Chapter 4 - "STRANGER"
In the aftermath of the brutal attacks in Penderley Castle, Katy hid inside the stables, adrenalin raced through her veins as she panted heavily from making her escape. She crouched into the corner of an empty stall under a pile of hay, trying to hide as much from the horror of what had just happened as from the people who might be looking for her. After escaping the house, she had watched from afar as three stretchers had been carried out, one of the victims was clearly dead. With the image of the sheet-covered stretcher in her mind, Katy started to panic. Who was dead? Was it Jameson? He’d been so kind to her, it was heart-breaking to think of him laid bleeding on the floor of the attic. She regretted leaving him there like that, but if she’d stayed, Lady Catherine would surely be dead, her husband would have shot her, right there in the bedroom. Had he recovered from the blow on the head, and finished her off? That thought was too cruel to bear, to discover she was her mother and then have her snatched away before having chance to get to know her, was unbearable. Katy didn’t want either of these things to be true, but the third option was unthinkable. If it was Lady Catherine’s brutal husband who was dead, then she, Katy O’Brady, was a murderer. In that moment, she could remember the feeling of the vase smashing in her hands as Lord Penderley instantly collapsed to the floor. Terror gripped her stomach. Was he really dead? Was she a murderer? Katy curled into a tighter ball and sobbed silently into her knees. Hidden in the empty stable, she loathed the disaster she found herself in, she pined for her school years and her home at Ashdowne Manor, with her real mother and the other staff who made up her adopted family. Her heart ached with sorrow. Life was so incredibly unfair.
Later, all sobbed out, Katy wiped her eyes and started to think more clearly. She desperately wanted to go back home to Ashdowne Manor, but sadly she was no longer welcome there.
For now, she just needed to get away from the Castle. Unless Lady Catherine or Jameson was able to recover enough to explain what had happened, no-one else could possibly know the truth, and if anyone found out that she had been present when the attacks happened, they would surely suspect her. No doubt Mrs Carter would be quick to label her an intruder, after all, plenty of people had witnessed the events of the previous night. Of course, she would be a suspect. Conscious that Lady Catherine had told her to hide and had promised to find her, Katy had to face the fact that she might be the one who was dead. With a heavy heart she realised that she couldn’t risk waiting, her only option now was to get away.
The stable lads settled the horses down for the night and locked up, unaware that Katy was hidden from sight. As soon as all was quiet, and everyone had gone, she made her escape. Under cover of darkness she crept away from the Castle, moving through fields and over walls as she went, deliberately keeping off tracks and away from any light. As time passed, the moon rose higher and higher in the night sky, until it was so bright that it illuminated the whole landscape and made it difficult for her to move without being visible. With no idea of direction, she just pushed on for hours, keeping the wind and moon behind her so she didn’t accidentally loop back to the Castle. By the time birdsong marked the approaching dawn, Katy’s legs felt heavy and aching with tiredness. She was desperate to lie down but the night air was too cold to sleep out in the open. The sight of dark farm buildings across the fields offered a promising opportunity to find somewhere to rest her head, even if only for an hour, or so. Digging deep into her energy reserves, she forced herself on and was soon sneaking around the back of an old barn and in through a small back door.
The barn was used for tractor storage and there were farm tools hanging from the walls and stacked around the edges of the floor. A wooden ladder led up to a mezzanine above, a good place to hide. Even if the farmer came in for his tractor it was unlikely he would know anyone was up there. She tiptoed carefully across the barn, climbed the ladder and settled herself down under some old sack-cloth near a back wall. In no time, her tiredness overwhelmed her and she fell into a deep sleep.
The morning sun had still not broken over the horizon when the farmer pulled open the barn doors and set to work hooking a mean looking trailer to the back of one of the tractors. Though she had slept for barely an hour, the rumble of the engine woke Katy. Like the previous morning in the Castle’s attic, the reality of her predicament hit with full force as she wakened and yet again, she found herself hiding from people going about their daily chores. Soon the farmer had pulled the tractor from the barn and closed the doors behind him. Katy breathed a sigh of relief and nestled back down, desperate for more sleep.
Another disturbance pulled her back into consciousness again as the farmer returned the tractor to the barn. Once again, she breathed a sigh of relief as he closed the doors behind him. The morning light was now breaking in through the cracks in the roof and Katy knew she needed to move now or risk being stuck in there all day. She pulled her belongings together and climbed down the ladder, slipping out of the small back door into the cold early morning air. As she turned around the side of the barn an irresistible smell of warm bread wafted from the farmhouse, stirring hunger pains in her stomach. She crept across the farmyard to the back of the house. There was a well in the yard. Suddenly she realised how desperately thirsty she was. Risking being seen from the farmhouse she ran to the well, drew up the bucket as quietly as possible and took a deep drink. The warm bread smell was coming from an open kitchen window nearby. Unable to resist, Katy dashed to the window and after checking the kitchen was empty, reached in and lifted a newly baked bread bun from the counter below. Even the sickening feeling of shame from stealing food could not stop her from hungrily shoving the bread into her mouth. Suddenly, a dog appeared in front of her, staring, heckles raised and threatening to expose her crime. Katy dropped the bread, in shock.
Bending down to recover the bread, she tried to appease the animal.
“Nice doggy” she whispered in a feeble effort to stop it from raising the alarm, but to no avail. Moments later loud barks rang out, Katy tried to make a run for it but each time she moved the dog rounded on her, guarding her like a lost sheep until his owner could take control. And it didn’t take long before a blonde-haired young woman stepped out of the back door, looking curiously at the stranger in her yard.
Looking into her questioning eyes was more than Katy could bear, she had no more fight left in her and she broke down into apologetic sobs, pleading with the young woman not to call the police.
“I’m sorry I stole your bread” she swore, “I was just so hungry. I’ll pay you for it, I promise, somehow, I will. I could work to pay for it, if you’d let me, but please don’t tell the Bobbies, please” she pleaded.
She expected the woman to snatch the bread from her and shout her husband, or even slap her for stealing her food but she didn’t. Instead, she smiled kindly and surprisingly, wrapped a comforting arm around Katy’s shoulders and led her into the house.
“Oh, my dear, you look dreadful. Come on inside, I’m sure we can find something better for you than a dirty bit of bread”.
Her kindness made Katy cry even more.
“Sit yourself down and tell me all about it” she said.
Katy looked at the young woman, she was so kind, there was something comforting about her and it had been a very long time since Katy had felt comforted. Before she knew it, she had reeled into the story of everything that had happened to her, how unfair life had been and how she didn’t know where to go or what to do next. It was a great relief to unburden herself and tell this kindly stranger all of her woes. Tears streamed down Katy’s young cheeks as she recalled her mother and how much she missed her. Throughout, the woman listened intently, without interruption until Katy finally finished her story. Shocked, the woman rose from her chair, crossed the room and stood looking at a wooden crucifix on the wall. After a moment of short contemplation, she returned to her seat.
“Oh, my dear Lord, you poor, poor girl” she patted her knees with purpose “well, you can stop all your worrying, you don’t have to do anything right now. You’ll stay here with us and we’ll see if we can help you get this whole sorry mess sorted out. Wat do you say?”.
Katy ventured a nervous smile and was about to reply when, from upstairs, she heard the sound of a young child crying for her mother.
The young woman headed for the stairs.
“My name is Lizzy” she called back towards Katy, “you settle yourself down. I’ll just go up and fetch Margaret”.
In less than a minute she returned with a young child in her arms. The little girl looked nervously at the stranger on the chair. Katy smiled meekly at her and received a happy, friendly smile in return. Lizzy placed the child on the floor and went to the oven to prepare her breakfast. Katy held out her arms to encourage her, but Margaret just rocked backwards and forwards on the spot. She continued to try to befriend the child.
“Hello, sweety, my name is Katy, what’s your name?”
After a little hesitation, the child replied.
“Do you want to come and sit here with me?” Katy asked.
Margaret smiled but remained seated.
“She’s lame”, Lizzy explained bluntly, as she placed a bowl and cup on the table. She lifted the child onto the chair, “Her legs didn’t grow properly so she can’t walk”.
Katy apologised, then noticing the pale, peaky complexion of the child, asked if she was in pain.
“Not so much, anymore, and there’s no need for apologies, we’re all used to it by now. She doesn’t get out as much as other little one’s but she’s a sweet little darling, it doesn’t seem to bother her at all”.
Katy looked at Margaret’s happy face as she started to eat her porridge and was suddenly overcome with envy. She was reminded of her own childhood and the many happy mornings she spent eating porridge with her own mother at the table in Ashdowne Manor.
“Here you go”
Lizzy laid a place with another bowl of porridge and a steaming cup of tea.
“Thank you” came the grateful reply.
By the time the sun was going down that night, Lizzy’s husband, Harry, had returned from the fields, had been introduced to Katy and had agreed to Lizzy’s plan. It was all decided, she would stay with them and help look after Margaret, as clearly, the child had taken a shine to the girl.
As she climbed into a warm, cosy bed that night, with her stomach full, Katy could hardly believe her luck in finding her way here.
During the days and weeks that followed, Katy fitted in seamlessly with the family’s routine. She soon discovered that Lizzy was expecting another child and how her arrival had been just as much of a Godsend to the family, as to her. Margaret was a delightful child and spent most of her day happily being pushed around on her little wooden tricycle by Katy. When the child was settled, Katy would do the cleaning and the cooking for Lizzy. Her experience at Ashdowne House proved to be very useful and she soon became an invaluable member of the household. Lizzy made some subtle enquiries to try to find out what had become of the three victims at Pemberley Castle and it was with some sadness that she sat Katy down one evening, to inform her that it was Lady Catherine who had sadly passed away. Katy was shocked!
Worried that Lizzy and Harry might think she had lied about her role in the tragedy, she tried to reassure them.
“But she was alive when I left her, I promise. She was beaten but she was alive and talking.”
Lizzy repeated what she had been told, that Lady Catherine and Jameson had apparently been shot by an armed robber. Katy was horrified, convinced that Lord Pemberley must have been only momentarily knocked out and having recovered, continued his attack and shot his wife.
Katy was inconsolable after hearing the news, grieving for a mother she had met for just one fleeting moment. Lizzy felt so sorry for the poor girl, she’d had two mothers in her young life and had lost both of them within days of each other.
Katy couldn’t settle that night, crying out each time she awoke from fitful sleep and nightmares, repeating that Lady Catherine had been alive when she left, and it must have been her husband who killed her. The next morning, wondering whether to tell the police what she knew, she asked Lizzy’s advice.
“Probably not a good idea”, she replied, “who knows what Mrs Carter had told them”.
For a moment, a knot of fear gripped Katy’s stomach. Lizzy spotted the worry in her eyes and smiled reassuringly.
“Don’t you worry, we know you didn’t do it and that’s all that matters”, then offering a welcome hug she added “Now stop worrying, no one is going to be looking for armed robbers here, are they? You’re safe with us, grieve if you need to but put the past behind you and leave it there” she ordered.
Katy wiped her tears away, picked up Margaret and hugged her. She looked across at Lizzy. Other than her mother, she trusted Lizzy more than she had ever trusted anyone in her life. And if Lizzy said it was all going to be fine, then she was sure it would be. She was blessed the day she ended up here, she would put the past behind her, she had a new life now and there was nothing to go back to. She hoped she could stay here, like this, forever.
As Margaret grew, Katy watched the way she developed and moved. Her back was strong, her arms and thighs, too. Her problem was only from the knees down. One morning, she asked Lizzy if there were any riding schools in the area, she had an idea that she might take Margaret riding. Lizzy knew all about Katy’s childhood on horseback, and though unsure at first, she was soon reassured that her daughter would be safe and how beneficial it would be for her to meet other children and have a more normal childhood. Harry took no convincing, he thought it was a wonderful idea. A few days later, the family took a trip to a nearby riding school and Lizzy and Harry watched nervously as Katy lifted Margaret onto a small pony then climbed on behind her. On horseback, Margaret wasn’t restricted by her disability and she squealed with excitement and fun. The family were delighted. Katy was overjoyed to be back on a horse and soon riding became a regular activity. The fresh air was doing wonders for Margaret’s health and she was looking stronger and more confident every week.
Since the arrival of Lizzy’s new baby boy, Margaret had become even more reliant on Katy. Harry wanted to make sure his daughter didn’t feel pushed aside so surprised everyone one day when he suggested buying her a pony. The idea was met with sheer delight, Katy promised to look after it and take Margaret riding every day. One of the barns was freed up to prepare as a stable and they were all waiting in the yard a few days later when Harry arrived home with Blossom.
It wasn’t long before the family sadly realised that baby Peter had the same disability as his sister. At first, Lizzy and Harry were distraught, knowing how their daughter’s life had been hindered. They feared for their baby son and how he would fend for himself when he grew up. Katy reminded them of how happy Margaret was and reassured them that Peter would be no worse off. She promised to teach him to ride as soon as he was able. Harry gripped his wife’s hand, thankfully.
“Thank God for Katy and Blossom, eh?”
Over the next few years, the family settled into a cheerful routine. Katy was as happy as she had been in her whole life. Life was good. Harry and Lizzy were really generous and kind, and she adored little Margaret and Peter. If this was how it was going to be for the rest of her life, she’d have no complaints.
The farm was doing really well and there was plenty of food on the table. One evening, as they finished their evening meal, Katy stood to clear the table.
“Sit down a moment, would you Katy, I’ve been needing to have a serious chat with you for a while”.
Katy sat down slowly and nervously. Lizzy stood to clear the table instead.
“You too, Lizzy”. Lizzy sat back down.
Katy felt her stomach knot, fearing the worst. Was he was going to ask her to leave?
But she had nothing to fear. Harry began to explain a plan he had in mind. Quite a few people had mentioned how well the children were doing with their riding since Margaret had been taking part in a couple of gymkhanas. He’d been approached by a man who wanted to know if he could bring his disabled Grandson along for lessons. That had set him thinking. Maybe they could open their own riding school for the disabled. Harry wanted to know what Katy and Lizzy thought of his idea. It would mean investing money from the farm and Katy would be busier, so that would put pressure on Lizzy in the home. Katy was very excited by the idea but then a concern crept in. Harry saw the concern in her eyes and asked what her thoughts were.
“I’m just a bit worried about Blossom and if it might be a bit much for her” she ventured.
“Oh no, love, it won’t all be on Blossom’s shoulders. I thought we’d need to buy a couple of new ponies. Do you think you could cope? If not, I can always look at the idea of taking on a young lad to help out”.
Lizzy leapt to her feet, clapping her hands excitedly.
“Harry, that’s the most wonderful idea. Oh Katy, please say yes”.
Katy could hardly believe it. She smiled, reached over the table and hugged Harry before jumping to her feet with Lizzy.
“Yes, yes, yes. I’ll make it work, Harry, I promise. I will work so hard, you won’t need anyone else. And I’ll still do my work in the house.”
Harry went to the cupboard and pulled out a bottle of wine.
“I’ve been saving this for a special occasion. I think this is just the occasion” he said, turning a corkscrew into the top of the bottle.
Just a few months later, Katy sat before her dressing table one morning and tied her long red curls into a pony tail on top of her head. She lifted a dainty locket from an old jewellery case and fastened it around her neck. Today was going to be a special day, the new ponies were arriving. She stood up, straightened her skirt and pulled her jacket over her shoulders. Her reflection looked back at her. “Quite the respectable business woman” she smiled to herself.
“Hurry up, they’re here”, Lizzy called from downstairs.
Katy ran down the stairs and through the kitchen, ruffling the childrens’ hair cheekily as she passed them.
Out in the yard the sun was shining brightly when the new ponies arrived. Harry stepped forward with an outstretched hand to greet the seller.
“Good morning, Mr Cleary. Welcome” he said.
“Top of the morning to you” he replied.
Katy also extended a welcoming hand to the man leading the horses. His bright blue eyes widened as looked up at her. For a moment he hesitated, taken aback. Harry smiled, not surprised in the least that any man would be silenced by the beauty young Katy was turning into.
“This, here, is Katy O’Brady, Riding School Instructor and Manager”.
Katy felt pride rise in her as she took in the title, ‘Instructor and Manager!’.
Thomas Cleary was stunned. He slowly offered his hand in formal greeting but continued to stare at Katy and down at her locket. She took his hand, surprised and somewhat confused by his reaction. Harry saw her response. He leaned across and whispered into her ear.
“Get used to it, my girl, you are turning into a very beautiful young lady, he won’t be the last to be dazzled by you”.
Katy smiled, shyly.
“That’s a very fine-looking locket you have on your neck, there” the Irishman said, curiously, “was it a gift from someone special?”.
Shocked by his boldness, she withdrew, covering the necklace with her hand, “It’s just a locket”.
Katy immediately turned her attention to the ponies, patting their faces and running her hand over them as she inspected them.
“They’re fine ponies” she finally declared, leading them away towards the barn. Harry interrupted Thomas’ stare, leading him towards the kitchen door.
“Well then, Sir, if you’d like to step into the house we will sort out the paperwork. Can I interest you in a beer or two?” he asked.
The Irishman watched Katy as she walked away with the ponies. There was something about the girl that reminded him of his youth, and that locket, he was sure he had seen it before.
He followed Harry into the house.
“Just the one then, thanks, I can’t be late for my next appointment. I have a couple of foals to deliver to Penderley Castle”
“Penderley?” asked Harry, “I’m surprised they’re still buying foals after everything that’s happened there”
“Oh aye, ‘tis true, but His Lordship just wanted to get back to normal and Her Ladyship doesn’t like being made to wait, if she’s expecting you at 4, you need to be there at 4”.
Harry stopped in his tracks.
“Her Ladyship? Has his Lordship remarried?”
“Years ago, after his first wife died, yes”, he replied “but he’s been married to Lady Catherine for a long time now”
“Lady Catherine? But I thought she’d been killed, as well” he queried.
“Oh you mean the robbery”, he replied, suddenly deep in thought, “Yes, she very nearly was killed, but thankfully, she recovered. It was the butler, Jameson, who died”, he explained.
Katy had just stepped back into the house as he said the words. The shocked expression on her face spoke volumes. In an instant, Thomas Cleary recognised the likeness, and the locket.
He looked at Harry curiously.
“Katy O’Brady, you say? Not Katy Penderley?”
Katy froze. The knot was back in her stomach with a vengeance.
She was happy here. She couldn’t lose it all now.