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The hour was early, bright and cool. Mist rose from the stream by which were pitched a few shabby tents, some gaudy caravans. From behind the wagons came the low voices of men tending their livestock. In the air was the smell of wood smoke and frying bacon, the clank of cooking pots.
Within one of those caravans was imprisoned a young girl. No tinker, this damsel, with her flaming red hair and freckles, her snub nose and large brown eyes and mouth that was a bit too wide; and no beauty, either, for all that her determined repulsion of a certain suitor's delicate attentions--a repulsion accomplished by the application of a frying pan--had led to her current incarceration. Ruefully, Delilah tossed aside the sliver of mirror in which she had been contemplating her unprepossessing features. Clearly it was not her personal beauty that had inspired such ardor in Johann.
She rose from her narrow bunk to pace the floor, an exercise made all the more difficult by the presence of a huge and hideously multicolored hound, known affectionately to his mistress as Caliban, and referred to by the tinkers in various unflattering terms, the kindest among which was "ugly enough to sour good milk." Caliban opened one eye to observe Delilah's progress. Halfheartedly, he wagged his tail.
No more than herself, Delilah thought, did Caliban like this enforced inactivity. It was her fault for not dealing more tactfully with Johann. Delilah could not regret the act. The skillet, as it had connected with Johann's skull, had made a most satisfying thunking sound. It would have done him no great damage; Johann had a very thick skull. In more charitable moments, Delilah was accustomed tothinking him a perfect blockhead.
Delilah was not feeling especially charitable just then. She amused herself by compiling a list of epithets to which Johann might justifiably lay claim: sneaksby, basket-scrambler, hedge-bird. Here her inventiveness failed her; in lieu of further derogations she uttered a few good round oaths. Caliban, accustomed to such bursts of vulgarity on the part of his gently bred mistress, engaged in a huge yawn.
Delilah leaned against a battered chest of drawers and stared out the small window. She could have squeezed through it, she supposed--though generously fashioned, Delilah was both agile and petite--but it was hardly worth the effort. Johann or one of his cronies would catch her before she advanced three feet.
The morning promised to be a pleasant one; how she wished she might scamper about in the cool grass, feel the sun-warmed earth beneath her bare feet. Delilah glanced down at those appendages, which were distinctly begrimed. There was little enough in her appearance to suggest a young lady of gentle birth now. Delilah didn't in the least mind her loss of dignity; she was as little inclined toward decorum as she was toward tact. She minded very much, however, the curtailment of her freedom. Only that freedom had made this nomad existence bearable.
She moved closer to the window, pressed her little nose against the pane. Athalia would be coming soon with her breakfast. Perhaps Athalia might be persuaded to render a small favor in return for the only thing of value Delilah still possessed: her mother's wedding ring. Delilah hated to part with that item, not from sentiment--another attribute that Delilah did not claim, as had not her mother, at least in regard to that piece of jewelry--but because without it she would truly be destitute. Yet even more she would hate to marry Johann.
It was not that Johann was displeasing or deformed; among the tinkers he was considered a very handsome man. Certainly he had done his utmost to ingratiate himself. But Delilah, if she had to marry, and she imagined that eventually she must, had a notion of choosing as her bridegroom a fine, straight, handsome, noble young fellow, not a swarthy and middle-aged tinker with delusions of grandeur due to the noble blood that allegedly flowed in his veins, his mother having lifted her skirts for--among others--a fine tipsy gentleman. A man moreover who had already buried two wives, and who would expect to be waited upon slavishly. Delilah had no intention of wedding herself to a lifetime of drudgery.
But how to avoid it? Athalia was her only hope, the only person to show her any kindness in all of Johann's entourage, and even Athalia did so with an eye to the main chance. The tinkers thought of Delilah as their golden goose. It would be through no efforts of Delilah's if, eventually, she served as such.
The windowpane was cold, and her nose had grown numb. With a last longing glance outdoors, Delilah moved away. It was Sunday, and the village church would be filled. Easy to envision the local gentry in their leather-lined pews, the peasants in the aisles, the white-gowned girls on either side of the chancel, the rector intoning the liturgy. Perhaps the rector would offer a few pertinent remarks upon Christian charity--while his congregation pondered in a most uncharitable manner upon chickens snatched away from their coops, and newly purchased horses that were transformed overnight from prancing beauties into broken-winded nags. The most wonderful among Johann's many talents was a dazzling sleight of hand. Though they would never know it, Delilah agreed wholeheartedly with the villagers that it would be a very good thing for all of England if Johann were hanged.
Delilah was not a girl to nurse grievance long; resentment served no practical purpose. She dropped cross-legged onto the floor beside Caliban and drew the hound's huge head into her lap. Caliban, tongue lolling, gazed up at his mistress with an adoring expression. Delilah gently pulled his ears.
In this position Athalia found them when she entered with the breakfast tray. Cautiously, she eyed the hound; Caliban, who was considerably larger than his mistress, had been know in the exuberance of his greeting to knock unwary recipients off their feet. The hound showed no inclination to stir. Athalia set down her tray.
Delilah contemplated this gift of providence, decided that Athalia was in an approachable mood. Sometimes it was difficult to determine the woman's state of mind; Athalia's dark face--a darkness not only due to the pigmentation of her skin, but also to her strong aversion to water and soap--evidenced as much emotion as a stone. Once she might have been beautiful, but now her face was growing weathered, and her untidy dark hair showed the first threads of gray. "Can you stay a minute?" asked Delilah. "I've grown very weary of my own company."
Athalia glanced behind her, then closed the door and crossed her arms beneath a bosom that still remained magnificent. "'He who feeds the pig also holds the knife over it when it is fattened.' What were you thinking, leicheen? Johann is in a rage."
"The devil," retorted Delilah, around a slice of bacon that she was sharing with Caliban, "fly away with Johann! Athalia, I have been thinking. There is only one thing I can do."
"Aye." Athalia looked sublimely unconcerned. "Marry him."
Delilah was a very astute young lady despite her tender years, which numbered a mere seventeen; and therefore was aware that Athalia's sentiments regarding Johann were extremely warm. Since it would hardly have been politic to comment that she would liefer ally herself with Lucifer himself than with the tinker, Delilah refrained. "I cannot. You will see why. I have decided, Athalia, that I must confide in you."
Athalia, leaning against the wall, did not look especially gratified. "I won't go against Johann, for all your fine words. Don't be thinking to make me out a flat."
"Athalia!" Delilah, who intended precisely that, opened wide her eyes in what she devoutly hoped was an expression of wounded innocence. "As if I would try and make a, er, flat of someone who has so steadfastly stood my friend. You know that Johann does not truly care for me; he merely wishes to gain a fortune. But I have deceived you all! I have no fortune. It was all a sham."
There was an expression, now, on Athalia's hard features, and the expression was bewilderment. She plopped down on the bunk.
Encouraged, Delilah sniffled. "The worst of it is that I have made trouble for you, for it was you who convinced Johann to take me in. Truly, I am sorry for it, Athalia! I know how angry Johann will be to discover he's been duped. Pray, do not think too badly of me--I was desperate, you see, with my mistress dying, and without a ha'penny to my name. If you had not happened along, I should probably have had to go upon the streets!"
Nor did this speech fail in its intent: Athalia looked, and was, dismayed. "Your mistress?" she echoed. "You said 'twas your mother that we buried."
"I could hardly tell the truth!" Indeed, Delilah had learned during the past few years to tell a very convincing lie. "Perhaps if I start at the beginning you may understand. I was in service to the lady whom you came upon in such grievous difficulties--a sort of companion, you see. Indeed, I was at my wit's end, what with the accident, and no money with which to pay the doctor, and there was no one to whom I could apply. And then the tinkers came, and she expired, and I was in a terrible dilemma because everyone was applying to me for the money that was owed. And so," Delilah blushed bright pink, "I did a terrible thing. I lied."
Athalia hugged herself, as if fending off imaginary blows. Were this tale true, those blows would become all too real, once Johann heard of it. Johann might treat this red-haired miss if as she was made of some precious metal, but others weren't similarly privileged. "You said you were heiress to a fortune. You said Johann would be repaid his money, and much more beside."
"So I did." Delilah raised huge tearful eyes--accomplished by staring unblinking upon Caliban's marbled back for several moments--to Athalia's stricken face. "Lies, all of it. I feared no one would help me if they thought me truly penniless." She wiped her face against her sleeve. "Alas, I am no more than a rank adventuress. I must tell Johann, naturally, but first I had to acquaint you with the truth. Oh, Athalia, you look so angry! I cannot blame you for being angry, for I have behaved abominably--but I beg you will forgive me."
Looking much more inclined toward murder than absolution, Athalia rose from the bunk and in her own turn paced the floor. Caliban opened an eye and snapped lazily at her heels. "Johann mustn't find out. He'd have my head on a platter, and there's no telling what he'd do to you."
Even the intrepid Delilah did not care to ponder that, the weakest spot in her schemes. "Athalia, how can we keep it from him?" she wailed piteously. "He is bound to learn the truth. How much simpler it would be if I could disappear!"
Athalia's thoughts had followed similar lines, to wit, that she wished she'd never seen hair nor hide of this troublesome chit; consequently, Delilah's comment stopped her in mid-stride. "Where would you go?" she inquired. "What would you do? A young lass like yourself going off, alone--it won't do."
This brusque kindness, from so unlikely a source, almost proved Delilah's downfall. Ruthlessly, she squelched her conscience. Athalia might show a passing concern for her welfare, but Athalia would also sell her own grandmother to a brothel-keeper for a handful of coin.
"There is someone I could go to," Delilah said demurely. "If only I could get him word."
"Him?" Athalia regarded the girl, whose cheeks were flushed. "So, leicheen, you have a gentleman friend."
Delilah grew even pinker, an embarrassment prompted not by maidenly modesty, but by the tremendous crammers that issued through her own lips. "I do--or I would, could I but let him know that I've turned agreeable." She fished a letter from the pocket of her shabby skirt. "I've written to tell him so, but there is no way to post this--you know how closely I am watched. If only he knew of my predicament, he would come straightaway to my rescue. But how am I to tell him? All this has put me in the pathetics! Athalia, can you help me?"
Athalia wished nothing more than to wash her hands of a golden goose that could lay her no more than breakfast eggs. "Well--"
"Oh, please!" Delilah did not despair, despite the uphill nature of her work. "You are my last hope! If I do not contrive to remove myself from here, Johann will find me out. He may even think you have known the truth all along, and have pulled the wool over his eyes! He would not like that, I think." That Athalia agreed was obvious. "I will just add a postscript to this letter, and arrange that my friend meet me somewhere. The inn, perhaps? And then I will escape--and you, knowing what time I am to leave, will provide yourself an alibi. That way I will simply disappear, and Johann will never know you had anything to do with it. What do you think?"
What Athalia thought was that she would shortly be fretting her guts to fiddlestrings, and so she remarked. Johann would no longer sit idly twiddling his thumbs while this grand plan was put into effect that a pig could take wing and fly. "And furthermore," she added, "he'd be bound to think I was in it up to my neck if you suddenly disappeared."
"Not," Delilah repeated patiently, as she simultaneously mourned the chickenhearted tendencies of her fellow conspirator and polished off the remainder of her breakfast, which had grown cold, "if you are with him when I do so. Moreover, I shall throw him off the track by pretending to be smitten with him. Perhaps he'll think I've been abducted." Still Athalia looked doubtful. Delilah drew a deep breath. "I realize I ask you to take a risk. You will be repaid."
This promise did not sit well with Athalia, who pointed out irately that Delilah's previous promises of repayment had brought this predicament about. Delilah merely smiled and delved into the bodice of her gown. Suspiciously, Athalia regarded her outstretched hand.
"Take it," said Delilah. "If you help me, it's yours."
Greedily, Athalia contemplated the wedding ring. She was fond of such baubles, as witnessed by her countless necklaces and bracelets, most of which had turned the skin beneath them green. Had not Delilah been such an innocent, Athalia would have had the ring from her without further ado, but it was not Athalia's way to take advantage of damp-eared infants. This was a failing that she frequently had cause to regret, as in the present instance. Were Johann to learn of this conspiracy--avarice warred with prudence, and won.
"I'll just add a couple lines to this letter," Delilah remarked cheerfully. As she did so, Athalia bit the ring. It passed muster, and she slipped it on her finger. Delilah dropped the letter into her hand. "Speed is of the essence," she said solemnly. "And secrecy."
Her decision made, Athalia tucked the letter in her bodice. "Never fret. I'll see this on its way."
"I shall be eternally grateful," Delilah replied humbly. This meekness deserted her immediately Athalia had gone. Quickly, she moved to the window. Athalia set out not toward Johann's wagon, as Delilah had half-feared, but across the field. So far, so good. It remained now to await Sir Nicholas Mannering's response to a dramatic epistle from a daughter he had not seen in five years.