Joachim is escorting his mother's guests from Toulouse to the family home, the chateau de Fontanes, in the French Pyrenees. Of the two young ladies, one is sulking and one is permanently fuming. Major Hugo Dawlish is unwell after being attacked by unknown villains the previous evening.
Joachim could scarcely believe his good luck the following morning. Nobody had been attacked overnight. Everyone appeared for breakfast at the time he had stated. Everyone was ready to leave at the agreed time and the journey went smoothly through the first few stages. There were no sounds of quarrelling coming from the young ladies. They made no grumbles about the winding roads, and on the steep hills where the horses pulled the coach at a snail’s pace, they got out to walk. Joachim heard their admiring comments about the picturesque scenery and felt pleased. This was better. And soon they would be home. His mother would know how to calm Sophie and more importantly, how to brighten up Miss Dismal, both in her spirits and her attire.
This was his second day in her company and so far she had not smiled once. Even when he pointed out another breath-taking view as they walked up one of the steep inclines, her pinched expression never relaxed. He wanted to shout at her to show some enthusiasm. And her clothes only added to the general impression of gloom. He cast an eye over her light grey gown and the darker grey pelisse she wore. Her bonnet was a simple straw one, with no ribbons or flowers to brighten it up. Joachim gave a wry smile as he imagined his sister Margot’s reaction to this dreary outfit. She was always so fashionable. It was a good thing she lived too far away to see these visitors during their stay at Fontanes.
There was not much traffic on the road and no sign of any evil-doers. Joachim’s chief concern was whether Hugo would manage to ride for the remaining part of the journey. He was evidently in pain, his head down with his chin tucked against his throat and taking no notice of the scenery. Since their last change of horses, Bertrand was riding next to him, while Joachim went ahead of the coach. But now, as they entered the town of Tarascon, Joachim let the coach overtake him. He exclaimed in dismay when he saw Hugo swaying in the saddle, and hurriedly came close alongside, ready to catch him if need be.
‘The coaching inn is just the other side of the river, Hugo,’ he said. ‘You’ll be glad of a rest, I think.’
There was no reply. Hugo seemed scarcely to hear him. They slowed their horses to a walk and crossed the bridge. The familiar sight of the round castella on the hill above the Ariege River was a welcome reminder that they were now only an hour from home. They rode into the yard of the Castella Inn and dismounted. Bertrand cleared his throat, and when Joachim looked, jerked his head towards Hugo, who was leaning against his horse, face as white as paper and eyes screwed up. They took him firmly by the arms.
‘Just a few steps,’ said Bertrand, ‘nearly there.’
‘Sorry,’ mumbled Hugo, dragging his feet and flopping against them with each step. They guided him into a private parlour and deposited him in an armchair.
‘Whatever is wrong?’ cried Sophie, rushing over to stare. She pressed both hands over her mouth in alarm. Nell followed her and Joachim was surprised at how her face softened as she bent over the sick man and examined the wound. She touched the broken skin very gently. Hugo’s mouth tightened and Joachim winced for him.
(c) Beth Elliott 2018
Looking upstream from the bridge-
The Tour du Castella, built in 1775, on the site of the medieval castle
[which was pulled down by order of Cardinal Richelieu]
The Ariège river, looking downstream from the bridge