Papa sat across from her, blanket tucked around his knees, the faint smell of pipe smoke that always accompanied him stronger here in the confines of their carriage.
“Smile, Isabel. Most young ladies would be delighted to be on their way to Paris.”
She gave him a sour look. “Most young ladies do not have the burden of a rock-headed father, bent upon endangering his health.”
“And it seems I will have weeks of hen-pecking to endure,” he muttered, flicking open his latest copy of Punch. “In my books, I’d say we’re even.”
He disappeared behind the pages of his magazine; she glared at the paper barricade, then turned her gaze to the window.
The sky over Chislehurst was the grey of overwashed linen, hemmed by a bank of dirty, low-slung clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Raindrops splattered upon the carriage glass. She did not believe in bosh such as omens and signs, but she could not deny the weather was supplying a suitably sombre tone to their seeing off.
The rain increased to a steady patter upon the roof. After a mile of jolting along the rutted lane they came to the crossroads on the edge of Chislehurst, marked on three corners by gnarled, twisting oaks, and on the fourth, by a tavern, the Pig and Pearl. Isabel gripped the handle of her valise. This was the junction that would irrevocably put them on the road to London. Then to Paris. From here on in, there would be no turning back.
Grasp the nettle, Knight. She breathed deeply, sank back against the leather seat; but just as she resolved to grin and bear the journey, she saw him. Standing beneath the tavern’s porch, just a blur of brown through the rain-sluiced window. His hand lifted what might have been a pipe to his mouth, and the smudge of his head turned as they passed by, as if tracking the progress of their coach.
Isabel shrank back in her seat. Had he seen her? Did he know their coach? Her stomach roiled.
Slowly, she gained mastery over her panicked thoughts - and realised it mattered little whether he’d spied her in the coach. If he was watching the house, which she was sure he was, it would be apparent soon enough that she and her father had left Chislehurst. As a precaution, she had instructed a dubious looking Mrs Lees and Annie that should anyone come calling, they were with relatives, in Edinburgh; she only hoped the promised increase in their wages was sufficient motivation for them to lie to a policeman … and that when she returned, she had the ability to honour that promise.
Isabel turned in her seat, squashing her bonnet as she pressed her nose to the small rear window. The glass was made opaque with sheeting rain; if it was Inspector Tucker, he’d been swallowed by the gloom.
Leather creaked as she sat back down. Lightning scissored across the sky, thunder rumbled, and as the elements rose to the occasion, Chislehurst finally vanished from sight.
Isabel drew her valise tight to her chest.