NAL Historical, March, 2015
This is the opening segment of the book. The story takes place in Wales in 1839. Alexander Hyatt, Marquess of Craille, has come to see the property he inherited two years ago, a house and land in a valley in South Wales and the coalmine and ironworks on it. Unknown to him, it is a time of unrest. The workers throughout the valleys are discontented with working conditions and low wages, and their protests have become linked with Chartism, the political protest movement designed, among other things, to grant all men the vote and to having annual Parliaments. Siân (pronounced Sh-ah-n) Jones is caught between two worlds. She is the illegitimate daughter of one of the owners, but she married a coalminer and now, after his death, is engaged to the leader of the protest movement. In this opening episode she and Alex meet for the first time.
It was rather late in the day to go walking, especially in a strange place. But the night was warm and moonlit, and the hills beckoned invitingly. Besides, a day and a half of traveling had made him stiff and restless, and since his arrival soon after noon he had been busy with his housekeeper and his butler. His agent had called to pay his respects and make arrangements for the coming days. And there had been Verity to amuse. If the journey had made him irritable, it had made her positively petulant. It was harder for a six-year-old to sit still and idle for hours on end than it was for an adult.
Now she was in bed, coaxed there by an elderly and indulgent nurse, and put to sleep by the stories he had read to her.
He was unable to give in to his own tiredness. Everything was so strange. He had been the owner of this property for longer than two years—ever since the death of his uncle, his mother's brother—but he had never been here before. He did not even know much about it except that the quarterly reports sent by his agent showed it to be extremely prosperous. But then aristocrats, whose names and titles and wealth had grown out of large landed estates over several centuries, still frowned upon the idea of making money out of industry. It seemed very middle class and not quite the thing at all. Times were changing, but very often times changed faster than people.
Alexander Hyatt, Marquess of Craille, was the owner of a large area of land in one of the valleys of South Wales and the ironworks and coal mine on that land. The back of beyond, as his mother-in-law liked to describe it. It was not a compliment. She had been aghast when he had told her that he was going to take her granddaughter there for an indefinite period of time. It was in vain that he had reminded her that he also owned a castle there—Glanrhyd Castle—that had been built by his uncle's predecessor.
Alex, standing at his bedroom window, still fully clothed, decided that late or not, strange or not, he was going to go out for a walk after all. The little he had seen of the surrounding area during the day had fascinated him—the narrow valley with steep, heather-covered hills to either side, the river at the bottom with rows of terraced houses beside it and on the lower slopes, the ironworks below the castle, largely hidden by the trees of the park. Glanrhyd Castle itself was built above the valley floor, a little removed from both the works and the houses.
The hills fascinated him. Steep, yet not sheer, they closed in the valley, making it a little world cut off from the outside. He felt almost as if he were in a foreign country. In a way, he supposed, he was.
He took a cloak with him in case the night was chillier than it had felt through his open window. But it was still almost warm outside. He strolled the gravel walks bordering the sloping lawns of the park and stood still to breathe in the fresh air and to listen to the sounds of insects. But he was not satisfied with such a sedate walk. The hills called to him. If he walked a little way across and up the slope beyond the park gates he would be able to look down on the valley and have a more panoramic view of it than he had had from the house. It would probably look lovely in the moonlight.
He did not intend to walk far as soon as he realized that the hills did not ascend smoothly from the valley to the top. Rather they were rolling hills with peaks and hollows and even some sharp, unexpected drops. But there was no real danger as long as he was in no hurry. There was light enough to see by. And his guess had been correct. From above, and without the obstruction of the trees, he could see that the town was picturesque despite the smoking chimneys of the ironworks and despite the black coal tips he could see farther down the valley. Moonlight gleamed off the water of the river, which was broader than it had seemed from below. The houses, in long, snaking lines, looked sleepy and hugged the side of the hill as if for protection. There were very few lights. Obviously his workers went to bed early. Not that it was really early. He supposed it was close to midnight.
He should turn back. But there was a pleasant coolness in the air now, and he was reluctant to give up this only part of the day he had had to himself. If he strolled a little farther on, he thought, he would be able to look back up the valley from the other end of the town. Perhaps he would be able to see the castle above the works. It had been fancifully built, with numerous towers and turrets and long windows. He had been amused when he first set eyes on it. And rather pleased too. Somehow it escaped vulgarity, ornate as it was. Somehow it seemed to suit its setting.
He was not sure when he first became aware of s sound that was neither water nor wind nor insects. At first it was a feeling that seemed not quite associated with the ears. But it became more marked as he strolled on. It was the sound of voices. The murmured sound of many voices.
Alex stood still and concentrated. Where was it coming from? From below? But almost all the lights were out in the houses and the works were too far away, although some men would be on shift there. From the mine, then? No, the sound was coming from the hills.
He walked on more warily, more alertly, until the sound was unmistakably that of voices—men's voices. And then there was one voice, speaking above the rest until they all fell silent, and speaking on. In a strange language, doubtless Welsh.
As he drew closer, Alex realized that he was approaching another of those unexpected peaks, behind which there was presumably another dip and hollow. He could tell that he was close now. The voice was distinct. Whoever it was was in that hollow. He climbed carefully, ducking down as he approached the top so that his head would not be seen against the skyline. He inched up the last few feet so that he could look down.
His jaw almost dropped. Certainly his eyes widened. It was a large hollow, far larger than he had expected, and it was packed tight with men, now silent. Hundreds of them. Every single man from the valley below must be there.
The man who was addressing them was standing on a slight rise at one end of the hollow, so that all would be able to see him. He was a big man, not particularly tall, but broad and strong looking. He had a commanding presence, as he would have to have, Alex thought, to have called such a large gathering to order.
A meeting? On the mountain at midnight? He noticed suddenly that not one of the men held a lantern or any other light. It was true that the moonlight was bright enough, but it was surprising nonetheless that there were no lights. It was a clandestine meeting, then?
At first he thought he must be wrong. The broad, dark-haired speaker stepped down to give his place to a tall, thin man dressed all in black. He too spoke in Welsh, but it was clear from the way he spread his arms and from the tone of his voice when he began to speak that he was a preacher. And that he was praying. The men all bowed their heads reverently and remained silent throughout the lengthy prayer, only the occasional "Amen" interrupting the preacher's voice.
A prayer meeting? Alex frowned and then felt amusement. He had been told that the Welsh were a devout people and that they were nonconformist almost to a man. But a mass prayer meeting at midnight when they should all be at home asleep? He felt again the foreignness of this new home of his.
He probably would have retreated and left them to it if he had not spotted the woman. Like him, she was not part of the meeting. As far as he could see, its members were exclusively male. Like him, she was silently spying on it. She was hiding behind some large rocks a little lower than his hill and some distance away. She would not be able to see him. He edged over a little to his left to make sure.
He wondered what she was doing there and why she could not join the prayer meeting openly. Unless women were forbidden to do so. It looked as if that might be the case. It was impossible to tell if she was young or old. She wore a dark dress, which blended well with the rocks, and a lighter shawl, which was drawn up over her head. But she looked slim. She looked young. He watched her, intrigued, and ignored the feeling that he was spying on something that was none of his business.
Actually it was his business. This was his land. These were his people.
And then the prayer was finally at an end and the preacher stepped down to be replaced by the first speaker. Alex wished he could understand what was being said but realized that he must become accustomed to hearing Welsh spoken all around him. He was the intruder, after all. It was their country, not his.
And then suddenly he did understand. The language had switched to English—heavily accented but nevertheless quite understandable. The Welshman was introducing a speaker who was English. His fame had spread throughout the land and they were honored and privileged to have him bring his oratory to Wales. Would they all welcome Robert Mitchell?
They did so as a small, bespectacled, insignificant-looking young man took his place on the rise and lifted his arms for silence. He did not get it for some time. The men were applauding and whistling.
Robert Mitchell? Hell!
Robert Mitchell was one of the more famous of the Chartist orators who were traveling endlessly and tirelessly throughout the industrial districts of England and Wales these days, trying to persuade the people to put their signatures to the great Charter that was to have been presented to Parliament a few moths ago but which still had not appeared there. The most famous orator of all, Henry Vincent, was in jail in Monmouth.
This was a Chartist meeting? Alex flattened himself against the hill suddenly and grew cold. He had not realized that Chartism had taken a hold in Cwmbran. Barnes, his agent, had never made mention of it. But Alex might have guessed, he supposed.
Robert Mitchell was speaking in a voice whose volume and resonant power belied his appearance. He was explaining simply and clearly what the object of the Charter was, what six basic demands it was to make of the government—the vote for every British male, annual Parliaments, secret ballots, and so on. Alex was quite familiar with the Charter's demands. He was even sympathetic to them. But Chartism had somehow become the movement of the industrial working classes and it had become a movement of protest. Many feared that it had become revolutionary in its aims and methods.
This secret midnight meeting made him feel suddenly uneasy about Chartism. He had never had to think too much about it before. It had never touched him closely. Now suddenly it was very close indeed.
The woman was still there, he noticed as Robert Mitchell harangued the crowd with the necessity of adding their signatures to the Charter and of paying their pennies to join the Chartist Association.
"There is power in numbers, my friends," he shouted, stabbing the air with one fist and causing Alex to break out in a sweat. There was danger in the idea even if it might seem a reasonable one. Such was the power of the man's oratory that his audience was responding to it with raised fists of their own and with shouts of assent. There were even some fervent amens.
"Everyone will sign the Charter." The speech had ended and the stocky Welshman was back on the rise, though he still spoke in English out of deference to the guest speaker. "Unanimity is essential, men. Those who do not sign tonight or pay their pennies tonight will be asked why tomorrow."
There seemed to be a definite threat in the words. But there were no dissenting voices, only universal enthusiasm as far as Alex could see. He would have a few questions to ask of Barnes tomorrow. But first, he would dearly like to know who the leader was, the strong fiery Welshman who seemed to hold the men in the palm of his hand as well as Mitchell had. And who the preacher was.
The woman was moving away, cautiously leaving the protection of the rocks behind which she had been hiding and circling behind the rise that stood between her and the gathered men. The meeting would be breaking up soon. She was making her escape in good time. She was making her way in his direction, Alex could see.
He waited until she had passed the slope on which he lay, without looking up and seeing him, and then he followed her as she quickened her pace, her shawl held close about her head and shoulders. She had a long, lithe stride. She was undoubtedly a young woman. And a shapely one. His eyes moved over her from behind. Long legs. Shapely hips.
He waited until she hurried down into another hollow. Once out of it, he could see, she would be able to turn directly downward and would be in the town within a few minutes. He came up behind her, reaching a hand around to cover her mouth even as she sensed his presence and turned her head sharply. Large, frightened eyes looked into his while he hurried her behind some rocks so that they would be out of sight of anyone leaving the meeting early.
"You were not invited to the party?" he asked her, turning her so that her back was against the rocks. He removed his hand from her mouth but stood very close to her, his body almost against hers. Oh, yes, she was young. And beautiful. Her shawl had slipped from her head to reveal long hair worn loose. It looked almost black in the shadows. So did her eyes.
"Who are you?" She spoke to him in English, with a strongly lilting Welsh accent.
"It is a pity women are not invited to sign the Charter," he said. "Would you have signed it and given them one more signature?"
She leaned her head back against the rock. Some of the terror had gone from her eyes, but she was breathing raggedly. "I don't know who you are," she said. "You are English. A spy? Did Mr. Barnes bring you in?"
"Who was the man leading the meeting?" he asked. "The dark, well-built Welshman?"
Her lips clamped together.
"He is from Cwmbran?" he asked. "He works there, perhaps?"
"I didn't know him," she said. "I don't know who he is. There are men from other valleys at the meeting. They are not all from Cwmbran."
He nodded. He did not believe her for a moment. "And the preacher?" he asked. "The one who opened the meeting with a long prayer? Who is he?"
Again the clamped lips. "I don't know him either," she said when he waited for an answer.
"And I suppose," he said, "you did not recognize any of the men at the meeting either. They were all from other valleys. They just happened to choose this site for their meeting."
"I suppose so," she said lamely after a while. But she lifted her chin. "Who are you? Have you come to make trouble? It was a peaceful meeting. There was no harm in it. It is merely a petition to be presented to Parliament."
"'There is power in numbers, my friends,'" he quoted softly. "The words can be made to sound almost seditious, can't they?"
"There is power," she said, in a number of signatures. That was what he meant. Who are you?" The fright was back in her eyes and in her voice suddenly. "What do you want with me?"
It must have been sudden fright over her realization of the fact that she was alone on the mountain with a stranger, he thought. She tried to step forward and around him, but he stood his ground so that for a moment, before she flattened herself against the rock again, her body pressed against his. Firm, generous breasts, warm thighs. He set one hand against the rock beside her head.
"And who are you?" he asked. "Are you from another valley too and don't know yourself?"
Her chin came up but she said nothing for a while. "I shall scream," she said.
"Then I shall do this." He leaned forward and set his mouth over hers. But it was not a wise move. Her mouth was warm and soft. And he too was suddenly aware of how very alone they were, surrounded by shadows and cool night air and the droning of insects. Seduction had not been on his mind when he had pursued her and was definitely unwise under the circumstances. He drew his head back a few inches.
Her eyes were wide with terror and indignation. But she was a woman of some courage, he realized. Her chin stayed up and her eyes remained steady on his and she got herself silently under control.
"My guess is that you would not be overeager, anyway, to make your presence on the mountain known to any of the men back there," he said. "I have the feeling that they would be a trifle annoyed. Who are you?"
"Let me go," she said. "Any one of them would pound you into the ground for touching me. But I'll not betray you if you will not betray me."
"Ah," he said, "an amicable bargain." He took one step back from her. "So all those men would punish me for frightening you and stealing a kiss from you, would they? All those men you do not know."
She ignored his last words. "I was not frightened," she said.
He grinned at her and wished that circumstances were such that he could attempt seduction. It would be very sweet. He thought ruefully of how long it had been since he had had a woman. Too long. But now was not the time.
He stepped to one side so that she could make her escape. "If I were you," he said, "I would stay off the mountains this late at night. There are too many dangers for a woman alone."
"Thank you." Her voice was heavy with sarcasm. "I shall remember that."
"And I shall remember this night, he said, "and some of the faces of the men at the Chartist meeting. Perhaps I will see those face again one day—in the other valleys. I believe I may see yours a little closer than that."
"Not if I can help it," she said.
He grinned and gestured to the downward slope just beyond the shadows in which they stood. "Go," he said, "before anyone else comes down and sees that you are out of your bed at this hour and in a place that no woman has any business being."
He watched her make the effort not to bolt like a frightened rabbit. She lifted her shawl over her head again, her eyes on his, and then walked past him and out into the open, her back straight.
"Good night, maiden of Cwmbran," he said softly.
She did not answer him. He noticed her pace quicken and her head come down as she hurried through the hollow and turned at its end to take the steep slope down to the town. She did not look back though he could almost see that her back was bristling with panic lest he was following her and was about to pounce on her again.
And so he was no farther forward than he had been before he caught up to her. She was a woman who could keep her mouth shut. He just hoped that she would keep it shut concerning him too. He was not sure that he wanted it known that he had unwittingly come upon a Chartist meeting. He did not wish to become embroiled in local politics when he had set foot in Cwmbran for the first time only hours before.
He should not have stopped the woman or spoken to her, he thought now that it was too late to do differently. Or kissed her. He should certainly not have done that. A fine first impression he would give. He was thankful that she had been where she was not supposed to be and would therefore be reluctant to tell anyone of the experience—even when she knew who he was, which would surely happen soon.
But he should not have kissed her. Brief and unplanned and one-sided as it had been, it had aroused needs in him that he normally kept well under control. Only two long-tern mistresses in almost six years since his wife's death, and none at all since his engagement to Lorraine a year ago—an engagement they had broken off only the month before.
Strange! He had kissed Lorraine several times, usually at greater length than he had kissed the unknown Welshwoman. But never once had he become aroused physically as he had now.
It was just as well, he thought ruefully, striding with unwise speed across the hill in the direction of Glanrhyd Castle, that he had some distance to walk and that the air was now distinctly cool.
Robert Mitchell. Chartists. There is power in numbers, my friends. Everyone will sign the Charter. Hell! What had he walked into? He had come to Wales for some peace and quiet after a broken engagement. Had he walked unwittingly into a nest of hornets?
© Mary Balogh