The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Six

Chapter Twelve

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, New Year’s Day, 1816

 

Rowena entered the unexpectedly large graveyard that surrounded St Crispin’s Church. Sometime during the day, she had tamped down her anger about Alex’ highhandedness and told him she wanted to meet the mysterious letter writer. She wanted Alex to accompany her to Evensong and afterwards, let her go to the meeting alone.

“Wait for me outside the graveyard, please. I need to know what is transpiring here. Please try to understand my concern, Alex? If this is a hoax, then you can go to the magistrate, and if it is not …”

“You are not seriously thinking that Johnston might be still alive? It must be a hoax, and I am not inclined to let you go alone.”

“Please, Alex? He will not show up when he sees you with me. You could post young Gregson at the entrance to watch over me.”

He could, Alex thought, yet he would not. He most certainly should not; she might be in danger. He would watch over her himself, though he could not tell her that, since she still thought him blind. So he pretended to give in.

“Very well, my dear. We will do as you say. I implore you to be very careful. If it is a hoax, the ones involved might not wish you well.”

Rowena pressed her husband’s hand in gratitude, then stepped into the graveyard.

The graves were as well-tended as was possible, given the dampness of the soil. Yet many graves lay sunken under the thick blanket of snow, their lichen-covered headstones crooked. Some were broken, marking graves of long-dead people. Rowena shivered as the gloomy atmosphere added an eerie edge to the winter night. It was still bitterly cold, although the sky was overcast, so no moonlight helped her find her way through the deserted yard. The note had not specified where exactly she was to meet the mysterious person, so she halted in the middle where two paths crossed. A large funeral chapel stood there, belonging to a wealthy Leicester merchant family whose ancestry was from Ketteridge. Rowena went to stand near the chapel door, better to see when someone approached her.

“Rowena … Rowie …”

That voice … that clipped accent with just a hint of Cumberland tones … could it be? She swung round to the left and nearly fainted when she recognized the man who was standing there, leaning on a cane. His clothes were shabby and dirty, his fair hair too long, his eyes too large in his narrow face. Yet it was Peter, no doubt about it.

 

Alex peered through the darkness, anxious to lose sight of Rowena. Damnation, but he did not like this! He had been suspicious of Johnston as soon as Rowena told him about the man. He had thought him a cad, a blackguard, for seducing an inexperienced girl, only weeks before he joined his regiment. Alex knew all too well that Johnston must have been informed long before the exact date on which the army forces would gather and cross over to Flanders. Cavalry men often belonged to the landed gentry. They wanted to be informed early enough to be able to provide for the running of their estates in their absence.

That afternoon, he had taken the trouble of looking up Johnston. If he was the son of an earl, he had to be in Debrett’s. Johnston, Alex discovered, was indeed Carlisle’s third son. Yet no mention had been there about a demise, and the edition of Debrett’s was from July 1815. Up to date, thus.

 

“Peter … what … they told me you were dead … I thought you were dead …”

Her former lover shrugged, smiling broadly at her, showing teeth that had known better days. How was this possible? Peter used to be such a fastidious man, proud of his uniform, and his status as the son of a nobleman. Now he seemed destitute and unwell. Rowena’s heart melted.

“Oh my God, Peter! What happened to you? Why did they think you were dead? Roderick told me he had a telegram from the Regiment, announcing you had fallen at Waterloo.”

“Ah, well …” Peter said, scratching his head, and avoiding her eyes. “You see, Rowie, I was badly injured and I must have lain for dead for hours, if not days. I dragged myself from the battlefield, and I must have done that for a long time, because when I finally woke up, I was lying in a barn, five miles from the battle field. A farm lad found me, and he and his sister nursed me back to health. Unfortunately, I had no memory of what happened, and someone had stripped me of my uniform. So it took several months for my memory to come back, and then one day, I remembered you. I left and came back, Rowie. We can be together and start a family.”

He took a step forward, and Rowena realized he was going to embrace her. Suddenly, that did not seem to be an attractive notion. She braced herself when he put his arms around her, desperately trying not to shy away. He was dirty and he smelled anything but fresh, but that was not what repelled her. Repulsion … of Peter? How had she come to that? But she had. She closed her eyes, enduring his embrace as best as she could, before she gently extracted herself from his arms.

“Peter, matters have changed. I have married the Earl of Ketteridge.”

Peter’s gasp cut her off, as he pushed her from him. “Rowie, no! That cannot be so! Why, Rowie, why?”

Rowena pushed away from Peter and felt suddenly relieved to be free of his touch. She was baffled. Why would she be shy of Peter’s touch, when she had lain with him in the past?

“It saddens me that matters have gone the way they have. Yet they have, and we must resign ourselves to the fact that we both are in a new situation. We …”

In the blink of an eye, Peter again grabbed her upper arms and shook her. He actually shook her, and very hard! The cane he was holding was pressed painfully into the flesh of her arm. “No! I cannot let this happen! I need you, Rowena!”

His mouth bore down on hers, forcing open her lips, invading her mouth with his tongue.            Rowena struggled not to gag, fighting to pull free, but his vicelike grip was unbreakable. She panicked, tried to kick him, but he pushed her against the chapel’s wall. Pushed her so hard her head banged against the bricks. She longed to faint, to escape this horror.

 

Alex had watched the whole, disgusting scene from afar, gritting his teeth in loathing when he saw his wife step into the stranger’s embrace. She had done so willingly, he observed, rage burning holes in his chest. She must still love the cavalry man, damnation!

He was unable to hear what they were saying, the distance being too great. He rejoiced when Rowena pulled away, panicked when he saw Johnston grab her again. His feet were taking him to her before he realized. He seized Johnston’s arm and wrenched him backwards. The man suddenly swung a cane Alex had failed to notice, and it connected hard with his right temple.

Alex’s vision blurred, the world suddenly spinning. He gritted his teeth and rose from his knees to run after Johnston who was dragging a screaming Rowena towards the graveyard’s entrance. How had the fiend managed to cover all that distance? Alex fought back the bile mounting in his throat, feeling a warm trickle of blood running down his face. Blast! His head wound must have reopened.

He forced himself to run harder, saw the distance diminish. Then, to his infinite relief, he saw Porter entering through the graveyard’s gate.

“Porter! Stop him!”

The batman never hesitated but broke into a swift run towards Johnston and Rowena. But Johnston was now a cornered animal and he acted so by backing up to a large grave stone. A blade flashed, and Alex realized it must have been hidden in the cane. Johnston held its rim against Rowena’s throat, locking her in a dead grip.

Both Alex and Porter stopped, yards away from the couple. Alex felt sick with sudden panic burning his gut. If this madman … no! He could not give in to paralyzing panic! Not when Rowena needed him to be calm.

“What is it you want, Johnston? Money? I can give you as much as you need. Let her go and we can make an arrangement.”

“Back! Move back or I’ll slice her like a pig, I swear!” The man’s tones were all but clipped now.

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