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.”