Three-Hour’s Ride Southwest of London
Country roads were deuced confusing at times, and this was one of them. Jonathan Avery, arriving at a dead end, wheeled Morocco back toward the hamlet he had lately passed. As he trotted along toward the huddle of dwellings hidden around the next two bends in the road, he might have felt the first edges of frustration. His destination was plainly in sight on a gentle rise beyond an expanse of open fields, and yet he seemed unable to get to it. However, if he was feeling any irritation, it was slight.
The quiet lane was dusty, and the sun fell heavily, prickling him with afternoon heat that struck past his coat of linen and shirt of lawn. He was aware of his growing thirst, but because he had anticipated an uncomplicated arrival, he had not thought to bring more than a bottle of water, which he had long since drained. In his pass through the hamlet earlier he did not remember seeing a public house, so he did not expect to find relief there. Nevertheless, his thirst and the heat were minor inconveniences. He felt unhurried, even calm, and wondered if he was not also experiencing contentment – but then doubted he was capable of such a comfortable emotion. Waterloo was too recent. The roar of the cannons and the rattling moans of death still echoed in his ears, the stench of rotting flesh and burnt powder still filled his nose, and the sight of green fields turned into hellscapes of heaped corpses continued to haunt his dreams.
Whatever he was feeling, he was grateful, even surprised, to be alive. And here he was moving through a peaceful and prosperous part of world, surrounded by the pungent-sweet scents of mown hay and wildflowers and the rustic music of querulous jays and quarrelling crickets, the whole pleasantly sunk in the drowse of late summer.
He turned the next bend and set Morocco to clopping over a twee stone bridge. He came to a halt at the odd intersection of five lanes in the midst of the hamlet, the very crossroads that had befuddled him earlier. He already knew two paths he did not want: the one he had entered by and the one he had just taken to an abandoned mill. He looked up to his right. Over the rooftops, on the highest swell of land stood a graceful pile of stones, the ducal manor, perceptible but out of reach, like an elusive dream. He looked down at the three remaining paths and now judged the one veering to the right, almost due north, to have the promise of being the most direct. Or, at least, such would seem logical.
He remained immobile, well aware of the rambling illogic of country lanes. The next thing he knew the forceful backdraft of his memories sucked him into the horrors of that bright, black day in June where he dwelled for a while until Morocco became restive. The shift in his Arabian’s haunches half-roused him from his dark reverie. At that same moment he heard,
“Can I help you, sir? You seem lost.”
Lost, yes, on the battlefields. Fortunately, the question served to bring him fully back to the present. He looked down and into the upturned face of a young woman. Pretty. Very pretty, with a heart-shaped face perfectly framed by her bonnet. Her gray gaze was steady, he noted, and she was awaiting his answer. He gathered himself then gestured toward the stately house in the middle distance to the right and said,
“I’m trying to get to Bradford Manor.”
She nodded and pointed to the path on the farthest left. “Go down that lane, sir, and when you come to a fork in the road, keep going left.” She must have read the puzzlement on his face because she added, “Yes, your goal is to your right, but the left branch at the next fork curves around the back of the hill and will lead you straight past the alley to the house. You can’t miss the entrance. The gates are rather grand.”
He must have been more tired than he realized because he became aware of his rudeness in not dismounting to converse with the young woman. He made as if he were going to swing his leg over the pommel but she forestalled him. “No, sir, don’t get off on my account. It’s too hot to observe the proprieties, and you’ll want to be straight on your way.”
Not feeling much like dismounting, he settled back in the saddle. “Thank you, miss.” Her mention of proprieties recalled to his mind good British manners. The girl’s dress and speech were not those of a milkmaid. She was clearly a Londoner born and obviously well bred. With a sudden frown, he said, “And how is it that you are abroad alone, may I so inquire?”
Her chuckle was low and sultry. Her expression suggested she found his question as quaint as the lane they occupied. With a delicate shrug she said, “This is Hartsfield, sir.” She raised her arm in the direction of the left-most path. “The fork is a good mile down the road.” She trilled her fingers in an almost shooing gesture. “Make sure to take the left branch.” Then she turned and walked away.
He sat immobile another second while he absorbed the fact that he, the new and Sixth Duke of Bradford, had just been dismissed by a self-possessed chit of eighteen.
Miss Beatrice Castle was, indeed, young but she was no miss of eighteen, having fulfilled the ripe age of two-and-twenty the previous April. However, she had the experience of a much older woman, owing to the fact that she had taken on adult responsibilities seven years earlier. Her guardian-angel-cum-general-factotum, Hugo, was wont to refer to her as an Old Soul. The new duke was correct to judge her to be self-possessed. He was soon to learn she was also a woman of possessions, given that she owned half the hamlet nestled at the foot of his southern lawn.
Once she had put the well-setup man on horseback onto the correct path, Beatrice continued on her way, a simple errand from her trim country house to a structure across the street dubbed the Hotel. She was going to look in on the new mother and the infant daughter who had arrived in the world the day before, red and wrinkled and very much desired.
This latest new mother shared much in common with other mothers Beatrice had brought to Hartsfield over the past two years. She was young, unwed, and had fallen pregnant through no lapse of virtue on her part but rather by the lustful attentions of the lord and master of the establishment where she worked – or, perhaps, by the roving eye and busy cock of his son, an upper footman, or even an unscrupulous tradesman on a delivery who knew the tricks to corner and conquer comely serving girls. It was an old story. It was a tiresome story. But Beatrice had created the means to give these stories a happy end. She provided the fallen women with a place to go when their bellies started to show. In the barn-turned-dormitory behind the Hotel they spent their pregnancies in the fresh air, eating well and doing light chores, far away from disapproving eyes. At the Hotel they gave birth not under shamefaced conditions but rather under joyous ones.
She entered what had once been a shambling crofter’s cottage now converted into a tidy room with two beds, two bassinettes and a scattering of comfortable chairs for midwives, nursing mothers and visitors. Only one bed was currently occupied, namely by Anna who was holding the tiny bundle she had named Mary Claire, and one chair was filled by the stolid girth of Mrs. Hutchins, a midwife with the steadiest hands and longest fingers in southern England.
Beatrice greeted the occupants and was greeted in return. After inspecting the still red and wrinkly baby, she smoothed back Anna’s hair to plant a kiss on her forehead then took a seat on the edge of her bed. She invited, “Tell me the latest.”
The midwife took charge of the recital and informed Beatrice that Mary Claire had latched on with no difficulty and was suckling nicely. She further heard in detail the feeding schedule of the infant who was hardly twenty-four hours old. Mrs. Hutchins praised Anna’s recovery, pronounced her fit to have as many children as she wanted – adding with a broad wink that she hoped Anna would be wed before further breeding occurred – and continued on about what the new mother was to eat and drink over the next few weeks. She ended with a deal to say about the three young women currently residing in the Dormitory, two of whom were to deliver relatively soon in September and the third in October. Mrs. Hutchins was plainly pleased by the current state of affairs of Miss Castle’s operation, and she didn’t think the bed in the Dormitory vacated by Anna would be empty much longer because “men being men never learn from their fellow’s mistakes, and the reason is they’re not held to account when one of ‘em gets a decent lassie up the duff!”
Beatrice could only agree and spared no blush for Mrs. Hutchins’ use of cant. From a young age her tender ears had been accustomed to hearing quite a bit stronger language.
Presently Cook sailed in with tea and sandwiches, bowls of fresh fruit and the latest neighborhood gossip. “The new duke has come!” she announced with great self-importance. Barely containing herself she explained how Jarod, Jem the blacksmith’s brother, who worked in the Bradford stables, had spread the news, using the clever ruse of needing to exercise one of the mounts.
“His grace apparently has a very fine horse,” Cook said, “so Jarod told Jem, and while Jem wanted to natter on about it to me, I had to tell him I did not care a pin if his grace’s horseflesh is prime or not but wanted to know better things!”
“Yes,” Mrs. Hutchins agreed, “like a description of his carriage.”
“Well, as to that, I’m sure he has one,” Cook said, “but he didn’t come in it. Simply rode up to the manor alone, no fine equipage with liveried postilions and like! No, it seems the most he brought with him was a bedroll slung on the back of his horse.”
While Cook, Mrs. Hutchins and Anna explored the mysteries surrounding a duke who arrived for the first time at his principal seat with so little fanfare, Beatrice was left to figure she’d already met the man. When the Fifth Duke had died a few months past, little was known about the Sixth Duke. The male line of Averys had been so very strong that no one could have predicted the astonishing series of unexpected deaths that had led to a distant cousin inheriting the dukedom. Beatrice was given to wondering whether the new duke’s very quiet arrival arose from his lack of sense what was due his consequence. Or was he a sly one, getting the lay of the land before revealing himself?
Beatrice added the detail of his bedroll, which she had not noticed, to the picture she had of him with his sun-tanned features, his erect carriage and the faraway look in his eyes when he had looked up from his contemplation of the scrabbly intersection in the center of the hamlet.
“He may be an army man,” she ventured.
“Hussars!” Cook affirmed. “Distinguished himself at Waterloo he did, so everyone at the manor is saying. They’re also saying he’s a fine looking man!”
Beatrice could not deny it, although she wouldn’t call him classically handsome. He was certainly attractive with dark hair, blue eyes, a masterful nose and firm jaw. Thinking back on their encounter, she decided what had impressed her most was his presence, his air of self-containment. Keeping her own counsel she said nothing to the women about having met him, and conversation about the new duke was eventually exhausted, there being only so many times the same spare facts could yield fresh interpretations.
Into a small pause Anna said, “I’ve made my decision, Miss Castle.”
Beatrice laid her hand on Anna’s arm and replied, “There’s no hurry, you know. Take all the time you want.”
“But I know what I want to do,” Anna said earnestly. “I want to say here, and I’ve persuaded Mama to come join us.”
“What good news!” was Beatrice’s immediate reply.
She had found Anna in the girl’s fourth month, frightened and rejected by her own family. Over the months Beatrice had paid scribes to exchange letters between Anna and her mother, since neither woman knew to how to read or write. Beatrice heartily applauded Anna’s mother’s change of heart. She could always use another pair of capable hands to carry out her work in Hartsfield.
In the wake of this happy report she said her good-byes, returned to her house and went through the documents she had brought from London concerning various properties she was eyeing to buy. She was not one for airy speculation on ‘Change. She liked down-to-earth parcels of land and the solidity of the structures built on them.
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen