Authors: Murray Pura
“Now, mind you attend, young Master Skitt. Next summer you’ll be handling matters on your own.”
Skitt looked at the map Fairburn was sketching. “I thought the estate here was just the land on the hill.”
“A common misconception.” The stocky man with a ginger-colored beard, moustache, and sideburns continued to draw, the pencil clutched in his red, stubby fingers. “Of course it’s nothing like Ashton Park, but we have a hundred acres running east, west, north, and south. The swans are here—you must pay attention, Master Skitt. There have been poachers, and the police’ll not mind if you nab ’em.”
Skitt was glancing all about him as the two men sat on a boulder near a narrow stream. “I’ve not been here before, Mister Fairburn.”
“We’ll have a long walk today and get you acquainted with the lie of the land. But you must memorize this map. See—” Fairburn made several sharp strokes with a piece of charcoal he yanked from the pocket of his tweed coat. “I’ve been working on a dry stone fence for years to mark off our boundaries. The Gillans are to the south—good people, salt of the earth. To the east is the main road into Dover. Those fences are done. Of course I’m connecting ’em all together so Dover Sky’s in an enclosure, like. So those two have met up. And the east fence is linked with the north fence and the McPhails—rogues, that lot, every last one of them. I’ve toyed with pointing cannon in their direction, I tell ye. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re the ones poaching the swans and geese and deer. I’ve built that fence a foot or two higher on account of their general nastiness. Now to the west are the Knights—fine people, handsome daughters, no sons. That’s the fence we need to complete before the leaves turn in September or October.”
Skitt pointed to a spot on the map. “What’s that?”
“Grove of oak trees. None near as old as any in Lancashire.”
“An old well. We’ve boarded over the top so’s a child won’t fall in. The well’s dry.”
“And this here?”
“A cave. The Lord only knows how long that’s been there. Found an ancient yew bow in it fifteen years back. The sinew was gone—y’know, the bowstring—but the wood was sturdy enough. I have it in me
groundskeeper’s hut if you’d like to see it. Now, by the Gillans’ property—Lad, lad, where’s your head at this time?”
“It’s Cathy—I mean Lady Catherine.”
Fairburn craned his neck. “Where?”
“Coming up the slope from the swans.”
Fairburn saw her. “Tall and dark. I remember her. How is she then?”
“Why, for long stretches she’s right as rain. Then a black mood just takes over, and she’s down in the dumps for a good spell.”
“A cruel fate, no mistake. So young and a widow with a young boy to raise. How old is he now?”
“About fourteen months.”
“Has she shown any interest in, well, meeting another man who can be a father to the lad and a good husband to her?”
“They bring lords and dukes and whatnots ’round to Ashton Park on a regular basis to meet her. She’s taken no interest in any of them. Polite enough to ’em, she’s all of that, still a lady, but never encourages any of the men to call again.”
They watched Catherine make her way towards them. Sean was asleep in her arms.
Fairburn smoothed down his moustache quickly. “I don’t recall her being so comely.”
“She’s lost a good deal of weight since her husband’s death. And she’s let her hair grow as long as the Thames. That’s what you notice.”
“It’s glossy-black as a raven’s wing.”
Skitt nodded. “Aye.”
Catherine glanced up and saw them on the boulder. She flashed a smile. “Gentlemen, excuse me. I didn’t notice you there.”
Skitt and Fairburn got to their feet and whipped the flat tweed caps from their heads.
“Ma’am,” Fairburn greeted.
“Lady Catherine,” said Skitt.
“Oh Skitt, Lady Catherine—that’s too much for down here, isn’t it? We’re hundreds of miles from Ashton Park.”
“It comes to you with your father’s title. It’s a question of respect. Imagine if your mother caught me calling you just plain Catherine.”
Just plain Catherine?
Now that does sound drab, doesn’t it?” She smiled at Fairburn. “Mum tells me this is your last summer with us.”
Fairburn clutched at his cap in his hand. “That’s so, m’lady. I’ll be serving an English family in the south of France. Old friends of your father and mother, y’see, and in a bit of a bind for a competent groundskeeper.”
“Well, you’ll certainly fit the bill. When do you take up your new post?”
“In November, Lady Catherine. After I’ve set everything to rights at Dover Sky, and young Master Skitt here’s fairly squared away.”
“I’m so glad we have you for a final summer.”
“Thank you, m’lady. I’m grateful as well.”
Catherine lifted Sean higher on her shoulder. “I’ll see you gentlemen later then. I’m just going to get my boy here to his bed.”
Skitt reached out with his hands. “I can help you with him.”
“Thank you, Skitt, but I can manage. Ta.”
The two men watched her carry on up the slope towards the house.
“How long do you reckon she’ll remain unwed?” asked Fairburn.
“Not long,” responded Skitt. “You see she’s pleasant enough despite everything. Ah, to be a lord and win her hand…”
Fairburn erupted in a laugh that sounded like coal rumbling down a chute. He planted his cap back firmly on his head. “We really are daydreamin’ today, aren’t we, lad? Enough with this map for now. Y’need something to get the steam out of your system. Ever built a dry stone fence? No mortar a’tall?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Today’s the day then. Right. Let’s head over to our property line with the Knights to the west.”
Why do men look at
now? I’m so used to them staring at Victoria. Or my brothers’ wives Charlotte and Christelle. What has happened? Do they feel sorry for me? Does my being a widow make them feel like they want to take care of me?
Well away from Skitt and Fairburn and still distant from the house, Catherine spoke out loud. She glanced down at young Sean cradled in her arms. “It takes all the energy I have to put up
a cheerful front. God, You know I can’t do any more than that. When I think of loving another man I simply get weary. I don’t have it in me. Maybe five years from now…or ten…but not now. Not yet.”
Thank goodness the baron is an old man. He will not gape at me and pester me like the sons of lords do at Ashton Park
“There. Steak and kidney pie. They’ve all turned out perfect. Lord Preston will be happy with that.” The short, round woman with curly hair the color of rust glanced about her. “Norah Cole? Sally? Where have you got to?”
Norah rushed into the kitchen. “Just setting out the bread and butter, Mrs. Longstaff.”
“And the crystal? You’ve laid out the crystal as I asked? He’s a baron, you know.”
“And a German.”
Mrs. Longstaff clicked her tongue. “Never you mind about that. The war’s over and done with years ago. He’s paid a price himself, you know. Two sons killed fighting the Russians. His wife dead of a cancer. Only the one daughter left. Have some Christian charity.”
Norah tilted up her chin. “All right.”
“In any case, he is an old friend of the Danforth family, and so was his father and his father’s father. That’s reason enough to treat him with a good measure of grace and respect.”
“Yes, Mrs. Longstaff.”
“And he gave Lord Preston those beautiful dogs.”
“Where’s Sally got to?”
“In the wine cellar with Tavy. He’s choosing a red, and she’s choosing a white.”
“Well, run and tell them to make up their minds and be done with it. I’m calling the Danforths to tea in five minutes. Help me with the pies, love. One to a plate. Mind you, Sir William—Lord Preston, I should say—be sure he gets two.”
Each of them picked up a wooden tray of the steaming pies and headed up a ramp to the dining room. Mrs. Longstaff’s eyes took in everything as she placed pies at each place setting.
“You’ve remembered the high chair for Sean? Good. And you’ve got Lord Preston’s knives and forks and spoons arranged for his left hand. Now did you know the baron is left-handed, as well?”
“I thought I’d mentioned it. No matter. Only takes a moment.” She moved the baron’s cutlery around. “There. And we have spare pies in the oven just in case.”
“You have some for our men?”
“For Tavy and Fairburn? ’Course I do.”
“And young Skitt? He’s a growing boy.”
Mrs. Longstaff chuckled. “Boy? I daresay he’s a man now, Norah Cole. You watch out for him this summer.”
Norah sniffed. “I’m old enough to be his mother.”
“His mother?” Mrs. Longstaff raised her eyebrows.
“Well, an older sister then. There’ll be no to-do between the pair of us, I assure you.”
The dining hall shimmered with light from a crystal chandelier that made all the crystal goblets, glasses, and side plates dance. The baron got to his feet after grace and raised his wineglass in a toast. “To my hosts! May nothing ever separate our families. Not war, not peace. God bless you all.”
“Hear, hear!” Lord Preston rose. “May I return the blessing? In my best German?
Gott erhalte unsere Familien in der Einheit—für immer!
I think I have that right, Baron.”
The baron bowed. “Excellent. Unity forever. I shall drink to that.” He sipped from his glass of red wine and sat down. “Good English food,
“Indeed. Steak and kidney pie. Mushy peas. Fried potatoes and tomatoes. All a man needs, Gerard.”
“I think so.” He placed a white napkin in his lap and smiled at
Catherine and her toddler. “You look wonderful, Lady Catherine. How is your health?”
Catherine returned the smile as she broke open her piecrust with a fork. “I am very well, Baron. Thank you for asking.”
“Your boy is coming along well.”
She smiled at Sean, who was stuffing mushy peas in his mouth with his hand. “He is, isn’t he?”
“His looks seem to favor you.”
“People say that. But in some of his mannerisms he reminds me of his father. Such as now.”
Her father and mother and the baron laughed.
Catherine drank from her glass of water. “I suppose we will find out who he really takes after by the time he is eleven or twelve.”
The baron chewed and swallowed while shaking his head. “Oh, much before that, my dear. Believe me, much before that.”
The household staff sat in the kitchen and ate together.
“This is right good, Mrs. Longstaff,” said Skitt with his mouth full. “Is there much more of it?”
She watched him eat. “If the baron doesn’t want seconds and Lord Preston is content with two, there should be plenty left over.”
“That’s good news.”
“And there’s plenty of bread and butter and yesterday’s coney stew if the pies are gone.”
“The rabbit stew? It wasn’t all eaten?”
“We were building a fence you see—dry stone—no mortar. Had to fit them tight together just so. Fairburn wanted to get it all done today—”