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Mistress of My Fate: Book One of The Confessions of Henrietta Lightfoot

Chapter 1

5th March 1835

My dear reader, how pleased I am that you have purchased this volume! It warms my heart that you have requested it from your bookseller; that he has wrapped it carefully in brown paper and string and handed it to you. How happy I am that you have taken it home with you to read in the quiet of your sitting room or library. Now you may know the truth, and nothing gives me greater relief than this.

I have no doubt that many of you have come to this work out of curiosity. You have heard so much about me, most of which is pure fabrication. Now that you have torn off the packaging and cut the pages, you can begin to read my story and to know who I am. You see, for some time a relation of mine has been attempting to discredit me in the most reprehensible manner. I have no doubt that he too sent a servant to his local bookseller to collect a copy of this work. As you read this, so does he. His eyes are scanning every word, searching every syllable. He is among you, taking in my story alongside you.

To him I say, Lord Dennington, do not think I have written these memoirs because of you. Do not flatter yourself. You are only part of the reason. There is much I need to say on the matter of my life and I have grown weary of your slander. Whomever you have hired to do your disgraceful deeds, whether it is those shameless scribes who will print anything for a crust of bread, or that unscrupulous little spy you planted among my loyal staff, they are not capable of telling the truth. You pay them and so they will say anything. Certainly, a man who has seen as much of the world as you should know this.

Now it is my turn to pick up my pen, to clear my name, to scrub away the lies with which you have stained it. I must commend you for the amusement you have provided for me and my friends. We laughed heartily at your accusations—that I had been a circus performer, that I worked as a charlatan attempting to revive the dead and, worse still, that I murdered a ship of sailors. Really, this is quite absurd.

No, sir, as you will come to realize, these memoirs are not written solely because of you. I write because it is time for the public to hear my story, because for as long as I have been called Mrs. Lightfoot, great men and women have asked for it. The world wants my confession yet, until this moment, I refused to honour that request. I wished to keep my life and my adventures quiet. Like you, my lord, discretion was one of the virtues I was taught as a child.

As for my other readers, whose sensibilities I wish to protect, I feel the need to issue a warning. In these pages I set out to tell the absolute truth. If you take offence easily, if you are faint of heart or of a delicate nature, there is much here that you are likely to find objectionable. It is necessary for you to understand why I have, in the past, refused to discuss these private matters. My story is not an easy one to relay, nor is it likely to be short.

I shall begin by telling you what I remember most vividly: an early morning in late October. I was but seventeen and so unprepared for the world that I hardly knew how to dress myself, let alone judge character or transact the business of ordinary life. I sat on the floor of my bedchamber in the darkness, entirely unaware of the hour. There was no fire in my grate, nor would there be anyone coming to light it. I shivered, from both the cold and a complete terror of that which I knew I must do.

For most of the night I had sobbed. I had lain outstretched on the floor, like a condemned prisoner, unable to move or think, able only to ache. My life as I had known it was now about to end. But, as any good Christian will tell you, with death there also comes resurrection and the possibility of a better existence elsewhere. I knew this in my heart, and that rebirth was the sole path open to me. I had only to muster the courage to grab for it and, in doing so, let go of all that tied me to the girl I had been.

So I did this, while the moon threw its dim cast across my windowsill. I worked without so much as a candle to guide me, rummaging through the most essential of my belongings: linens, stockings, skirts, a petticoat and, most importantly, the few small items of value that I as a young lady owned. Of all a woman’s possessions, jewels will get her the furthest and mine, on several occasions, have saved me from experiencing the grossest of depredations. At the time, I had but two trinkets: a gold and pearl cross, which I always wore upon my person; and a pair of simple pearl eardrops. I was too young for diamonds. Those are for married women, and in any case, owing to my precarious position within their family, Lord and Lady Stavourley saw no need to adorn me so lavishly.

I wrapped my bundle as a servant would, in a sheet. I had never before carried my own belongings and I did not even know how to tie them up securely. However, I found that soft packet offered me some comfort as I clutched it to my breast. It calmed my trembling.

I dressed for the road, but not without some struggle, sliding on my sturdiest shoes and fumbling with the buttons of my grey riding habit. Around my shoulders I threw my blue cape, the hood of which rested atop my black hat. I hoped to look respectable for my journey without drawing attention to myself. In truth, I knew that most people would be able to guess my circumstances. It is not usual to see a well-dressed young lady with spotless white gloves and a quivering expression travelling unchaperoned.

It was not until after I had attired myself and gathered my belongings that my mind, like a lamp, flickered out. My lungs and heart and legs took over. My breathing was so harsh that I feared all of Melmouth could hear my gasps as I carefully navigated the treacherous steps of the back stairs. The chill within the stony walls turned my breath to steam. I was like an animal, clambering through the darkness. I stole through the narrow corridor near the kitchens, passing by the doors of servants, still sunk deeply into their warm straw mattresses. In an hour, the first light of morning would wake them and, with so many pairs of eyes on guard, my flight would have been impossible. You must understand that, by then, they hated me. They would have set upon me like a pack of slavering dogs.

Aware of this, I picked my way carefully along the row of doors. To my ear, the gentle clack of my heels reverberated like cannon fire. How I wished to bolt when I saw that window above the entryway, illuminating the porthole to my release! Instead, I continued to creep nearer and nearer, until my hands rested on the entry door. At last, with a firm push, I passed out of one life and into the next.

I can understand why infants scream when they come into our world. The strain of birth is enormous. The cold that greets them foretells what awaits them in life. It is as if they know from their very first breath that the warmth of the womb and all of its comforts have been lost for ever.

When I stepped over the threshold of Melmouth House and into the sprawl of parkland, I bawled as if my heart would break. The sobs came with such force that I feared they would echo through the park and wake the entire household. I had to stop my mouth with my fist. As I ran, scrambling, tripping across the frost-crusted grass, I howled, unable to contain my anguish. I have never known such heart-tearing pain as I did that morning, when I cut the cord that held me to my only true parent.

My legs knew where they carried me: to the perimeter wall. I would not risk passing the gatehouses, or scaling the heights to my freedom. There was one break, filled in loosely with stones, where an old door had been. Poachers were known to slip through it, their sacks dripping with Lord Stavourley’s grouse and rabbits. I had seen the spot several months earlier, but finding it in the dark was to prove difficult.

I tumbled through the park, startling sleepy deer, dislodging bats and rousing a variety of creatures that squealed and scampered off at my approach. I tore through the copse with an urgency that they alone might have understood. Although I knew every path and trail, every pool and corner of Melmouth, I was not so familiar with it while it lay beneath the curtain of night. With my eyes ablaze with tears, I travelled in a state of near blindness, sinking in mud to my shins, my cape hemmed with filth and fallen leaves, my stockings already sodden and stained beyond laundering. It took some scrambling for me to find the precise point in the wall. By then the sky was softening into the deep blue of dawn. I pushed and kicked with all my might. Eventually, three of the stones fell away and I was able to squeeze myself, mouse-like, through the opening.

I emerged upon the road to Norwich and stood there, blinking into the stillness. I had no way of knowing which direction I should turn. I cannot say whether it was fortune or instinct that led me, but the route I chose was the correct one. Although I had given up running, my pace remained steady and brisk. My heart continued to thump like a battalion’s drummer. It was nearly three miles to the White Hart Inn, where the mail coach called. I had not an inkling when it arrived, but knew I had to try my luck.

Ah, was that a sigh of relief I heard from you? You think I have made a successful escape? Let me remind you, my friends, before you become certain that the worst was behind me, that any obstacle might have thwarted my progress. I might have been discovered by the steward or his men; I might have met with an accident. By mid-morning my absence would have been discovered and the entire house would have been thrown into turmoil. I realize now that I must have caused Lord Stavourley a great deal of anguish. The images that entered his mind would have been dreadful. I am certain he thought I had taken my own life, that his men were likely to find me at the bottom of the lake or hanging from a tree in the park. For this, I am truly sorry.

The possibility that I would be found out and marched back to Melmouth was ever present. I had no idea what I might find on my arrival at the inn, or how long I might have to wait for my transportation. I knew only that the longer I remained in one place, the more likely I was to be found. Until I boarded the coach, there would also be the possibility I would lose my nerve. At any time, the same legs that had carried me from Melmouth in a thoughtless panic might suddenly decide to turn me around and take me home. I do sometimes marvel that I had the courage to continue onward to the White Hart through the empty, half-lit woods.

Although my childhood had been a sheltered one, I had been fortunate enough to have seen some of the scenery beyond Melmouth’s walls. On the occasions I had been taken to London or to Bath, or to visit Lady Stavourley’s relations, our coach had set out upon the road on which I presently walked. As a girl, the sign of the White Hart had impressed me greatly. A large picture of a downy-coloured creature bearing a wide rack of antlers swung above the road. I had spent many journeys imagining what it would be like to tame and ride such a splendid animal. In my daydreams I would approach him with soft, beckoning words. He would bend his head and permit me to stroke his coat and to tie red silk ribbons on to his antlers.

As I came round the final bend in the road, the buck on the inn’s signboard roused my tears. My mind swirled with memories and confusion. I wept for myself, for the innocent girl whom I would never see again.

As it was mid-morning by the time I arrived, the White Hart bustled with activity. Its yard clattered with the sound of beasts and wheels. Outside, chickens clucked and pecked, scattering at the approach of each pair of boots or wooden clogs. I saw no evidence of the mail coach or any indication of when it might arrive. My mind was a complete muddle. What was I to do? It was only then that I realized how little I knew about my proposed method of escape. I did not even know how much a fare would cost me, or if there was a direct route to my destination.

I held back from this hive of activity, attempting to gather my wits. I paced this way and that like a stray dog, and stanched my streaming nose and eyes against my sleeve.

You must understand, it all seemed desperately overwhelming. The tavern itself terrified me. I had never been alone in such a place. Even in daylight, these establishments could be loud and rough, filled with mud and men in heavy boots, raucous shouts and lewd behaviour. In the past, when I had travelled with Lord or Lady Stavourley, a private room upstairs would always be taken, so that our sensibilities would not be offended. Now, without a protector, without a footman or a servant, what would I do in such a place? I wished more than anything to avoid going inside, but my feet were so sore from the road and the damp had seeped through my skirts and given me a terrible chill. I looked longingly at the warm light of the fire through dusty, beveled windows. Eventually, I steadied my nerve and approached the entry.

Inside, the dark taproom with its low ceiling seemed less threatening than I had predicted. Its patrons sat contentedly around the hearths murmuring to each other, sucking on pipes and mugs of stout. Each pair of eyes was raised as I slipped through the door. I kept my hood over my head and lowered my gaze. I am not certain which posed a greater danger to me at the time: that I should be accosted by some malevolent stranger or that I should be recognized by a well-intentioned acquaintance.

Like a skulking thief, I took myself to the furthest corner. It did not matter to me that it was beyond the cast of the fire. I wished only to remain hidden from view as I rested my throbbing feet. My large left  toe and heel were beginning to blister. The state of my skirts, crusted with mud, was nothing short of disgraceful.

I ordered some small beer from the pot-boy in his leather apron, and consumed it so greedily that he stared in disbelief. I doubt he had ever seen a young lady choke down her drink. He refilled my tankard and brought me some bread, which I tore into like a beggar. This meager meal cost me a penny ha’penny. It was frightening to me how quickly money could be spent. I had only a few coins in my purse, which was all the means I possessed in the world.

Until that moment, I had never before considered the cost of ordinary items. All my earthly needs had always been seen to. There was never any question of expense. I had not imagined that small beer would cost me a ha’penny and a loaf, double that amount. As I fingered my remaining coins, I worried that I might not have enough to complete my journey. My fare would cost a sum, as would any meals. My heart began to pick up pace again. I felt the tiny pearl cross around my neck and thought about the other trinkets in my bundle. What were they worth? One question led to another and, once more, I began to quiver with anxiety.

I had in total £6 2s. 9d. It was not an inconsiderable sum. Of course, I only discovered this by laying out each of the coins and counting them several times. Imagine that! I can scarcely believe my own stupidity. I am only grateful that country folk are an honest sort. In London or

Paris or Rome, I might have been wrestled to the ground and divested of my entire life’s savings. Where would that have left me, I wonder.

It seemed an eternity before the arrival of the mail coach was announced. At the sound of the coach horn my stomach and heart lurched. I sprang to my feet. This was to be it, the chariot that would spirit me away.

“To Cambridge and all stops to London,” cried the innkeeper through his taproom. Just then, the thunder and rattle of the charging team with its heavy wagon shook the walls as it pulled to a halt.

I walked briskly to the yard, where the lumbering black-and-red-painted carriage sat, burdened with boxes and human cargo. Inside the compartment, a woman and two neat but plainly dressed men peered at me through the windows. When I saw that I was to be the sole passenger joining at the White Hart, I grew quite uneasy and crept awkwardly around the horses. The guard, who had jumped from his box atop the carriage, held his watch in one hand while bellowing commands to the inn’s staff. They scurried around him with buckets and tankards, sacks and harnesses. He looked at me sternly and I cowered.

“Please, sir,” I whispered meekly, “I am for Gloucestershire. What is the fare?”

“Gloucestershire? Gloucestershire?” he boomed. “Miss, this coach will take you as far west as Royston and then, at the Bull Inn, you must board a stage for points beyond.”

I stared at him, as if struck dumb.

“The fare for Royston is five pounds and three shillings,” said he, reaching for the ledger in his waistcoat pocket. Like a simpleton, I held out my purse to him. He must have thought me an idiot. In truth, I was little more capable than one. He took £5 3s. 2d. from me, smiling as he did it. I may have been a blockhead, but he was a rogue!

Hugging my bundle to me, I mounted the step into the sprung carriage. One of the gentlemen inside offered his assistance by tugging my hand. I was hardly seated for more than a moment in the close, boxlike compartment when the coach jerked forward and began its hurried progress.

I knew I would begin to weep if I looked through the back window. I resisted the urge at first, and then, as foolishly as Lot’s wife, I turned my gaze over my shoulder. In the wake of our departure, the sign of the White Hart rocked back and forth, its sleek stag waving to me in a final salute. I pursed my face tightly and forced back the tears. The cabin in which we travelled was exceptionally snug and I had convinced myself that sobbing before this audience would only have drawn attention to my plight. In truth, it was folly of me to think I might escape inspection in such an enclosed space. I was no better than a jarred specimen, and as soon as I had assumed my seat, I felt the questioning eyes of my fellow passengers upon me. You see, everything about my person looked most suspicious.

Although it is no longer the case in the current age, there once was a time when there were only two reasons why a politely attired young lady would be travelling unaccompanied and in an obvious state of distress. The first of these was that she was a lady’s maid who had run off, perhaps with some of her mistress’s possessions. The second was that she was a girl of a good family who had eloped on a promise of marriage. I could tell from the curious looks of those surrounding me that they were deciding in which category I belonged. In truth, I belonged in neither and my circumstances were beyond any that those in the rattling coach could imagine.

I had not prepared myself to be the subject of such scrutiny, nor was I in a fit state to contend with enquiries or even idle conversation. Ashamed of my bedraggled appearance, I wished for nothing more than to make my passage in silence. I therefore kept my head down and my frightened features hidden beneath the shade of my hat. As you might imagine, my unwillingness to engage with any of those within the cabin only excited their interest further. This held especially true for the smirking lady sitting directly opposite me. I could tell from the manner in which she craned her neck and peered beneath the brim of my hat that she was determined to have my story from me. She would prise me open like an oyster. I would not meet her gaze, but this did not deter her. Her dark eyes fixed on me, glowing like two pieces of jet beneath her enormous, beribboned hat. For some time, she attempted to draw my notice, fidgeting, dropping her embroidery and harrumphing in great, proud breaths. Unable to bear it any longer, she finally exclaimed, “My, how bad the road is! I do not recall it being so full of

rocks and potholes, do you not agree, miss?”

I looked up, surprised by her address.

“La, but it is not as bad as the stagecoach . . .” she continued, directing her comments to her husband, who slumbered beside her. “No, the stage is not for those who value manners.”

Oh, this woman was a clever one. She knew precisely how to heighten my sense of alarm; after all, I was to board the stage for the next leg of my journey.

“Please, madam,” I said timorously, “why is this so? I am to join the stage at Royston.”

“My dear miss, I take it that you have not before travelled upon the stage?” she asked, arching an eyebrow and leaning towards me the better to examine my features. I turned from her quickly but her eyes clung to me like burrs.

“No, I have not.”

“Do avoid it if you can. Find some other means of travelling to your destination. If it is possible, hire a post chaise. The stage is filled with none but ruffians and thieves. The coachman will almost certainly be drunk. You are sure to be robbed or to have your pocket picked.”

“Oh,” I uttered, a look of dread overcoming my expression. The threat of yet more danger seemed almost too much to bear. I felt my throat tighten.

Until that moment the gentleman sitting beside my interrogator had been entirely engrossed in a book, and had seemed the least curious among the passengers. But he must have sensed my discomfort, for now he too was staring at my wide-eyed face.

“Poppycock,” he stated firmly. “It is true, the mail provides a better service, but you are as likely to meet with ruffians in this coach as you are upon the stage.”

He then looked at me. “I take it that your friends will protect you from such dangers, miss.”

I knew not how to respond to this.

The gentleman placed his book upon his lap and looked at me sternly. “You do not mean to tell us, miss, that you travel unaccompanied?”

It was the one question the entire cabin had wished to ask me from the outset. All eyes were upon me, even those of my interrogator’s sleepy husband.

What a child I was! In all of that time, as I had walked the route to the White Hart, as I had waited for the arrival of the coach, as I had sat bouncing against its leather seat, it had never occurred to me to concoct a plausible story to explain my position. I was not, nor have I ever been, a natural liar.

“No . . .” I stuttered, “I am to meet a friend . . . of my family . . .”

“At Royston?” enquired the woman opposite.

“In Gloucestershire.”

“And Gloucestershire is your destination?” asked the bookish gentleman.

A knowing smile began to creep across my female interrogator’s mouth. “How curious that you should be all alone, that your friends should send you off on such a journey unaccompanied. And what of your family?”

“I have none.” I spoke boldly. That was the truth, in part.

“And so you are very much alone in the world,” said the gentleman, with a softness in his tone.

“I am, sir.”

Neither could formulate a satisfactory response to that.

“Well then,” began the gentleman, “I shall see to it that you arrive safely at Royston and that you are not troubled by ruffians and pickpockets along the way. My name is Fortune,” said he, holding out his hand for me to shake it.

I must say that I was relieved, however temporarily, to have the protection of Mr. Fortune, who appeared to me an honest, sensible man. Close in age to Lord Stavourley, he was a solicitor to some families in Norfolk and was en route to London to attend to business on their behalf. Although he resumed reading his copy of Tristram Shandy and      said little more to me, there seemed something avuncular in his manner. Every so often he looked up from his book and gave me a genteel nod.

The journey by mail coach was swift and Cambridge seemed not as far as I had believed. Comforted by my new friend’s presence, I occupied myself with a view of the East Anglian landscape and watched the Gothic tops of the colleges rising from the flat, marshy horizon. Our pace began to slacken as we drew nearer and joined with an eddying flow of freight, cattle and carts, steadily pushing their way through the network of narrow cobbled streets. Eventually we came to a stop under the sign of the Eagle Inn. Here, my fashionably adorned inquisitor and her husband disembarked. Before she flounced from the vehicle, she permitted herself a last lingering look at me. “I shan’t tell your secret, Miss Runaway,” she leaned in and whispered, her face aglow with furtive pleasure. I recoiled, ashamed that I should have been the cause of such entertainment and speculation. To her I must have seemed like a character from a romantic novel, though I felt anything but that.

As the mail was running to a timetable, we had only a brief spell at the Eagle, enough time to change horses and gather a further sack of post. I had believed that my protector, Mr. Fortune, and I would be the only two in the carriage, until the final moments before departure when a boisterous party of young men clambered aboard. There were three in total and they heaved themselves on to the seats with laughter and groans. They smelled powerfully of drink, and I dare say that it took them hardly the blink of an eye to notice my presence. The door was slammed shut on the tightly packed compartment. Three foxes could not have felt more at home in a hen house.

I did not venture raising my eyes to them. As they were in high spirits, I wished more than anything not to draw their attention. However, I soon found that to be unavoidable.

“Good day, miss,” said the young man next to me with an exaggerated, unsteady motion. “I am Thomas Masham, and these are my friends. I shall not trouble you with their names.” The cabin erupted into laughter.

“And whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?” he continued.

I spoke quietly: “I am Miss Ingerton.”

“How do you do, miss?”

“Please, sir, I am not well and do not care much for conversation at present,” I replied, shrinking away from him.

“Perhaps you would like a drink to ease you,” said the fattest of the three, offering me a flask he had stowed in his coat pocket.

“No, thank you, sir.” My audience was disappointed that I would not engage with them.

“You claim to be unwell, miss, but how could that be so when you have such a healthy blush upon your cheek. Your face is so round and pretty and your eyes so bright. I would say you are in fine health,” teased Thomas Masham.

I looked away.

“Or perhaps it is my presence that makes you blush . . .”

His friends chuckled once more.

“I do think she is in love, Tom!” declared the auburn-haired gentleman across from me.

“Ah, Dick,” he sighed theatrically, “I fear the longer I sit beside Miss Ingerton the more attached to her I become. Madam, I have no doubt that by the time we arrive in London you will have agreed to be my wife, or else offer to perform the services of one.”

“That, sir, is quite enough!” barked Mr. Fortune, springing to my rescue.

The young men reacted sharply. Tom bowed his head. “My apologies to you, sir, I did not think that she was—”

“No, sir, you did not think at all and you have greatly offended Miss Ingerton.”

“My apologies to you, madam,” said my assailant, “for my baseness.” He then locked his gaze on me in a hot, predatory manner. “You see, Miss Ingerton, I am very much in drink, and am no better than a beast. My passions have been raised and I mean to slake them in London.”

He finished his sentence with a loud belch.

“Sir!” exclaimed Mr. Fortune, before pulling down the window. “Guard!” he called out. “Stop the coach at once!”

The galloping horses were immediately reined in and the flying vehicle pulled to a halt. Mr. Fortune shouted from the window, “There is a gentleman here unfit to ride inside and I beg you to take him on top with you. He is in need of air.” With that, the odious Thomas Masham was ushered on to the roof to sit alongside the guard and his sobering blunderbuss.

With their ringleader removed, Tom Masham’s fellows held their tongues and stared at their shoes. Pleased to have played the role of a knight errant, Mr. Fortune sat erect and smug the rest of the way to Royston. I was truly grateful for his assistance, but the reassurance I had felt in his company would be temporary. From the moment I stepped out of the coach, I would be left open to all sorts of approaches and possible indignities. I began to fret about what I might find upon the stagecoach and the difficult characters I might encounter.

The day was now disappearing. Along the final stretch of road the sun had faded into deep, rich shadows. I had not progressed as far as I had naively hoped and night would bring a further round of difficulties and pitfalls. Mr. Fortune must have noticed my worried expression as I caught my first sight of the sign of the Bull. The coach pulled through the arch and into the inn yard but I could only look at the light-filled windows with trepidation.

“Royston!” announced the guard. I could not move. Something held me back. Perhaps it was the thought of entering yet another tavern alone, or the dizzying realization that, beyond this point, I had no further instructions. I did not know which stage to take or when it would arrive. I might have to spend the night here, amidst the noise and fray and the strangers sodden in drink.

 “Oh . . .” I spoke to myself, clutching my bundle, tears welling in my eyes.

“Miss Ingerton, this is Royston. You are due to disembark,” said Mr. Fortune, stepping out of the coach to assist me. “But your face, it is entirely white!” he exclaimed with genuine concern, taking my hand. “No. No. This will not do,” and with that, Mr. Fortune ordered his box to be taken off the carriage. “I cannot leave you here in such a condition.”

I regarded him with gratitude.

As he escorted me away, I could hear Tom Masham muttering something rude to his associates about my protector. I was pleased I could not make out his precise words, though it might have served me well to listen.

The relief I felt at hearing their vehicle depart was great, nearly as great as my reassurance at being offered Mr. Fortune’s arm.

Oh reader, I know what you are thinking. You are wondering how I could possibly have entered an inn at night with an unknown gentleman. Yes, here too I must pause and marvel at my youthful innocence. I am also reminded of that saying: that one goes out of the frying pan and into the fire. Did I not think myself in some danger? To be truthful, I suppose the possibility of danger did briefly fly through my feather head, but Mr. Fortune seemed to be such an honourable, Christian man. He was genteel and sensible. He seemed no different from any other gentleman I had ever known while living at Melmouth. (You, Lord Dennington, I discount.)

Mr. Fortune was a paragon of chivalry. He immediately ordered me a set of rooms where I could dine in private and later sleep undisturbed. He made all the necessary arrangements for my journey on the stage to Oxford the following day. He ordered that a roaring fire be lit in the hearths of both rooms. “I would not have you take ill from the cold,” he said to me with a kind look. I watched as the wood was piled into the fireplace, Mr. Fortune tipping the boy for each additional log he laid on to the growing pyre. By the time I sat down to dine the room was radiant with heat. It was then that my gallant protector made a motion to leave, claiming that he would take his meal downstairs in the public room.

“Oh, but you must join me here,” I said innocently to him, and to his credit, he offered several false protests before taking a seat at my table.

We dined well. In fact, I had not eaten so richly in days, perhaps weeks. He ordered the finest fare that the Bull’s kitchens could provide: quails with plum sauce, soused hare, roast capon, suet pudding, fritters and syllabub. Mr. Fortune was a convivial man, who seemed most at home behind a plate heaped with food. The more wine he drank, the ruddier his cheeks glowed. His conversation, which revolved around London gossip and the races at Newmarket, was so entertaining that he succeeded in making me forget for a short while the pain that weighted down my heart. I was so charmed by his good company and manners that I was entirely unprepared for what transpired next.

It had grown late and the large meal, wine and heated surroundings had caused me to become sleepy. I expressed my wish to retire, whereupon Mr. Fortune rose to his feet and graciously assisted me from my chair. I was not yet standing upright when I was grabbed fiercely, spun around and pinned to his chest. I screamed and struggled. “Release me!” I demanded.

Retaining his hold on my wrist, he glared at me, panting. “Whatever do you mean by this?” he snapped, obviously confused. “You have accepted my hospitality, even encouraged my advances, and yet you refuse me?”

“No, sir, I did not mean . . .”

“What, madam? You travel alone and have no protector. What would you have me think? You are an innocent miss?” he leered. Then his eyes hardened on me. “Now you may give up this game and we shall get on with the deed.”

I shook my head furiously in utter disbelief. The shock of his sudden transformation bewildered me. I was speechless at his suggestion and terrified of what he might try. I began to panic. Twisting with all my might, I managed to pull free from his grasp and tear through the doorway into the adjoining room. How grateful I was for the bolt upon the door! It does not bear imagining what would have happened had there not been one. So many poor wretches have seen their ruin in such rooms, all on account of an innkeeper who would not pay the extra expense for a small bar of metal.

Dear Mr. Fortune. The man who had once been my saviour and my only friend was now my persecutor. He pounded upon the door, demanding that I open it at once. Inside the Bull’s most costly bedchamber, I trembled. The door bounced on its hinges with each angry impact of his fists. Frightened that it might not hold against his battery, I dragged a tallboy with all my might until it rested against the entryway. Mr. Fortune continued to hammer away, determined to claim his prize.

I backed myself towards the canopied bed and sat frozen upon it. This had been but my first day from Melmouth. What else might I have to endure? I lived on the faintest hope of what I might find when I arrived in Gloucestershire. But at that very moment I had nothing; no family, no home, no love, no prospects, not even a protector. The bleakness of my situation broke over me like a wave and I collapsed under it in a torrent of miserable sobs.

Mistress of My Fate: Book One of The Confessions of Henrietta Lightfoot
by by Hallie Rubenhold