Sophie woke the next day to find the sun was shining, though it was still cold. Bessie was busy about the room, finding warm clothes for her to wear. ‘Such weather for May,’ she said. ‘You would think it was winter, not the beginning of summer. Do you think you will be able to go out today?’
‘Yes, I am determined on it. If Aunt Emmeline cries off, I shall ask Teddy to take me. I did not come to London to sit about indoors.’
On Bessie’s insistence she put on a fine wool gown in a soft blue that was warmer than the figured muslin she had hoped to wear and went down to the breakfast room, where she ate a boiled egg with some bread and butter and drank a dish of hot chocolate in solitary splendour. Lady Cartrose was never an early riser, and when Sophie enquired of a servant if Mr Cavenhurst was up and about, she was told that he had not come back to the house until nearly dawn and was still abed. She was obliged to shift for herself.
* * *
After breakfast she wandered about the downstairs rooms getting in the way of the servants who were busy with housework that had to be done before their mistress put in an appearance. This inactivity was making her impatient and cross and she went up to her room to don a full-length pelisse, a velvet bonnet, walking shoes and a muff and went out into the garden. It was not a very big garden and she had soon seen all she wanted of it. The wider world beckoned.
There was a small gate at the end of the garden that led to the mews where her ladyship’s horses and carriage were kept and her groom lived. She walked past the stables and presently came out on to Park Lane. It was still early in the day, but the road was already very busy. Carriages and carts rumbled by, riders trotted towards the gate into the Park, walkers hurried about their business and children made their way to school accompanied by nursemaids. Three soldiers, colourful in their red jackets, gave her a lascivious look as they passed her on the way to their barracks. One even went so far as to sweep off his hat and bow to her. Haughtily, she put her chin in the air to pass him, and that was her undoing. She slipped on a patch of ice on a puddle and found herself flat on her back with her skirts up to her knees, displaying a well-turned ankle and several inches of shapely calf.
They immediately rushed to her aid. Despite her protests that she was unhurt and could rise unaided, one of them came behind her, bent to put his arms about her under her shoulders and heaved her to her feet.
She stood shaking, not so much with hurt or shock, but indignation that he could have manhandled her in such a way and seemed in no hurry to relinquish his hold of her. ‘Let me go,’ she said.
‘But you will fall again if you are not supported.’
‘Indeed, I will not. I am perfectly able to stand. I insist you release me.’
They might have let her go, but her hauteur made them want to have a game with her. ‘There’s gratitude for you,’ one of them said. ‘Did your mother never teach you manners?’
She did not answer, but repeated, ‘Let me go. I shall call the constable.’
‘Constable? I see no constable, do you, Jamie?’
‘Never a one,’ his companion concurred, picking up her bonnet from the road where it had fallen, putting it on his own head and prancing about in it. They had attracted quite a crowd, none of whom seemed inclined to interfere. Most were laughing.
‘You do realise that your fall broke the ice and your fine coat is wet and dirty. What will your mama say to that, I wonder?’ This from the one who held her firmly in his grasp.
She was well aware of the state of her coat; the cold and damp were penetrating through to her body. ‘Let me go, you great oaf.’ She struggled ineffectually to free herself. It only made him hold her more firmly.
‘Dear, dear, such language, but I take no offence at it, though I fear that if I let go, you would take another tumble and then, as you disdain my assistance, I should feel obliged to leave you sitting in the puddle. On the other hand, if you were to ask me prettily and give me a kiss as a reward, that might be a different matter.’
‘Certainly not.’ Her pride had given way to fear, though she endeavoured not to show it. No one had warned her of the perils of going out without an escort, or if they had, she had not listened, confident of being able to take care of herself. In Hadlea she thought nothing of walking about the village on her own, and no one would have dreamed of molesting her. The onlookers did nothing to help, being too busy laughing at the soldier who was wearing her bonnet and curtsying to them, pretending to hold out imaginary skirts.