The water meadow was no more than two hundred yards wide and then there was the river!
When he reached it Mick O’Rourke turned, like a fox cornered by the hounds, a fearful look of terror on his face, which was a vivid scarlet with his exertions but scraped raw to reveal white patches in his mortal fear. His eyes strained from their sockets and his breath sobbed in his throat. The two boys, big boys but unsure what to do now they had reached him, hung back and, clutching at his chance Mick darted to the right, his eyes flashing along the backs of the splendid houses that stood adjacent to Riverside House across the meadow through which he had just run. If he could reach one, get over a fence or a wall he might escape through a handy garden to the road at the front where there were bound to be passers-by, carriages, cabs, the safety of the avenue that led to busy Bury New Road. But as though they sensed his plan the two grinning grooms separated, one to the left, one to the right, effectively blocking his escape, ready to beat him to a pulp to get at the old man’s watch which Milly had given him. He could hear her shrieking his name as she fell across the waterlogged field, dragging herself up again and again and behind her were her brothers. He didn’t know why, really, he was running. He had panicked, that was all. He hadn’t stolen the bloody watch. He hadn’t broken the law in any way, though that sod of a brother of hers would probably trump up some charge against him. But, surely, with their master plainly in view the grooms wouldn’t touch him, would they? He was giving up all claim to the bugger’s sister and to the bastard she carried so he could see no reason to run any more. He’d just retrieve his boots and be on his way, he’d say to Milly’s brother and there was nothing they could do to stop him.
He grinned brazenly. They had all come to a halt in a semicircle about him, except for Nancy Brody who was still floundering across the wet grass and mud of the meadow. The men and the two boys watched him warily and some old chap – where the hell had he come from? – bent down and put his hands on his knees in an effort to get his breath back.
Josh and Arthur, now that they had caught up, were beginning to wonder why the hell they were chasing him, apart from their father’s watch. Of course, they weren’t chasing him really. It was Milly they were concerned about. He could take himself off for all they cared and the watch with him, never to be seen again, they hoped, though what was to become of Milly, who was weeping with the heartbroken intensity of a whipped child, was another matter.
Mick was standing on the extreme edge of the fast-flowing river. It was at least two feet higher than normal, its waters lapping at the slippery grasses and when Milly, with a final shriek of despair, launched herself against him, desperately seeking his arms, since she still could not believe what was happening, she caught him off balance.
“Mind what yer doin’, yer soft bitch,” he snarled, the last words he was ever to speak. They both went, seemingly in one another’s arms though in actual fact he was doing his best to disentangle hers from about his neck. As they entered the river a high arc of spray shot up into the air and a wash of littered water erupted up the bank, lapping at the feet of the horrified watchers. They all leaped back instinctively and when they looked again at the place where Michael O’Rourke and Millicent Hayes had fallen there was nothing there but a widening circle of ripples and a frothy foam of bubbles. The swollen water surged past them with the force of a mill race. The banks were awash with litter, debris carried along and deposited here and there in rotting heaps, brought down for miles during the past fortnight of rain.
“Jesus wept,” Charlie muttered, his face quite ghastly in the golden glow of the morning sunshine.
“Holy Mother of God.” Jack, who was a Catholic, crossed himself and was about to turn away, for what could anybody do in the headlong torrent that swept along beside them, when a movement to his right caught his eye. It was his master whipping off his jacket and preparing to jump into the swollen waters.
“No, sir . . . no,” he shrieked, leaping in an effort to get a good grip on Mr Josh to prevent him going in. “Charlie, for God’s sake, gi’ me a hand.”
Mrs Josh, still only halfway across the field, was screaming her bloody head off while old Longman and his sons, white-faced but no longer excited, stared in silent horror at the spot where Miss Milly and the bloody-faced chap had hit the water.
“Let me go, you fools,” Josh was yelling as he struggled with the grooms.
“No, sir, it’s no use . . . they’ve gone.”
“That’s my sister in there.”
“Aye, sir, we know, but yer can’t go in after ’er, sir. See, ’ere’s Mrs Josh. Oh, ma’am, please don’t let ’im go in; e’ll drown.”
Josh sank to his knees in the mud, his face desolate and contorted with agony, tears mingling with the blood and Nancy, clumsy in her pregnancy, sank down before him. She put her arms about his heaving shoulders and drew his head down, watching as the men, Charlie and Jack, Mr Longman and his wide-eyed, silent sons, ran up and down the bank staring into the swiftly moving waters for a sight of Miss Milly and the stranger.
They were all so fixed on their purpose none of them saw Arthur, who had stood petrified to stone by the horror of it, suddenly come to life. With a cry of, “There she is, I see her,” pointing excitedly to a rotting plank of wood, “I’ll get her,” he flung himself into the turbulence and, like the other two, vanished from sight.
Other men were running from the direction of the house, Billy the stable lad, Summers the coachman, even young Alfie who had been peacefully polishing Mr Arthur’s best boots, and it took all of them to hold on to the master who was screaming blue murder and to the mistress who clung to him like a terrier to a rat.
For an hour they ran and cried out Miss Milly’s and Mr Arthur’s name – not the other chap’s for they did not know it – before Mrs Josh, her face ashen, gently turned her husband, who had slipped into a merciful state of shock, and began to lead him, stumbling, towards home.
Alfie, who was only a little lad, wept in Mrs Cameron’s comforting arms, broken-hearted by the knowledge that Mr Arthur would no longer be needing the boots Alfie had been polishing.
Milly’s body was never recovered, though Mick O’Rourke and Arthur were found several days later some miles downriver, lodged companionably together against a small tree-trunk which had caught on the bank. The police inspector, since a family of such high standing in the community and who had suffered such a terrible loss commanded a high rank, promised to keep searching for . . . for Miss Hayes, he told their grieving brother, who held on to his wife’s hand as though he were afraid of drowning himself. He was not to know that Joshua Hayes blamed himself for the accident, which in itself was a bit of a mystery. The man, one Michael O’Rourke, was said to be a friend of the family, though what they were all doing larking about beside the swollen river, especially with Mrs Hayes in her condition, was never revealed. The servants were as unforthcoming as the family, blank-eyed, uncommunicative as clams and as stricken with grief as the family they served.
The man had no one, Mrs Hayes told him quietly, the only one still to have her senses about her, it seemed, except his elderly mother and if the inspector didn’t mind, she herself would go and see her and break the sad news. She lived . . . close by. It was somewhat irregular but the inspector, unable to stand against Mrs Hayes’s pale-faced sorrowing beauty, agreed.
The Brody girls! Had there ever been three children like them, those who were there that afternoon asked one another as they observed the eldest of them descend from her spendid carriage at the end of Church Court and move slowly up the street with a burly chap in attendance. Three children who had grown into three bonny, clever women and all achieved by the resolute strength and bloody-minded determination of this one who was, amazingly, hugging filthy old Eileen O’Rourke as though she were her own mother. Her mother who had been Kitty Brody, God bless her, who must have had something in her that she’d passed on to this one.
They shook their heads in wonderment as they watched intently, somehow uplifted as they had always been by the colour, the entertainment, the lift to their own drab lives the Brody girls had always afforded them. Nancy was all in black and ready to drop a bairn any day by the look of her and what she said to Eileen inside Eileen’s crumbling parlour was a mystery to them and they could hardly wait to get over there to find out.
They sighed, the women of Angel Meadow, every eye following her as Nancy Brody, which was how they would always think of her, heaved herself up the street on the arm of the big chap in a uniform to where the carriage waited at the end.
About the author
Audrey Howard was born in Liverpool in 1929. Before she began to write she had a variety of jobs, among them hairdresser, model, shop assistant, cleaner and civil servant. In 1981 she wrote the first of her novels when she was out of work and living in Australia. There are now more than twenty, and her fourth,
The Juniper Bush
, won the Boots Romantic Novel of the Year Award in 1988. She now divides her time between her childhood home, St Anne’s on Sea, Lancashire, and a home in the Yorkshire Dales.
Also By Audrey Howard
The Mallow Years
A Day Will Come
All the Dear Faces
There Is No Parting
The Woman from Browhead
Echo of Another Time
The Silence of Strangers
A World of Difference
The Shadowed Hills
Strand of Dreams
Not a Bird Will Sing
When Morning Comes
Beyond the Shining Water