The pillow wasn’t exactly soft but it was warm against her cheek. Katy lay in the large bed in the best guestroom once more, the imagined scent of men’s toilet soap still playing with her nostrils. Darkness encased her. She was tired, exhausted even, but sleep was a long way off. She closed her weary eyes. An archway appeared in her mind’s eye, maybe under a bridge, it was dark. A crescent of light loomed at the end of it, she didn’t recognise the place but it felt gloomy. A tall man was standing still silhouetted against the thin sliver of light. He was wearing a top hat and tail coat and posed in a very gentlemanlike stance. He wasn’t looking her way but he was waiting.
It was Henry, she knew it. He had come to take her away. She was dressed in an expensive gown and she felt strong, she was ready to face the challenge, she went to tap his shoulder. He turned to face her and she fell back. George’s grinning expression was staring back, it was the happiest she’d ever seen him.
‘Well done,’ he said, ‘you’ve done it, now we can be together. I should’ve known you’d be the one to manage it. Do him for every penny he’s got, he’s a rock hearted cretin, he won’t even realise. On the outside we’ll be the most respectable creatures, but we belong together, you and me.’
Her eyes opened, she’d been on the verge of sleep but not quite there. She wondered about what she’d just dreamed. Was it a dream? She hadn’t been asleep, she was sure. A message? She didn’t believe in such nonsense. Perhaps it came from her own heart. George wanted to marry some rich woman to enable them to be lovers, now she was on the verge of marrying a rich man for much lesser reasons, for her own selfishness. Henry was a well-dressed block of ice, he proposed to marry her merely to exact revenge on his family. What if she performed this task in a month, a week or even a day, what then? A lifetime of marital misery to a man who was more interested in a tie pin than human feelings. She wondered how it would be were she to meet George again. As her eyes closed, the image of a lavish ballroom formed in her mind, she imagined how it would look as she’d never set foot in such a place in her life. Henry was leading her into the room, immaculate as ever, shiningly clean compared to the other men in their slick black evening suits. George approached unseen by Henry.
‘I’ve done it,’ whispered Katy, ‘we’re free indeed, to do as we please.’
With her hand still resting on Henry’s clenched fist, she kissed George. Henry spoke gravely to some acquaintances, quite oblivious to the love scene being played out before him, indeed Katy and George were all but invisible to all the grey characters surrounding them.
‘Come, young lady,’ said Henry, and they walked away.
George winked, smiling, as Katy waved goodbye.
By the time light spread through the window, Katy wasn’t sure if she’d ever been asleep. The night had been so full of thoughts and dreams or half-dreams that she couldn’t make head or tail of the situation.
The clear morning had done one thing however; it had filled her with sense. Marrying Henry was ludicrous. She wanted to escape this place but this wasn’t the way. She didn’t trouble herself over it as she got dressed, there was no point. He wouldn’t be back. Almost laughing she sat in front of her mirror, fixing her hair. How could she have believed him? Retrieving her curling irons from the fire, she began twisting some elegant curls into long strands of her lustrous coiffure. Henry’s terror of letting a young lady jump to her death in front of him had made him say anything to stop her, she realised that now. She’d likely never see that pristine face again and she was grateful. It was almost embarrassing to recall how she’d behaved, now she could look back on it as a moment of amusement and no one would ever know, no one except Henry but his mortification must be a hundred times more. He wouldn’t tell, he couldn’t. The day she thought she’d escaped the impossible, the day she thought she’d really become a lady, been handed a kingdom and fallen for the whole trick like a gullible child was now a just a memory, so fleeting it had already stopped feeling real.
Her father was bellowing from somewhere, it was the call to return to the drudgery of the Anchor. There was no prince, charming or otherwise, waiting at the foot of the stairs with a glass slipper ready for her to place her foot in, only the cold, grimy kitchen filled with gloom.
‘What is it?’ she said, entering the room, the ceiling seemed lower than ever, like a thick black cloud about to hurl a downpour at them.
‘We need to talk,’ he said, ‘about Esther.’
‘Oh? What about her?’
‘She’s very unhappy,’ said her father gravely.
‘Yes, I realise that much, it’s quite understandable really.’
‘This isn’t just about poor Bill. She has other upsets, mostly to do with you.’
Katy stared at him. He wasn’t looking at her, in fact, he didn’t seem physically able to raise his eyes higher than her knees.’
‘She reckons it’d be better if you weren’t here, maybe even just for a while.’
‘Right,’ said Katy, ‘and just where am I to go? Are you throwing me onto the street?’
‘No, no, of course not.’
His placatory manner infuriated her.
‘You can go stay with Esther’s mother for a bit, she’ll be happy of the company, she’s been lonely since Esther’s been away.’
Her mouth opened and closed, she thought for once in her life she was truly to be rendered speechless.
‘Have you seen where she lives?’ she choked.
‘Yes, it’s small I admit, but it’s fine for two, she’ll even help you get work, washing and stuff like she does. You’ll enjoy it Katy, you’ve always said how much you hate working here. Now’s your chance to get away.’
She began to understand Henry’s desire for revenge. All his talk of nothing too cruel however was weak-minded drivel, she imagined herself splitting her father’s skull with the fire irons and running Esther through with a meat skewer.
Without another word she left the kitchen and ran upstairs. She’d leave all right but she wouldn’t go there, she’d never go to that place, never. She started to pack her belongings pell-mell, throwing things here and there, her head in turmoil. What was the point? She’d do better going back to the cliff, if Henry Cranston appeared to stop her this time, he could come along for the ride, that would give him all the release from his family he needed. Flinging herself onto her tiny bed, she wept. Pointless cold tears that no one could hear.
Henry Cranston knocked on the door with his stick. And again. He was a man who liked punctuality and this tardiness in opening the door did not suit him. His business was too important to wait though it was a matter of little pleasure to him. Third time, he knocked.
‘Can’t you read, we are closed, we don’t open ‘til later.’
‘I can read perfectly well,’ said Henry.
The foul-mouthed innkeeper was a loathsome wretch, how he had ever produced a daughter with such fair looks was one of life’s unfathomable mysteries.
‘I’ve come on quite another matter, one I wish to discuss with you directly.’
‘Eh? Listen, I don’t think you quite understand me, we’ve not got nothing to discuss, if you’ve come moaning about bedbugs or whatever bilge you’ve got a problem with this time, then clear off, this is a house of mourning, I haven’t got time to deal with your upper crust whinging today.’
‘A house of mourning?’ said Henry, a spasm of fear twisted his gut. He hadn’t succeeded after all.
‘Yes, my baby son, dead, not two days ago. So you’ll understand if you’re petty gripes mean squat to me right now.’
The door was about to slam in his face but Henry blocked it.
‘I haven’t brought any petty gripes as you call them, I have a matter of greater importance to discuss with you, regarding your daughter.’
‘What about her? What’s she done, that little hussy, what’s she been up to? Are you the law?’
‘Please, let me in, I don’t wish to do discuss this on the street.’
Henry was led into the grim parlour. He remembered seeing Katy here all those months ago, little would have believed then what he was about to do now. His nerve even now was on the verge of collapse. He’d spent the whole night wondering why he’d been so ridiculous, how had he been driven to such a ludicrous scheme? That young lady was possessed of unknown power, a siren leading him into the net. But he’d given his word and Henry Cranston was a man of honour and principle, if he broke it, he’d never be able to forgive himself. This option seemed just about as bad however.
‘I’m going to marry your daughter,’ said Henry, deciding it best to dispense with pleasantries or preamble.
‘You what? Eh? Since when? Why… have you and her been up to some funny business, what’s the story.’
‘There is no story, I’m going to marry her and that’s all you need know.’
‘It bloody isn’t, if you’ve meddled with her.’
The innkeeper advanced on him looking wild, Henry held up his stick to ward him off.
‘I assure you, I haven’t laid a finger on her, not as you suggest anyway. And,’ he said, very loudly as there was every sign of being further interrupted, ‘if you agree to this, right now, no further questions then I’ll see it within my power to give you a substantial sum of money towards the refurbishment of this place, or for anything else you desire it for.’
‘Are you trying to bribe me,’ said William, in an outraged tone.
‘Yes, I suppose I am.’
‘You villain, I should throw you out on the street.’
‘Yes, you should, but if you do, I’ll still marry your daughter and I’ll do so even without your consent, but if you throw me out, you’ll have not a penny from me and you may never see your daughter again.’
‘What sort of money we talking about?’ said William.
Henry smiled a grim smile. Now they were talking.
A loud knock woke Katy with a start. She’d fallen asleep fully dressed, her room was in a shocking state after her futile attempt at packing. Her lack of sleep the previous night had caught up with her, she wondered what time it was, what she’d missed and why she was being called.
‘Get down here now!’
Katy heard her father bellowing followed by his loud footfalls on the stairs. She glanced in her mirror to check that she didn’t look too awful from her bout of tears. Dreading to think what the matter was now, she headed downstairs.
Her knees almost gave way when she saw the tall, slim figure of Henry Cranston standing in the parlour. She hadn’t really believed he would come, not even hoped. She almost ran and hugged him, in the manner she would’ve done with George, but she could see that he would not appreciate that. He looked stiff as a board and solemn. Perhaps he’d come to tell her that it was all a mistake, he was after all a decent man, he was principled enough to tell her it was all his folly, not just walk away and leave her in the lurch.
He nodded when he saw her but was unable to speak before her father launched in.
‘So you want to marry this man do you, lord knows you set your sights high, Miss Katy.’
She felt sick. Had Henry come to tell her father that she’d tried it on with him, was she about to be made a public spectacle? It was almost beyond endurance.
‘I… but he, you…’ she blustered.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Henry.
Katy stared at him, she wanted to hit that complacently white face, make an indelible red smack right across it, hurt him so badly that his white blood would run from every pore. The satisfaction of hearing that low, self-assured voice begging her for mercy rang in her ears.
‘You’re father wants me to take you away right now, however that isn’t possible. You’ll have to remain here for a week, maybe two. If you’re going to be my wife you require to be… dressed,’ he coughed, as though he found the word difficult to say, ‘you can’t come to my estate as you are. I also have to arrange for the wedding to take place, it can’t happen overnight.’
Her jaw dropped slightly.
‘You mean… you still want to…’
‘Of course he bloody well does,’ said her father, ‘and you be grateful for it, this is a man of great standing and position. You do what he says and none of your nonsense.’
‘Thank you sir, I can manage this on my own’ said Henry, the snap back in his voice, ‘perhaps you and I should walk,’ he added to Katy, ‘we can discuss your…’
‘My state of dress?’ suggested Katy.
‘Go on,’ snapped her father, ‘go with him, do as you’re bid. God knows Mr, why you’d want a disobedient little vixen like her for your wife.’
‘Please, if it’s all the same to you, don’t address her like that. Frankly, it’s insulting, not just to her but to me, and also to your own intelligence.
He offered her his arm. She took it, throwing a smug glance back at her father, she wanted to stick her tongue out as well, but she didn’t dare risk insulting her just-defended reputation.