have to ask…so you,’ he stumbled over his words in embarrassment, ‘…I mean …can you afford to take on this venture?’
Ann nodded. She explained to him about the pack horses. The sale.
He listened to her intently and then tapped the table decisively. It would be possible. He would find her the kind of property she needed. In fact, there could be one. Then words came which she could not understand. Leasehold. Flying freehold. Indenture. What was he saying?
The door opened.
‘Yes, Mrs Jessop – what is it? I have a client with me.’ Mr Waldron was impatient.
‘It is Mr Jamieson – from the court. He says it is an urgent matter.’ Mrs Jessop hesitated in the doorway, looking at Ann with concern; she did not like to disturb Mr Waldron when he was with a client.
Mr Waldron got up. ‘Very well. Tell him I will come down.’ He turned to Ann, ‘My apologies, Mrs Challinor. I will be back directly.’
Alone in the room, Ann fought a rising panic. The court. Her hands slid with sweat on her purse, her legs felt weak, but she gripped the arm of her chair and forced herself to rise. They had found her. She had to get out of the room. She was, even after everything she had done, just a street thief. Her plan was presposterous. It would not work. Her attempts to dress, to move, to sound like the women at the church meetings were doomed to failure. And her secrets were about to be discovered by this man of law. She reached the door just as it opened.
Mr Waldron stared at her, his eyebrows raised and eyes wide open with shock. Without taking his eyes off her, he went to the desk and picked up the brass bell which sat there. He shook it vigorously and a sharp tinkling sound rang out. Ann imagined it travelling down the stairs to where the clerk sat at his desk. Now, now he is going to send for the constabulary. She returned to her seat. There was no point in trying to run. It was hopeless. She could not get down those stairs quickly enough.
Mr Waldron got up and came round the desk to her, still without taking his eyes from her face.
I won’t admit to murder, I will only admit to my escape, there is no proof… what have I done… sold goods which don’t belong to me…nothing else. Ann heard the door open behind her.
Mr Waldron took his eyes away from Ann for the first time. He spoke softly. ‘Mr Jamieson, would you be so kind as to ask Mrs Jessop if she would make us some tea. Mrs Challinor is feeling faint.’ He went to the door with the clerk and Ann heard the words – widow… recent… very sad.
Gradually, her panic subsided. She realised her hand was aching and she relaxed her grip on the arm of the chair. Her fingers shook as she tucked some stray wisps of hair under her bonnet. Mr Waldron was not about to discover the truth about Ann Dance. He could not smell the prison on her. Now he was coming back in, not even looking at her as he spoke. And then she understood – he had simply been horrified at the thought of having to deal with a fainting woman in his office. He stole a look at her and seeming satisfied that the crisis was over, he took a key from his waistcoat pocket and opened a large cupboard set into the wall. Soon, papers, plans and ledgers were strewn across the table.
‘Mrs Challinor, good book-keeping is the basis of any successful business, I cannot stress this enough. Now, I do know of someone…’ He looked up and smiled at her kindly. In this world she had decided to enter each person had a role, and taking care of her was his. She had become one of his clients. He opened a leather-bound folder and reached for a quill from a wooden pot on his desk. She saw with pleasure that her name, Ann Challinor, was being written down and filed away.
The house she wanted was on Church Street. She had seen it on the first day she had walked out on the route of the Manchester coach. She had walked past it three times before she knew that she had to stop and look at it more closely. She had cupped her hands to peer in at the window. By squinting against the glass she found she could make out a wooden counter, three long shelves and just a glimpse of a staircase turning up and away to the next floor. Ann imagined a sitting room up there, a fire with coals burning in the grate and a table with supper laid. Her hands resting on the table, picking up a knife, cutting bread. She could live here.
‘Yes. I know the house.’ Mr Waldron was pleased. He could see a transaction ahead. ‘Church Street – Frost’s Yard to be precise – as luck would have it, it has been empty all winter and the lease is for sale.’ He slapped the file in front of him in satisfaction.
But Ann did not feel that it was luck, she felt certain that the house was meant to be hers. She liked its position, poised on the far edge of town on the Leek road.
‘How long a lease do you wish to take?’ he had asked, ‘six months?’
Ann had shaken her head. ‘No,’ she said firmly, ‘a year – at least.’
It was true that when she had first looked in through the window she had dreamed of it as simply a place to hide before her journey north and away. But even a few weeks later her plans had changed. She would stay in this town. She reasoned that a lone woman travelling on the coach north was more likely to be an object of suspicion than a widowed shopkeeper living here in Ashbourne.
But there was something else. Taking the keys in her hand had given her that first thrill of possession. Mr Waldron had handed them to her, an ordinary everyday moment for him, and had stood back with a flourish to let her open the shop door. ‘This could suit you very well,’ he murmured. Part of her was aware that he would say these words to any client but oh – the act of opening the door and stepping into the empty shop. Running her hand along the wide wooden counter. Opening each of the wall cupboards.