Read Moreton's Kingdom Online

Authors: Jean S. MacLeod

Moreton's Kingdom (3 page)

‘Any colour. Most of them will be brown with white patches on their sides.’

At the next junction she left the trunk road and a grey car turned with her. The same grey car which had followed her into the motorway cafe to park ahead of her.

Her heart began to thump at the thought of being followed, but she managed to assure herself that it was no more than a coincidence.

The Lake District was at its enchanting best as she drove slowly along the narrower, winding roads which skirted the mountains to reveal vast stretches of silver water cradled in deep dales where the sunlight slanted between ancient trees and the clouds sailed high in the clear blue sky. She was travelling west now, several miles out of her way, but what did it really matter? She had no fixed schedule, planning to enjoy herself by moving from place to place at will, with no ultimate destination in mind, which was the best way to see and appreciate her native land. If she reached the Trossachs and returned by the east coast in the three weeks she had allowed herself she would be well satisfied, and the detour into the Lake District which she was making now was one which she might have taken anyway.

Glancing down at her small charge, she thought how easily Sandy had fitted into her scheme of things and how much she would miss him after tomorrow.

At Keswick they stopped for a while to watch the sailing boats skimming across the smooth surface of Derwentwater and Sandy skipped along the shore road, glad to be free, but as soon as it was time to go on, to renew their journey, he climbed back into the car and sat solemnly upright beside her with his eyes on the road. Their journey was almost over.

‘I wish you were coming all the way with me,’ Katherine said impulsively, ‘but soon you’ll be with your Aunt Hattie and you can tell her all about the games we played.’

Sandy nodded.

‘Could you stay?’ he asked, the blue eyes raised enquiringly to hers. ‘Could you maybe stay a week an’ I could show you the dogs an’ the hens.’

Katherine bit her lip.

‘I wish I could,’ she said, ‘but perhaps Aunt Hattie will have other plans.’

Involuntarily she thought of a pursuing car, although there was no sign of one as they drove off on the Bassenthwaite road. On the horizon Skiddaw dominated the view and soon the lake appeared, shining darkly in the last of the sunlight.

At the next village she stopped to ask directions, knowing that they must be near their destination, but as she slowed down a grey car appeared in her driving mirror, pulling out to overtake her, and suddenly her heartbeats quickened, although she had had no more than a passing glimpse of a dark head turned in profile as the car pulled ahead of her to disappear round the next bend.

Hastily she consulted the scrap of paper Coralie had thrust into her hand before she had left London. Yes, this must be the place, she decided, enquiring her way to Beck Cottage from an elderly man who had stopped on the pavement. He was out walking his dog and seemed eager to be of assistance.

‘Beck Cottage?’ he reflected. ‘Let me see. That will be Miss Edgar’s place. You’ll go straight through the village and turn right along the beck—the river,’ he explained in case she might have difficulty with the local term. ‘It isn’t far and you really can’t go wrong.’ He looked beyond her and Sandy smiled at him. ‘You like dogs, young man?’ he said, observing a small boy’s interest in his pet. ‘There are plenty of them hereabouts.’

Katherine thanked him as she pressed in her clutch. ‘Not long now, Sandy,’ she said. ‘I expect you’re hungry again!’

She found Beck Cottage at the very end of the lane, fronted by a busy little stream which hurried along between green banks scattered with opening daffodils. Someone had planted them a long time ago and they had multiplied to dress the river in gold as it flowed over its pebbly bed chuckling with its own importance. Four ducks swam downstream and a collection of hens picked their erratic way from behind the cottage on to the narrow road.

The cottage itself stood slightly aloof, its green storm doors securely closed against intrusion, its windows screened by white net curtains gathered closely against the panes. As Katherine rang the bell it looked anything but welcoming.

Sandy had tumbled out of the car behind her and stood waiting as she rang the bell for a second time.

‘There’s nobody in,’ he remarked plaintively after a moment or two. ‘They’ve all gone away.’

‘It’s all right,’ Katherine assured him, aware that the remark had been a reflection of his general insecurity. ‘Somebody must be here.’

The fact that she was not so sure of her own reaction dawned on her as the minutes fled away and they were still left standing there. The cottage looked closed, not just for the day but for some considerable time, although the four ducks and the hens were making their noisy way across the grass. Someone would surely return to feed them—Aunt Hattie full of apologies, no doubt, for offering her young nephew such a tardy welcome.

A woman in an apron made her appearance at the door of the cottage farther down the lane, hobbling towards them in her carpet slippers.

‘Are you looking for Miss Edgar?’ she asked, eyeing them with frank curiosity. ‘She be away to Austria for a month.’

‘Austria?’ Katherine echoed as if she had said Australia.

‘Ay. She alius takes a holiday this time o’ the year, an’ this time it’s Austria.’

‘But she knew we were coming,’ Katherine protested, before she remembered that it was only twenty-four hours since she had met Coralie at the party and taken on the responsibility of the child by her side who seemed more interested in four ducks than the fact that they were virtually stranded for the night.

‘She didn’t say nothink about you cornin’,’ the woman informed her. ‘Just asked me to feed the hens, as she alius does, an’ look after old Rick. That’s her dog. He’s fast asleep at my kitchen fire; doesn’t do much when Miss Edgar be away, like. Doesn’t get out much, an’ that’s all right by me since my feet be so bad I can’t walk much!’

Katherine had to think quickly.

‘I don’t suppose you know when Miss Edgar will be back?’ she asked, wondering for the first time where they were going to sleep.

‘A month, she said, an’ she stopped her papers and milk before she went. She be gone a week now. I get my own papers from the village. Tom Fender brings them when he’s up wi’ the car,’ the woman advised her. ‘Were you thinkin’ of stayin’ at the cottage?’ she enquired inquisitively.

‘It was what we expected to do.’ Katherine thrust her fingers through her hair in a gesture she had when she came face to face with a tricky problem. ‘I suppose there’s somewhere in the village where we could stay.’

‘I haven’t the room,’ the woman told her. ‘There’s Tom, you see. He’s my lodger an’ me an’ my old man has the other bedroom. You could try at the pub, though. They take in summer guests an’ you’d be comfortable enough there.’

Katherine nodded. She had passed the small hostelry on her way through the village noticing that it seemed clean and was well looked after, like most Lakeland public houses.

‘We’ll go back there,’ she decided.

‘Can I say who called?’ the woman asked, not to be done out of what would prove to be an evening’s conversation when the lodger and her husband finally came in.

‘It doesn’t matter.’ Katherine felt a sudden deep concern for her young charge. ‘Miss Edgar wouldn’t know who I was.’

‘The wee lad’s been here before,’ the woman observed.

‘Yes, I believe so.’ Sudden anger flared in Katherine’s heart. ‘He must have come with his mother. He’s Miss Edgar’s nephew.’

‘He was always runnin’ after the hens,’ the woman reminisced, ‘but that was a year ago an’ he’s bigger now.’ She smiled at Sandy, who offered her a tentative smile in return.

‘I’m hungry,’ he announced hopefully, blue eyes raised to the inquisitive brown ones.

‘You’ll be all right at the pub,’ the woman said to Katherine.

The first thing she had to do was to get settled somewhere for the night. Katherine looked at her watch, seeing that it was almost seven o’clock. Supposing the pub refused to take such a late booking?

Driving quickly back down the road, she pulled up at the main door.

‘Come on, Sandy,’ she prompted, ‘we’ve got to find a bed for the night.’

Their plight was obvious. One tired and hungry small boy and a girl on her own would surely touch the heart of even the most insensitive landlord.

The small entrance lobby was deserted, but there was a bell to ring on the counter over which hung the sign ‘Reception’ and it produced the desired result within minutes.

‘Can I help you?’

A tall, fair-haired young woman in a blue jersey and kilted skirt had made her appearance at the inner doorway.

‘I hope so,’ said Katherine. ‘I know it’s very late, but we need accommodation. We expected to stay at Beck Cottage with Miss Edgar.’

‘She’s away.’ The girl flicked over a page of the ledger on the counter. ‘I can give you a double room with a small bed in it,’ she decided obligingly. ‘The wee lad looks tired.’

‘And hungry!’ Katherine said with relief. ‘I’m sorry to have left it so late.’

‘That’s all right,’ the girl smiled. ‘We’re not too busy at this time of year, between Easter and Whit, and we generally have a room to spare.’ Sandy’s fair head reached just above the counter. ‘Will you take your meal together?’ she asked. ‘It would be a help not having to cook twice. There’s only one other guest and he likes to dine early.’ Katherine felt as tired as Sandy looked and she was also conscious of a mounting anger when she thought about Coralie who had placed them carelessly in this predicament. It was quite obvious that her former school friend hadn’t contacted her sister at Beck Cottage before she had sent them off on this wild goose chase, but by now she would surely know what had happened.

When she phoned Coralie from the comfortable bedroom under the eaves there was no reply. Even Coralie’s flatmate appeared to be out. Drawing a swift breath, she took Sandy down to supper.

Apart from the elderly fisherman who occupied a table at the window, they were alone in the dining-room. As the receptionist had pointed out, it was a slack time of the year, yet subconsciously she seemed to be waiting for someone else to appear. All that Coralie had told her about Sandy’s father came crowding into her mind, the fact that he was quite capable of a kidnap attempt where his son was concerned and the possibility of them being followed remaining uppermost in her thoughts as they ate the substantial meal which was set before them. It was such a satisfying meal that she was almost as sleepy as Sandy when it was over.

‘Perhaps you’d like to have your coffee after you’ve put your little boy to bed?’ the waitress suggested. ‘I’m in sole charge tonight, but it wouldn’t be any trouble. I generally have a cup myself around nine o’clock.’

When Sandy finally dropped off to sleep Katherine phoned London again, but there was still no answer. Wondering what she had expected Coralie to do about their predicament, she sat in the small, comfortable snug with her pot of coffee till ten o’clock, trying not to fall asleep before she phoned for the third time.

Going through the hall to the telephone box she had to pass the open door to the public bar where the hum of conversation and ready laughter only seemed to emphasise her own isolation. Through the glass screen she could see the locals gathered round the half-moon of the counter or grouped around the marble-topped tables with pints of beer in their hands, but there was nobody there she recognised, although she was now thinking of Charles Moreton as her pursuer.

It was ridiculous, of course, a mad impulse arising out of the fact that he had sought her out at the party they had attended the evening before and been more or less determined to see her home afterwards. The point was that he had told her so little about himself, even though he had kissed her goodnight on the doorstep, a kiss which she still remembered. It had been brief and not at all demanding, as if he thought the gesture was expected of him in the circumstances as a matter of course, but it had left its mark. She would have thought that a man of Charles Moreton’s calibre wouldn’t kiss indiscriminately unless he had some good reason for the challenge.

Remembering that he had added almost casually, ‘We’ll meet again, would you say?’ seemed to suggest that he wanted to renew their acquaintance some time in the future, but he had not made any definite rendezvous. He had asked a few pointed questions about her holiday, but that was all, and apart from his name he had told her nothing about himself.

Somewhere at the back of her mind she felt that he might have some connection with Coralie, a discarded suitor, maybe, wishing to know her whereabouts, but that didn’t seem to fit the bill when her first impression of the man had been one of cold indifference to a transient love affair.

She hardly expected an answer to her final phone call and she returned the receiver to its hook with a little angry snap. How could Coralie be so exasperating? How could she go off somewhere to amuse herself when she must surely know by now that there was nobody at Beck Cottage to take her child?



Early the following morning Katherine phoned London again, almost expecting to draw a blank. Even Coralie’s flatmate had flown the nest, and she went down to breakfast with Sandy’s hand in hers, wondering what she should do next.

To return to London might be one way of solving the problem, but again it might not. It could be a long, frustrating journey which could end in disappointment. Katherine stood at the foot of the stairs, looking at Sandy with a new kind of pity in her heart as the word abandoned stuck in her mind. How could anyone have acted like Coralie had done without feeling a grievous remorse? She was Sandy’s mother and she had expressed her love for him, and she was also extremely intelligent, wanting to succeed in her chosen career because of him, but how could she have left him entirely in a stranger’s care when she knew that her ex-husband was determined to claim him one way or another?

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