The Maid of the Moor
Summary: Susanna Stackhouse's simple, well ordered life is turned upside down by a chance encounter with a notorious rogue. Bodice ripping, romance and tragedy in this historical fiction set on the wilds of Dartmoor and the high seas!
Although this is an all-human story, the main characters are based on the creations of Charlaine Harris for the Southern Vampire Mysteries, and are of course her property.
VampLover1 has been the most wonderful beta, with invaluable advice on improving the story as well as correcting my punctuation! Any mistakes are mine though.
The county of Devon, southwest England, in the year 17XX
I had often had cause to reflect that while a simple, honest life might attract superficial admiration, it would never be as worthy of discussion as a truly wicked one.
No greater proof of this could be found than in the many hours of conversation that were devoted to discussing the most notorious family in the county. It could be said that they performed a great service to the general populace, as the tales of their activities livened up many a cold, dark evening in the taverns and inns of the county.
The source of their wealth was the subject of great speculation. All manner of criminal activity was attributed to them. It was probably a great convenience to any other wrong-doer that responsibility for every act of smuggling, piracy or highway robbery was inevitably laid at the door of Sir Godfrey Northman and his four sons.
They lived in a great house high on Dartmoor. Part mansion, part fortress, its forbidding appearance ensured that only the bravest of souls would ever consider approaching Northman Hall. Even they would surely be dissuaded by the savage dogs which served as guards.
What was most remarkable about the family, given all the things they were accused of, was that they were rarely seen in public and almost never during daylight hours.
The arrival of members from that family at the Dolphin Inn, Plymouth, before noon on a Saturday in late spring was therefore guaranteed to create the utmost interest.
My own presence in that city was an equally rare event, although one that few people were likely to remark upon. My grandmother and I would make the trip down from our moorland home only two or three times a year. It was an arduous and uncomfortable journey across the moor, and one not without its dangers.
Grandmama had almost reached her biblical span of three score years and ten, but was still a sprightly woman who retained traces of the beauty of her youth. Her hair was silver, but her eyes were bright and lively. The fine lines on her face gave it a warmth and character that I found comforting. We had been close since I was a child, and I could honestly state that she was my dearest friend.
On the occasion of this visit to the city, a new shipment of fine muslins from India had been the cause of great excitement amongst all the ladies for a radius of at least a hundred miles. My grandmother was determined that despite our straightened circumstances, I should not want for at least two new gowns each year. She still had hopes of finding a suitable husband for me and was therefore eager to keep up appearances.
At the age of twenty-five both my grandmother and I could be forgiven for beginning to despair of ever seeing me a married woman. It was most certainly not for want of physical attraction, though it may seem boastful of me to say so. I had been perfectly aware of the attentions of men since I first reached womanhood. I knew they found my figure fine, my waist slim and my long golden hair attractive. Before the untimely death of my parents, I had been confident of making a good match.
At the age of nineteen, I had been promised to Samuel Merlotte, son of the richest merchant in the city. How different my life would have been if that alliance had taken place. I would have had a fine house on the Hoe. My father and my brother Jack would both have profited from being linked to such a powerful family, and my mother and grandmother would have wanted for nothing.
All it had taken was one stormy night, seven years ago, to end all our hopes, robbing me not only of my dear parents, but of that most essential feature required to obtain a good husband: a generous dowry.
Since that tragic night, I had lived in genteel poverty with my grandmother. She had a small income that would come to me after her death. It was sufficient to allow us to live a comfortable, if simple life, with a maid of all work to assist us. However there was no provision for a marriage portion for me. Most men of my acquaintance were either farmers or merchants, so a marriage would always be an affair conducted for business rather than for love.
We were taking an early luncheon in a private dining room in the Dolphin, from where we would commence our journey home. I always enjoyed our trips to the city, and it had been good to see my brother Jack. It was true that his business interests did not seem to be going as well as he might have hoped, but he remained cheerful and optimistic.
My Grandmother's thoughts, as we awaited our meal, were focused more on my future.
"I cannot understand why you are so set against William Compton as a husband." This was her favourite theme.
"I am not set against him; he is a perfectly respectable man. I know him to be well educated and he is most devout. Indeed his knowledge of the Bible rivals that of Parson Collins." Grandmama was not to know that I did not mean this as a compliment. The truth was that I found William Compton dull and serious. He had no sense of fun, and seemed to find little enjoyment in the world around him.
It was true that he had suffered a terrible tragedy, one which would test the good nature of any person. His first wife and young daughter had died in tragic circumstances. His wife Caroline had been taken with a seizure in bed one night. Their infant had been sleeping with her. Unable to control herself as the malady wracked her body, she had suffocated the child. Caroline recovered, but a few days later she was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in their house. Her neck was broken.
As I reflected on that sad tale, my grandmother continued to sing William's praises. "He is such a handsome man, do you not think? He has borne all his troubles like a true saint. I feel sure that if he were to marry again, he would find happiness, and be restored to good humour."
"You seem to forget, Grandmama, that the main obstacle to his marriage is his mother. She has made it very clear that she will not countenance his marrying for love. Her social status is, after all, dependent on his making a good alliance. I have often reflected how strange it is that a man of one and thirty years is still tied to his mother's apron-strings."
"Lorena Compton is no better than she should be in my opinion. Just because she managed to ensnare a relative of Lord Tregower in marriage she gives herself such airs and graces. She is only a second cousin and twice removed at that. I have heard tell …."
I did not discover what gossip my grandmother had found against William's mother. Our attention was diverted by a loud commotion from the courtyard below. Through the open window a man's voice roared angrily:
"Damn your eyes, fellow, you will see to these horses now. We have had a long ride, and further still to go. I cannot make the journey with a lame horse. I do not care if others are waiting, you will attend to me now."
I couldn't resist jumping up to look out of the window and see who was responsible for such rudeness and arrogance. The speaker was a tall man, perhaps fifty years of age, with bushy gold hair and a long beard. He had dismounted his horse and was advancing on a cowering stable lad.
Accompanying him were four younger men, all clean-shaven and with long hair of the same golden colour. The tallest of the four chose that moment to glance up at the window, catching my eye and causing me to make a hasty and somewhat flustered retreat.
"Sir Godfrey Northman," noted my Grandmother without rising from the table. "It is a surprise to find him in such a public location."
"How …." I began, intending to ask her how she recognized his voice, but she silenced me.
"The service is remarkably slow today, Anna my dear. Could you inquire when we are likely to have our soup?"
As I descended the stair, I heard the hubbub of the bar room fall silent for at least a minute. When the conversations resumed, they seemed louder and brighter. I understood the reason for this as I reached the foot of the stair and came face to face, or rather face to chest, with possibly the most striking-looking man I had ever seen. It was that same Northman brother whom I had seen in the courtyard. At this close proximity I realized that he had almost a foot on me in height. Every part of him was worthy of remark, from his long golden hair to his broad chest, from his muscular thighs to his handsome face.
He smiled broadly and gave me a small bow which I acknowledged with a nod of my head. Without any word he brushed past me to mount the staircase which I had just descended.
It was obvious that his appearance had caused great excitement amongst the serving girls, as I could barely get one sensible word out of them. Eventually I managed to get an assurance from the patroness of the establishment that our soup would be served without delay.
As I returned to the dining room I reflected on two mysteries that cried out for resolution. Naturally I was eager to find out the gossip about William Compton's mother, but I was even more perplexed as to how she could possibly know Sir Godfrey Northman . I considered which topic to address first.
"Why do you say that Lorena Compton is no better than she should be?" I asked as I took my place back at the table.
"Well ….." Grandmama hestitated.
"I am a grown woman, you need not hide things from me," I said, impatient to find out more.
"It is said that she began her career plying her trade on the Barbican."
I could not believe that the imperious woman who dominated what passed for a social scene in our small town could possibly have once been a woman of ill-repute, servicing the sailors and merchants of the port.
"She did not remain on the street for long. Her origins were humble, but her beauty so striking that she soon attracted the attention of Lord Tregower. He held her in sufficient regard to arrange her marriage to Thomas Compton, a member of the cadet branch of his family."
The arrival of our soup prevented any continuation of that conversation. The serving girl left the door open in her hurry to leave, and I could not help but notice that instead of returning to the kitchen she ascended the stairs to the upper floor.
Half an hour later, as we finished our second course, I saw the girl hurry down the stairs. Her cheeks were flushed and her hair awry. Several minutes later she was followed down by the tall golden haired man, who was still adjusting his breeches. Once again he caught my eye, this time giving me a wink to match the lascivious smirk on his face.
I fear I must have blushed as my grandmother gave me the strangest look.
"I hope you will not let yourself be swayed by the appearance of a handsome man. They may promise much, but they cannot be trusted." Her words puzzled me, reminding me of the other mystery I was determined to tackle.
"How do you know of Sir Godfrey Northman?"
She was silent for several minutes, and it was clear that she was carefully considering how much to share with me.
"Many years ago I had some dealings with that family, but I do not care to talk of it. All I can tell you is that they are not to be trusted. They may be handsome on the outside, but I believe their hearts to be as black as the devil."
It was clear that I would get no further explanation, and we passed the rest of our meal in silence. It was already approaching the hour of two, and we should have left several hours ago to be sure of arriving home before dark.
The Northman family was to blame for that. With the disruption to the kitchen and their demands on the stables, they had ensured that our luncheon was served late and our coach was delayed. The coachman tried to persuade us to take the Exeter road, but that would have meant an even longer journey. There were dangers on the moorland road, but we decided to take the risk.
The journey passed peacefully enough. As we ascended out of the city onto the high moorland, Grandmama and I were grateful for our thick velvet travel cloaks. Although a little threadbare, they would keep out the late afternoon chill.
The rocking motion of the coach soon lulled me to sleep. The tall, golden-haired stranger featured in my dreams. In one, he was taking my hand and leading me up the stairs of the Inn to a bedroom on the upper floor. The door opened, revealing not a bed, but a pit of fire instead. I woke with a start.
The coach shuddered to a halt. My sigh of relief that we had reached home was short lived, as I realized we were still out on the high moorland. The coach door opened and a masked figure appeared before us.
"I would be much obliged if you ladies would dismount." I was able to make out the speaker's dark hair and eyes. Most of his face was obscured, and he held a pistol in his hand. His accent marked him out as a stranger to the area.
"We will do no such thing," said my grandmother, her tone firm and brave.
"Do not make the mistake of believing that your sex will offer you protection." A second voice sounded from behind the trees. It was if anything more menacing than the first, and I motioned to Grandmama that we should comply. I tried to stop the fear from showing in my face.
Turning his attention to the coachman, the first assailant ordered our baggage to be set down. As he loaded our purchases onto his horse he turned to the coachman.
"Now off with you." He commanded.
Our driver hesitated at first, looking anxiously at us as if desiring instruction. A pistol shot aimed just above his head soon persuaded him. His expression made it clear that he did not wish to leave us to the mercy of this villain, but self-preservation naturally overcame his scruples and he whipped the horses, driving off as fast as they would take him.
"Now for your jewels, my fine ladies." The countenance of the second speaker remained obscure behind the trees. Something about the voice was familiar, but I could not place it.
"We have nothing of value, sir," I countered, trying to sound braver than I felt.
His agent was not daunted though, grabbing at my Grandmother's hand and snatching her only ornament – a simple gold wedding band. My hand flew to my neck as if by instinct. My locket was the only memento of my parents. It too was taken.
"Take off their cloaks." The hidden voice was cruel.
"Please sir, I beg you. They are of so little value, and without them we will freeze. You would as well shoot us now as leave us to our fate on the moor."
My plea had no effect, and our travel cloaks were snatched cruelly away.
Every instinct in me wanted to break down and cry, but I was determined not to show weakness. My Grandmother was clearly of the same mind. She linked her arm through mine, standing straight and firm as the sound of horses receded into the darkness.
"Be grateful that they only took our possessions my dear. Our fate could have been far worse."
I shuddered at the thought, looking around me for fear that they might return.
"Come now," she continued briskly. "We must find somewhere to shelter if we are to survive the night."
"Yes of course, Grandmama," I responded, trying to sound more confident than I felt. I was already shivering with cold yet it was only just past dusk. I wondered if we would survive to see the sunrise.
A/N. If you want to be able to picture the landscape of Dartmoor where this story is set, just think of any version of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'. Baskerville Hall is high on the moor and most of the action takes place around it.
I haven't specified an exact year in which this story takes place but it is in the early part of the eighteenth century.
As its set in England, I've used UK rather than US spelling throughout.
This story is dedicated to those lovely ladies in the SVM community who take the time to organize contests and challenges. The many excellent entries for The Age of Eric contest demonstrated the enormous potential for taking our favourite characters back in time. TheDeadPan Contest prompted me to take inspiration from the great tradition of bodice-ripper historical fiction.