Authors: Meg Brooke
"Good morning," she said, crossing to the sideboard to serve herself some toast and eggs. "I trust you slept well?"
"Very," Mr. Strathmore said, taking a sip of coffee. He looked exhausted, and Eleanor knew that he and Lord Pierce had both been up until the wee hours talking in the library. Her maid Lily had told her as much as she was arranging her hair and helping her into her riding clothes.
She couldn't help but notice that Lord Pierce was staring at her riding costume. Eleanor prided herself on her horsemanship—her father had been one of the boldest riders in the county, and he had encouraged all his children to learn not only how to ride but also how to care for a horse. When Eleanor had complained that mucking out stalls and currying her own mount were too difficult in her full-skirted riding habit, he had taken her to the village tailor and had a pair of breeches, a shirt and a little coat made for her. For her birthday he had presented her with a pair of Hessian boots made especially for her. Eleanor had been more proud to don that outfit than she could have been of the finest presentation gown ever seen at the court of St. James. She had been dressing the same way to ride in the country ever since. Still, she was not a fool. It had occurred to her that her costume might discomfit her guests. Perhaps that was why the look of astonishment on Lord Pierce's face pleased her so.
“I hope you both have riding experience,” she said, sitting down and ignoring their stares. “The valley is not the easiest place to ride, or to travel on foot for that matter. There are ravines and fallen trees, and the river has been high all summer.” She took a bite of her toast and glanced up.
Mr. Strathmore had returned his focus to his breakfast, but Lord Pierce was still gaping at her. When his companion noticed it, he said helpfully, “Perhaps we might see some plans of the estate later?”
“Of course, Mr. Strathmore,” she said. “Our steward Mr. Jameson will help you with that. His office is just beyond the servants’ stairs.”
“We will be going into the village later,” Lord Pierce finally said.
“Excellent. Would you like me to introduce you around?”
“That would be...helpful,” he said thoughtfully. He was looking through the open door, listening as footsteps rang in the passage.
Eleanor’s mother swept into the room. “Good morning,” she said, smiling charmingly at the two gentlemen as she crossed to the sideboard and poured herself a cup of coffee. “Darling, whatever are you wearing?” she asked.
“I’m going riding, mother,” Eleanor said evenly.
“In those things?”
“It’s what I usually wear.” She tried not to blush.
Lady Sidney laughed pleasantly. “You must excuse Eleanor, gentlemen,” she said, completely unflustered.
“I think it makes perfect sense,” Lord Pierce said. Eleanor shot him a look that begged him not to come to her aid. He would only make it worse. “If Miss Chesney wishes to ride in the valley, she should be attired properly.”
Lady Sidney stared at him. “Proper attire is not one of Eleanor’s interests,” she said calmly.
Eleanor stifled a groan.
Her mother seemed to finally notice that Lord Pierce and Mr. Strathmore were dressed for riding as well. “Are you taking our guests out, Eleanor?”
“You must show them the waterfall, dear. It is by far the most beautiful spot in the valley,” she added, smiling at the gentlemen. “We used to picnic up there when the girls were young.”
“I will look forward to it,” Lord Pierce said, finishing his coffee. He looked expectantly at Eleanor.
“We must be going, I think,” she said gratefully, almost leaping out of her chair. “It will only get warmer later in the day.”
“Of course,” her mother smiled up at them. Almost sighing with relief, Eleanor led the gentlemen out into the corridor.
“The stables are through here,” she said, leading them through the front hall and out into the courtyard behind the house. John Mowbray, a tall, well-built man whose long hair was tied in an old-fashioned queue down his neck, stood waiting for them.
“Miss Chesney!” he cried, breaking into a wide grin.
She went right up to him and put her hand on his arm as he bowed her head. “How many times do I have to tell you to call me Eleanor? We used to race each other to the village.” John was the son of the previous head groom, and he and Eleanor were of an age. Once the two of them had been friends, but now it felt as though a great chasm had opened between them.
“When we were children, Miss Chesney,” the head groom said.
She smiled despite her disappointment. “Oh, very well. This is Lord Pierce, and Mr. Strathmore,” she said.
John bowed his head to each of them. “Are you ready for your horses?”
She nodded. “How has Mabon fared in my absence?”
“Well enough. He missed you, I think.”
Just then one of the grooms led her bay, an impressive stallion called Mabon, out of the stable. With a cry of joy she rushed to him. His eyes lit up as she neared, and he leaned his muzzle eagerly into her hand as she caressed him. “How are you, my darling man?” she asked.
Mabon had been hers since the moment he was born. Her brother rode his sire, Gwydion, and when she had proved that she could handle a stallion as well as any man, he had promised her the first foal out of Thistle, who they expected to be the mother of champions. Mabon had not disappointed. Eleanor had insisted on going to the stable the night Thistle foaled. She knew she would never forget standing there in the cold darkness, watching as John’s father Alan and John himself brought the foal out. From that moment on, Eleanor had loved Mabon, and she knew that no matter what her mother said about an animal being unable to love, the horse’s heart was hers as well.
For a brief, blissful moment she leaned her head against Mabon’s neck, breathing in the scent of him. Then she remembered that she was not alone, that the others were watching, and she stepped away and allowed John to lift her into the saddle.
They rode out of the stableyard, Lord Pierce on a striking chestnut and Mr. Strathmore on a dappled gray. The day was fine yet, and the high clouds boded well for another splendid afternoon of warmth. Before it got too hot Eleanor meant to take them around the perimeter of the valley.
But first, she intended to give Mabon what he longed for. “Catch me if you can!” she called out, and she spurred her horse into a gallop.
Colin watched as Miss Chesney sped away over the small lawn that surrounded the house and towards what appeared to be a bridge over a narrow river in the distance.
“What a strange woman she is,” Strathmore said beside him.
Colin looked over at his companion, who was sitting like a sack of flour in the saddle. “You will ride more comfortably if you press down into the saddle,” he advised.
Strathmore smiled. “I don’t have much experience with horses. I did not have the benefit of an Eton education,” he added, sneering a little.
“Where did you go to school?” Colin asked, determined to be friendly.
“My uncle George Hamline has a school in Lyme Regis.”
Strathmore nodded. “It was not the equal of Eton, of course, but it did well enough for me and my brothers.”
“So how did you come to the Foreign Office?”
“I served two years in Mysore.”
“You were a Company man?”
He nodded. “Officially I was attached to Governor-General Bentinck’s office, but most of my work was breaking codes and locks and ciphers for Sir Mark Cubbon.”
Colin raised an eyebrow. He knew Sir Mark by reputation, though of course he had never met the man, who had been serving in India since before Colin was born. The lieutenant general had a reputation for being a fair-minded reformer who had taken charge of the troublesome Mysore state a few years earlier, though he hadn’t been officially appointed Commissioner until this year. “A good place to cut your teeth,” he commented.
“It wasn’t for me. My first year all the men who went over with me died of the cholera. I was the only survivor. After that I began making friends with the members of the foreign service who had been stationed there. It wasn’t long before someone recommended me for a return to England and His Majesty’s service. On my way back we were stopped in Algeria to investigate the murders of three French officers there. It was another year before we returned to England.”
Now Colin understood why Strathmore had been assigned to his detail. “So you have knowledge of the Serraray,” he said.
Strathmore looked grim. “They are the most single-minded group I have ever encountered. There were organizations like theirs in India, you know, devoted to the overthrow of the British occupiers. But there were none who pursued that end with such intensity as the Berbers.”
“Do you speak any of the language?”
He shrugged. “Only a little. Enough to know where the word ‘Serraray’ comes from and to understand what that means.”
it mean?” Colin knew the literal translation, but he had to admit that his knowledge of the native peoples of Algeria was lacking.
“I cannot speak for all Muslims,” Strathmore said carefully, “but to the Serraray it means that once their leader has given an order, it is as if that order had come from God himself. There is no turning back until it is fulfilled or death comes.” There was a note of awe in his voice, as though some small part of him admired their determination.
Colin nodded, looking across the field to where Miss Chesney had turned her horse and was galloping back to them. As she neared, she called out, “Let’s veer west first. The sun will only get stronger on the hillsides as it gets later.” She came back to ride with them. Her cheeks were pleasantly flushed, her hair tousled. She wore no hat, and the ruffled tie at the collar of her shirt that mimicked a cravat was coming undone.
They followed her across the river. “The Bolling,” she explained. “It’s not usually this high so late in the summer, but we had a rainy spring.”
“So this is where the village gets its name,” Strathmore said.
“Yes. If you follow the river it will take you across the flats and right through the village out to the sea. Down there you can see for miles up and down the coast. It’s mostly flatlands here, you know. Our little valley is unique.” There was a note of pride in her voice.
The river cut through the valley east to west, and now she took them along the banks and back towards the main road. The trees thickened as they went.
“There is an old gamekeeper’s lodge here,” she explained, “though it hasn’t been used in decades. The last gamekeeper died when my father was a child, and after that the family didn’t see a use for another. But the lodge has been kept up, and it’s still in good repair.”
Through the trees Colin spotted a low building constructed of the same sandy stone as the great house. It had a thatched roof that looked relatively new and shiny mullioned windows. “Is the door kept locked?” Colin asked.
“No. We’ve never seen the need for it, though I suppose we could have a lock fitted to it if it’s necessary.”
Strathmore shrugged. “I don’t suppose it will be.” He looked at Colin. “One of us will ride the perimeter each day, just to be sure.”
“I see. Well, shall we ride the south hill up to the ruins first?”
As they followed her along a worn trail towards the southern edge of the valley, Colin marveled at the woman’s resilience. Her life and the lives of her family were in danger, her home under threat, and yet with every complication or surprise her resolve only seemed to strengthen.
“Now, from here,” Miss Chesney said as they crested the low hill to the south, “you can see the roof of the house, as well as the stableyard, but the village and the river are out of view behind the north hill. The windows of the house itself provide a much clearer view of the north hill, so if I were going to try to sneak onto the grounds I would do it from this end of the valley.”