Rattling down the road in a musty carriage toward a strange man’s home with the intention of introducing oneself and securing an invitation to stay awhile is a good moment to discard concern for societal approbation. So when I heard a female voice holler out from the hedges along the country thoroughfare, I did not hesitate to scramble hastily across the width of the carriage bench in order to trace the source of the noise. I had just stuck my head through the small window when I heard her again.
“Whoa!” she cried, and I craned my neck behind us to catch a glimpse. “Whoa, driver!”
I did not stop to think about whether she might have had ill intentions or been working on behalf of a gang of highwaymen. I pounded on the roof of the carriage interior to alert the driver, Mr. Brown. I had hired him that morning in Peterborough to take me to Wainforth Village, and his courtesy was buffed to a shine by a substantial fare.
Mr. Brown brought the horses up sharply. I had unwisely failed to renegotiate my center of gravity prior to this deceleration and thus slid to my knees on the carriage floor. While giving thanks for the privacy of a hired hack, I clambered back to the bench and untangled my skirts. Mr. Brown was responding to the woman’s hail.
“Yes, sister? What’s this fuss?” he called back as the vehicle jerked to a halt. I decided the situation was safe enough, and curious enough, for me to emerge, especially in my new independent incarnation. To my considerable surprise, our delay was created by a nun in a black-and-white habit who scurried toward us at a swaying trot. Before I could say a word, she resumed her shouting.
“Did you see him? Did you see our lord and master? We must follow his lead, we must not stray from his path!”
She had already trotted past the carriage in the narrow space between it and the hedge, but then she suddenly halted and reversed course. She swung around to face me. Her skin was damp and hectic, her expression desperate. I hung half out of the carriage, clinging with my left hand to a strap just inside the door. The muscle in my upper arm began to quiver as the holy woman hissed at me.
“Cease this delay immediately. You must come with me now, and we will find him together. He cannot elude me much longer.”
I gaped at her for a moment, then fell naturally into my most well-trod mental pathway, which was calm and factual. “Sister, you appear to be overexerted. I am headed to Wainforth Village. Would you care to accompany me these last few miles?”
The nun reached out as if to clutch at me, then recoiled. Her mouth twisted to a sneer. “Foolish woman! We all have only limited hope in this world or the next, and you are too blind to see when hope must be chased.”
With that cryptic pronouncement, she turned and angled for a stile in the stone fence that bordered the road. I caught a glimpse of a sturdy black shoe and pale ankle as she clambered over the gate and off toward a copse of trees between the fields.
Mr. Brown craned his head around the side of the carriage from his perch on the front bench. “Do you want me to go after her, Miss Gilbert?”
I considered the question. On the one hand, clearly the nun should not be left alone overlong in the countryside, even fairly close to the village. It would be dark in another few hours, and the air would surely be much colder overnight. She did not seem, at the moment, capable of undertaking rational thought. On the other hand, I knew neither her name nor anything else about her. She was hardly my business. Finally I shook my head. “No, Mr. Brown, please drive on. That woman is long gone now.”
It was true, I could no longer see her black habit. Maybe she went to pray at a secluded altar hidden in the trees, I told myself, not believing it for a moment.