Thursday, May 24th, 2018
Early the next morning, William saw his mason and carpenter sent off with instructions to do what they might at Underby, and to do as good a job of it as they could, giving no thought to expense. They were to consult with Thomas, and were given funds enough, and to spare, to do anything that they might need to do. He also spent much of his free time with his man of business and learned that not only was the Brooklands estate in good hands, but that it had been thriving as long as Gossett had been allowed free rein with the decisions that were needed.
Sophia, occasionally was able to intercept William in his plans, and might even expect to be taken up on his horse, as she had been at Underby, and to go on a tour of the estate with the two gentlemen. She was happy to listen to them herself and to see what there was to see.
Gossett had not known what to expect from this new owner. Some of the tales that he had heard of him in his absence, were not at all promising, but he soon had reason to feel more optimistic. Master William seemed to have a steady head on his shoulders, was happy to listen and to learn, and even asked some reasonable and searching questions that showed he understood far more than he might disclose. It was also clear that he had no intention of changing anything until he fully understood everything and even then seemed happy to place his trust in his manager, much as his father and mother had done. After viewing the return of the prodigal son with some apprehension, he soon began to realize that he was dealing with an intelligent man who would deal with him fairly and seemed pleased at the current state of affairs and was easily able to tell him so.
William also learned that almost all of the hay was in to the outer barns or had been stacked up into hayricks. As men became available from the urgent business of harvesting the hay crop, and as the season advanced, most of that stored outside as Ricks, in the need to see it protected from the frequent, wet weather, would be brought in to the home barns for storage and use over winter. It was a late year for haying. At least three weeks late. He learned that there had been some concern that they might not be able to get all that had been planned to get, but the weather had begun to cooperate for once, and the final fields were even then being cut, and the other crops being placed into clamps or brought into storage.
He also took the opportunity of taking the ladies out with him in a carriage, on those few fine days, to give them a break from being cooped up too close to the main house, though they found nothing to complain about. Charlotte had access to more paper and charcoals and even hard graphite-core pencils than she had ever dreamed of, and set herself up in the conservatory if it promised rain, or in the garden to draw trees, or the mansion, or barns; for the vistas leant themselves better to being captured than anywhere around their property at Underby. On those rare occasions when Sophia was unable to go out with William, she could generally be found in the library.
The other ladies—Elizabeth, Annis, and Mrs. Barristow—spent most of their days together in gentle conversation or moving through the extensive gardens or the hothouse, where Elizabeth learned more of what had transpired that fateful day that had brought William to Underby and what had happened since then. She listened carefully and began to see more in everything described to her, than her narrators might have thought possible.
One fine day, there had been an excursion to pick the last of the abundant brambles in the edge of the wood and of the hazelnuts along the hedgerow. Promise of a bramble-apple pie and of making bramble jam and bramble jelly figured largely in their being able to brave the vicious thorns on the bushes, though Sophia did manage to get herself tangled, and needed to have William wade into the middle of them to extricate her with no more than a few minor scratches to her hands and cheek but some damage to his own flesh and clothing, amidst some laughter.
After an hour of good picking, they had filled their baskets and could then relax over the picnic that William had had the foresight to bring. They sat on the edge of an old sandpit that William remembered being the home of a family of foxes for some years. He mentioned that if they were to stay quiet, that they might even see one, though did not expect it, and was surprised to find that they soon had the pleasure of watching a mother fox appear from a nearby den followed by her three grown cubs and to watch her playing with them. They even saw the male fox bring in a dead rabbit for them to play with while they learned what it meant to find food for themselves, rather than continuously nursing from their mother, for she was in process of weaning them away from herself. It had been disturbing to watch two of the larger cubs playing tug of war over the carcass until it was ripped into two pieces, with smaller parts of it quickly carried off by the other cub to feast upon, for at that point the ladies tended to become disgusted and to lose interest in the display of nature as red in tooth and claw as it could be. As long as the watchers were silent, the mother fox cautiously tolerated them but did not trust them far. Where there were humans, then dogs were never far behind, though the foxhunt had never been fond of the Devane estate, as it was more likely a place to lose a fox than to find one in all of the thickets and bramble patches, which were unfriendly to both dogs and horses and riders, as much as they protected rabbits and foxes and even deer.
After their picnic, they had set too, to pick hazelnuts while avoiding the nettles that also seemed to fill the margins of the hedgerow.
William pointed out other things of interest to Sophia. “Look.” He pointed up into the sky. “See those wispy long thin clouds high in the sky? They are called mare’s tails. When you see those, you know that the weather is about to change and probably for the worse on the next day. ‘In nature’s infinite book of secrecy, a little I can read.’ At least that is how Shakespeare described something of it.”
On those rainy days or where the wind was strong and the weather cool, the ladies remained in the house and pored over maps or played the harpsichord or just read while William was rarely in the house at all, even in the worst weather, but usually took himself off for some hours. They learned from Elizabeth that he was probably off at the dock getting his ship, the Seamew ready, now that he was back, but ready for what, she seemed loath to say, though they knew he probably intended to go across to France and take up smuggling again.
One morning, Annis had found William asleep in the kitchen chair with Sophia curled up with him. He was tired, for he had been out most of the previous night and the one before that too, and that, after working in the fields alongside his men, to try and get another lot of hay in, and she suspected Sophia had not been in her bed either but had watched for him to return.
She took the opportunity to sit at the kitchen table and watched them as she ate a slice of heavily buttered hot bread, fresh out of the oven with some of the bramble jam that her mother had made up.
She kept silent and watched as Sophia woke up and reached out to feel the hairs on William’s heavy eyebrows and those that Annis—when she last shaved him—may have missed under his jawbone. She investigated a long scar, just in his hair line, that he refused to say anything of, and then a small cut on his chin from a sharp branch on one of their hazelnut outings; and intent, it seemed on waking him up, she kissed it better. By then, he was half awake. Sophia had no shyness or embarrassment over any of it. Oh, the innocence of children. Had she been able, Annis would have swapped places with her sister in the twinkling of an eye.
When Sophia saw that he was awake, she smoothed her hand over his rough cheek. “I am so glad I do not have to shave, William.”
He laughed. “So am I.” He rasped her delicate cheeks with his whiskers and elicited some mild complaints of discomfort as well as squirming and laughter.
“At least you never will need to. But then I haven’t needed to shave myself for some time now.”
“No, William, Annis seems happy to do it for you.”
“Yes, she does, doesn’t she? I am happy to let her, for she is so gentle and considerate and does such a good job of it too, and never a nick worth speaking of, or a word of complaint. Perhaps I should plead to be shaved twice a day. I should go and find her and ask to be shaved now, for it is more than even a full day.”
“You stayed out all night again, so you have only yourself to blame. But surely your hand is healed by now, and you could shave yourself, for you use it to work in the fields. I have watched you.”
“Of course, it is. I keep the bandage on it for a very good reason, called, malingering. It healed some time ago, but I can malinger so well and put up a great fuss over how slow it is healing, that she has not yet discovered it and won’t as long as I wear this. Don’t tell her, will you?”
“I promise to say nothing, William.”
“Good.” He noticed a slight noise over at the table as Annis decided to draw their attention by clearing her throat. “But I see I am mistaken. I am all undone. She has discovered it. We have an audience at the kitchen table. Annis. You have been sitting there the entire time and overhearing my candid confession to Sophia. Tarnation!”
“Yes, sir,” Annis spoke up. “I would say that you have been found out.” (But nothing she did not already know for herself.)
“Ouch. Ouch. Watch out for my hand, Sophia. I think I was mistaken about it being quite healed.”
“Too late, sir. The damage has been done.”
“But, Annis, my eyesight is still not as it should be after walking into those doors, else I would easily have seen you at the table, so I shall still plead that I will need your help to shave.”
“Malingerer.” She smiled at him, happy to find that he seemed to enjoy everything she did almost as much as she did. “But the plea about your eyesight might just save you from the fate you deserve.” She tried to look severe but could not hide her smile. She would have been disappointed had she not continued to shave him. She looked forward to that little adventure as much as he seemed to, with increasingly mischievous little liberties that might seem accidental, but were not, and there was always a kiss that followed it. Progression for there seemed inevitable, but she was never sure just where it would go.
“Thank you.” He smiled at her. She was not sure that he had not seen her, and was just having fun anyway to see how she might respond.
Everything that had gone on over the last few days between William and Annis had been watched and noted by both Mrs. Barristow and William’s sister. They frequently exchanged knowing glances. Sophia was well aware of everything too. She rarely left William’s side and could see more, and understood more, than the others might have guessed.
Mrs. Barristow was the one most relieved, as she readily confessed to Elizabeth. “I cannot think what we would have done in the last few weeks without him with us. It does not bear thinking upon.”
She blew her nose and tried to hold back her emotions at recent memories that still gave her nightmares. “He is a brother to my daughters and a son that I never had.”
Elizabeth had been well aware for some time that he was far from being a brotherly figure with Annis. The mother could see it too but was not about to discuss that too openly, having so recently buried the daughter he had married. What a predicament. Elizabeth’s heart went out to her brother and to Annis and was noticeably pleased with what she saw beginning to unfold for them both. It would be the making of him in so many ways. He had changed already, however, and very much for the better. It was a pity their mother and even their godmother were not here to see.