Page 73 of The Husband Season

‘Come this way, my lord,’ the man said, leading the way along a narrow passage into a room that was evidently the best parlour. It felt cold and smelled musty as if it were little used. There were two stuffed winged chairs before an empty grate, a rather battered sofa, a couple of hard-backed chairs and a table. A shelf displayed cheap ornaments, and there was an embroidered text hanging from a nail above the mantel.

 Bessie was shivering violently and Sophie feared she had caught a chill. She turned to the farmer. ‘Mr...what is your name?’

 ‘Brown, my lady.’

 ‘Mr Brown,’ she said, ignoring his mistake. ‘I fear my maid is not very well. Do you think she could sit by your fire and warm herself? A hot drink might help, too.’

 ‘We would all appreciate a hot drink,’ Adam said. ‘But look after the maid first.’

 ‘Come, miss,’ the man said, addressing Bessie.

 She glanced at Sophie, who nodded. ‘Go on.’

 ‘I’ll go, too,’ Joe said. He went after the farmer and Bessie, leaving Adam and Sophie alone.

 ‘Where is Mr Farley?’ she asked.

 ‘He is checking the carriage and horses are out of sight of the road. It would be a trifle inconvenient to find them gone when we want to continue our journey.’

 ‘Who is likely to be on the road in this?’ She gestured towards the window where the rain was running down in rivulets.

 ‘If someone was on foot or on horseback, the prospect of riding in the dry might be too much of a temptation.’

 ‘Surely it is the coachman’s task to see that doesn’t happen?’

 ‘Yes, but at the moment, he seems to have his hands full with Miss Sadler.’

 She laughed. ‘They do seem rather keen on each other.’

 ‘It is your fault for suggesting she ride on the box.’

 ‘She was feeling sick and you were chafing at the delay. What else would you have me do?’

 ‘Oh, I am not criticising you, simply pointing out a fact. And the delay of a few minutes is immaterial now. We are going to be hours behind schedule, and I am afraid even if we start out at once we will be forced to have another night on the road.’

 ‘It is still raining, but the thunder and lightning have passed.’

 ‘I had noticed that,’ he said laconically. ‘As soon as we have had something to eat, I will ride ahead on Swift and reconnoitre the ground.’

 ‘Why not send Mr Farley?’

 ‘Because he will want to eat and drink and warm himself.’

 ‘You are very careful of him.’

 ‘He is careful of me. Treat a man right and he will remain loyal.’

 ‘You know, you are very like Mark. Not so much in looks, but in your philosophy. It must be a family trait. How close is his relationship with you?’

 ‘Our mothers were sisters. My mother died when I was at school. She was perfectly well when I was home for the Easter break, but she had gone before I was due home for the summer.’

 ‘I am sorry. It must have been very hard for you.’

 ‘It was. I was particularly close to her. She taught me so much about the countryside, about her charitable work, about forgiveness and tolerance...’ His voice cracked and he swallowed hard.

 She put out a hand to touch his arm, but did not speak. He looked down at the hand and she withdrew it hastily. ‘I must go and see how Bessie is doing.’ She left him to gather himself in private. If she had stayed a moment longer, she would have put her arms about him to comfort him and that would have been completely the wrong thing to do. A proud man like he was would not have appreciated it.

 Bessie was sitting close to the fender in the kitchen with a blanket round her, warming her hands on a hot tankard. The farmer’s wife was working round her, stirring the contents of a large cooking pot that hung above the flames. On the rough table was a board containing bread, a dish of butter and a pile of plates.

 ‘Mrs Brown, is there anything I can do to help?’ she asked.

 ‘Gracious me, no, my lady. Please go back to his lordship. I will bring food to you directly. I have given your maid a herbal remedy for I fear she has taken cold. The coachman has gone to fetch her bag. I will make up a bed for her in our spare room. It is used by our grandchildren when they come to stay, but they are not here now.’

 It sounded as if she expected her uninvited visitors to stay overnight. Sophie went back to report the fact to Adam. ‘I don’t know where she is going to put us all,’ she said. ‘It is a fairly substantial farmhouse, but I doubt it extends to more than three bedchambers. Besides, I collect you are anxious to be on your way. If Bessie cannot travel, then you had better leave us here and go on without us. Mark will come and fetch us in due course.’