Jean Plaidy

Beyond the blue Mountains

Kitty Kennedy

It was hot in the coach. The June sunshine was merciless, and the dust raised by the horses' hoofs powdered the hedges, penetrated the coach, tickled the throats of the travellers, and set their eyes smarting.

They had dined adequately at Brentford off salt pork and malt liquor, but now they were crossing Staines Bridge and their thirst and peevishness more and more inclined them towards slumber. They were aware of the hardness of their seats, of the jolting of the coach, of the increasing tedium of a journey that with luck would go on for four days, and without luck longer; they were aware of the proximity of each other, not always pleasant; they thought, not without uneasiness, of Bag-shot Heath. They should get over it in daylight, but they sat fingers crossed, guarding against ill luck, lest some mishap should befall the coach on its way across the Heath.

The merchant in the corner began to snore, his wife to nod. The middle-aged matron kept an unnecessarily watchful eye on her two daughters who were both fast approaching thirty, mousy-haired, one pimpled, the other pock-marked, and who seemed to be holding themselves in readiness for an attack on their virtue. It amused the girl of seventeen in the big straw hat, and the young man of eighteen with the leather brief-case across his knees.

They had been watchful of each other, these two, since he had boarded the coach at Kensington. He had sat opposite her; his eyes had tried to catch hers, but whenever he looked her way her charming oval face would be hidden by the brim of her hat. Her clothes were elegant; she had a mingled air of simplicity and sophistication which he found enchanting. Who was she? Why was she travelling alone by stage? How could her family allow it! He was intrigued and excited.

Her hair was golden like the corn in August, and when the sun caught it, it turned to the gold one saw in the goldsmiths' shops. He had not seen her eyes; the ridiculous hat hid them every time he would look straight at them. There was a dimple in her chin; her mouth was lovely, frightened yet bold, full, a little sensuous just a little and childish too. She was a very attractive young person, and alone? He himself had thought it quite an adventure to leave the home he shared with his Uncle Gregory in the little town just beyond Exeter, and to visit his Uncle Simon in Lincoln's Inn. An adventure for a young and adventurous man; but for a beautiful young woman! He studied her from head to foot. Her long green cloak almost enveloped her, but it was possible to see the striped poplin dress beneath it which at her tiny waist fell away from the gaily coloured quilted petticoat. Who was she? He was determined to find out.

The merchant was awakened suddenly by one of his own snores which was more violent than those which had gone before. He glared at his wife as though accusing her of having made the sound which had disturbed his slumber. She was meek, almost apologetic; she gave the impression of having taken as her due over a number of years any blame he cared to lay upon her.

The merchant began to address his fellow passengers. He was a garrulous man, and abject meekness in his wife had led him to expect it in all.

"Wars! Wars!" he declaimed. There will be wars as long as there are men to make them!”

He glanced expectantly at Darrell Grey, the young man with the brief-case, and Barrel answered that indeed it looked as if there must always be these quarrels between nations; but his attention did not really stray from the young woman sitting opposite him.

"War with America!" went on the merchant.

"War with France! War with Spain!" Oratorically he began to enumerate the events of the past year.

"It is true Rodney put the French to flight, but what of the Americans and their independence ...?”

The knees of Darrell Grey touched the green cloak momentarily, and hot colour crept up the fair neck and was lost in the biscuit-coloured straw of the hat.

"War is indeed a terrible thing, sir" said the matron.

"Why, I can assure you, sir, that were it not for the wars my daughters would be married. Betrothed, both of them, to sailors and gentlemen of the quality at that! I will not mention names. Were I to, I should startle the company. Great names! Fine names! And both fallen in battle! Ah, sir! You cannot tell me anything I do not know of the horrors of war!" She turned to the merchant's wife.

"Have you any daughters?" she inquired, but the merchant's wife merely shook her head and glanced from her questioner to the merchant as though to say: "Do you not hear that he is talking? How can you interrupt!" The matron was, however, so sure of her own importance that she had little respect for that of the merchant.

"It is good to have daughters if they are a credit to you!" she said.

The coach lurched suddenly; the girl in the poplin dress was thrown forward and Darrell Grey stretched out to catch her. For a moment his hands touched her shoulders. She smiled and he saw that her eyes were blue, her lashes golden as her hair.

"I am sorry," she said.

"Please do not be," he answered.

"You are staying with the coach for its entire journey?”


"And after?" he asked.

"I shall be met. My aunt perhaps, or her servants, will meet me.”

He leaned back in his seat. She travelled alone, but she was not easy to know. He could wait. She was travelling all the way to Exeter, and Exeter was quite four days off.

The coach stopped suddenly. The matron and her daughters moved closer to each other. The merchant looked out of the window and cursed.

"We are stuck in a rut!" he said.

"Confound it!" And his wife looked wretched, as though it were her fault.

"We shall not cross Bagshot before dark if we stay here long," said the elder of the daughters, and shivered.

"And they say," said the merchant's wife timidly, 'that there is a very good inn on the other side of the Heath.”

"I could not bear to cross the Heath at dusk!" said the second daughter.

"They say there is much boldness in those rogues nowadays.”

The girl in the poplin dress raised scared eyes to Darrell. He smiled reassuringly; he rather hoped they would cross the Heath in twilight.

He would look after her and she would be very grateful.

"I do hope..." she began.

He leaned towards her.

"They are desperate fellows, but you need have no fear of them.”

"Nonsense!" said the matron.

"Of what use are fine words when a man is armed! I tell you that Bagshot Heath is the most notorious hunting-ground for these men.”

"My good lady," said the merchant, 'it is obvious that you are unacquainted with my part of the country.”

"They say," put in an elderly woman from a cornet of the coach, ‘that they play odd tricks.”

"They well may. Madam," boomed the merchant, 'but they never forget to relieve one of one's purse, and they are always ready with their pistols.”

One of the daughters shrieked, and at that moment the coach began to move forward. There was a little laughter then, but it was uneasy laughter. There was silence for some little time. The sun was a red ball declining westwards as they came to the edge of Bagshot Heath.

Darrell leaned forward, and the straw hat lifted momentarily.

"It is fortunate that there are so many of us," she said softly.

"I confess I should be frightened were there less.”

Fear was unleashing her reserve. She lay back against the woodwork of the coach. The cloak opened slightly to show the tiniest of waists and a ripe young bosom under striped poplin.

Darrell said: "You are on a visit?”


Then you are staying... near Exeter?" She nodded. The coquetry faded from her eyes; she had the tremulous mouth of a child. He found her enchanting.

He said: "That is good.”

"Why good?”

"Because I am returning to my home near Exeter. Perhaps you are staying near my home.”

"Perhaps." She turned her head now. He saw her girl's profile and her woman's throat; there were already signs of a voluptuousness to come.

 Where was she going? He wondered. Who was she? She might be a young gentlewoman. Was she a lady's maid? He tried to think of someone in his neighbourhood who might be requiring a lady's maid. The only person who, to his knowledge, had ever had one, was the squire's lady, and she had been dead two years. Mystery surrounded the young woman.

Was she innocent or sophisticated? A gentlewoman or a serving woman dressed in her mistress's clothes? And why was she travelling alone?

He had to find out, and here on Bagshot Heath was the place for boldness.

He said: "My uncle is a lawyer. I work with him.”

"You have no parents?”

He shook his head. His mother had died of the smallpox when he was five, he told her; his father, of he knew not what.

"My father?" she said, and wrinkled her nose very prettily.

"He died long ago. I never knew him. My mother?" Again her mouth trembled.

"She has just died ... of what I know not." She added: "I go to my Aunt Harriet, five miles out of Exeter.”

"Your Aunt Harriet!" he cried excitedly.

"Can it be Miss Harriet Ramsdale who is your aunt?”

"The very same.”

He was laughing, not with amusement but with pleasure, and his pleasure changed suddenly to concern. Harriet Ramsdale the aunt of this charming creature! It was impossible to believe. And she was going to live with her. He was delighted and dismayed.