Wednesday, June 27th, 2018
The beating of tree branches on the window next to his bed woke William from a peaceful rest. He was surprised that the thunder and lightning had not done it earlier. A major storm, blown in from the coast, was raging outside. His first thought was of the horses. They had been left out in the paddock and would be wet and possibly scared. Then he remembered that they had been put away.
It seemed that the wind might be strong enough to bring trees down. It was likely that the driveway would be blocked, as there was an ancient copper beech tree at the side of the road which should have been felled for firewood long ago and would likely come down or, at best, might only shed a few of its branches. He made a mental note to see that it would be felled, and soon.
He heard one of the tiles above his head rattling ominously as it was lifted by the wind. It was obvious that he would not be able to get back to sleep again with the storm raging as it was.
That was when he noticed Sophia standing by the edge of his bed looking at him. Perhaps that was what had awoken him. She might even have been ready to slip into bed with him to get out of the sudden noise. He yawned. “Well, miss, what are you doing here?”
“The storm woke me. I’m scared. I’m scared for the horses too. They don’t like this any more than I do, and they are out in it. I was going to find Annis to help me put them in but she must have gone to comfort Charlotte. She does not like storms like this either and I decided to come to you instead. There is not room for three in Charlotte’s bed.”
“There is nothing to be afraid of, you know? I don’t think they were left out.” He heard the clock strike midnight from the hall below.
“But they were. I heard Jonathan, the groom, mention that the night was so warm they would be happy to be out.”
“But he knows enough to see to them.”
“He’s not here. You gave him the night off and he went into the village.”
“Yes, I did, didn’t I?” He looked at the storm passing across the landscape, illuminating it as though it were daylight each time the lightning flashed, which it did often. He decided that he had better see to the horses himself and then check that no damage had yet occurred to the conservatory attached to the house. There was a tree not too far away that might lose branches, or it might come down. It was doubtful that it could reach as far as the glass but blowing branches might.
“You say you went looking for Annis?”
“Yes. I was going to her room to slip into bed with her and spend the night there until the storm had passed, but she was not there. She might have gone to Charlotte’s room. Annis is terrified of the thunder even more than I am. But I dare not go along that corridor with all of those windows and mirrors while the lightning was flashing the way it was, so I came here instead. Then I remembered the horses.”
He slipped out of bed and decided not to light a candle, as the lightning was intense enough to illuminate his way, and the wind would only blow it out. Everyone else would be under their covers if not sleeping through it. He would go as he was, rather than wet his clothing and boots. He could easily change when he got back. “You should go back to bed, Sophia. Or climb in here where it’s warm, and I will see to this.”
“No, William. I do not want to be alone in this. I want to come too.” She moved over to him and looked nervously about herself as the lightning illuminated everything in the room. He felt her shrink closer to him and grasp his hand firmly. “The thunder scares me. I do not like being alone in this storm.”
“Very well. But I’ll get you to stay in the conservatory out of the storm while I see to them. No point in both of us getting soaked.” He could hear the rain spatter upon the tiles above his head and drive hard against the window. At least the Seamew was well tied up with good heavy rope fenders and was not out tonight. The wind was strong enough to tax even the best sailor with gusts strong enough to snap masts if not to tear sails away. Strong enough to un-hair a dog as his father used to say. It was strong enough even to lay a small boat flat in the water as had happened to him more than once as a boy out in a dinghy, when a sudden squall swept through.
He and Sophia—her hand tucked firmly into his—went down the back stairs to the conservatory where he let them both in. The door swung closed behind him, driven by a draft from somewhere inside the house. There must be a window open somewhere. It seemed so well protected from the winds outside, with little movement of the vegetation inside, and was even warm from the dying fire in the stove. It was clear that no damage had yet been done, and it was a relief to see that. But the rain, possibly mixed with hail, began to beat noisily onto the glass above their heads, and ran in small rivulets above them, outlined by the occasional flash of light. He noticed that one of the windows near the floor had been slid away. He closed it.
He counted between lightning and thunder. Fifteen seconds. That flash had been almost three miles away, but which way the storm was headed he did not yet know. It was probably all around him, as the sky everywhere seemed to reflect with light even without the closer sound of thunder to go with it.
He walked across and let himself out into the night, being careful to close the outer door securely behind himself, not realizing that Sophia had come outside with him. Even as he stepped away from the immediate shelter of the building, he felt the wind buffet him strongly and drive the rain into his face and whip his nightshirt flat against his body. There was no hail at all. It was too warm for that. The strength of the wind was what drove the rain hard, like hail, against everything. The wind seemed to suck the very breath from his lungs.
As he stepped away from the building, the runoff from the roof caught him in a drenching downpour that soaked him entirely, but it was warm and not at all unpleasant. He stood there for a few moments, smiled at the pleasant shock of it, and savored the unusual warmth as it ran down his neck and inside his nightshirt. He then noticed that his young shadow had not dared stay in the conservatory but had stayed close to him and was now holding his hand securely, and also getting wet, but not seeming to enjoy it quite so much.
Ah well, they were both wet now, but it was a warm rain and would do no one harm for the brief time they would likely be out, though no doubt it would soon get cold too, for it seemed always to get cold as a thunderstorm moved through. He could change her when they got back in. A candle could not possibly have been any use out here and possibly not even a lantern. He could hear branches whipping about in the edge of the woods and an occasional dead limb dropping with a crash, not so far off. There might be considerable damage by morning.
Sophia had her hand once more tucked firmly into his as they walked over to the barn. The paddock was empty. Someone must have brought the horses in earlier. He decided that he had better check them anyway, now that he was already wet and here. The wind was irregular because of the building behind him, but it did not seem that he was in the path of any flying branches from nearby trees, though he could hear the trees complaining loudly as their branches rubbed together or as they were swept into contact with each other. There would be many of them downed by morning, and even now he could hear yet another crash as a distant tree was snapped off by the wind.
“We worried for nothing, Sophia. They must have been put away by someone else. Either that or Jonathan knew a storm was coming and did not go to his mother’s house.”
He opened the stable door and spoke a few words so that the horses might know that someone they knew was there, but there was no answering snorts as there usually were. Instead, they were all comfortable in their stalls and seemed settled and contented despite the wind outside. They were intent on eating from the hay nets that had been put up for them late the night before.
“Well, Sophia, it was an empty journey. I see that everyone is content and not overly concerned about the weather outside, and everything seems secure.”
“They are all right.” Another voice spoke up from the shadows at the horses heads.
“I could not sleep either and came to check them too.” She saw Sophia with him. “I thought you would still be tucked up in your bed, miss.” Sophia held firmly onto William’s hand. “The storm woke me up, and I couldn’t stay by myself, Annis. You weren’t in your bed, so I went to look for William.”
“So you woke William instead. I am surprised he dragged you down here with him.”
“I didn’t drag her. She insisted on coming. I did tell her to stay in the conservatory and wait for me, but…well, she’s here now.”
“I got scared.” Sophia ran over to Annis and hugged her leg as the lightning flashed and lit a path for her. In the sudden glare, he noticed Annis standing off near the mule, clad, once again, only in her nightdress, as more flashes of lightning, in rapid succession, illuminated the inside of the stable with a flickering light that went on for some time.
“You seem to be making a habit of coming out lightly dressed. Is Charlotte or your mother not with you too? We could make this a family gathering.”
She laughed at his levity. “No. Charlotte does not like such storms, and Mama will not move when there is one about. But you are also lightly dressed too, this time. You seem to make a habit of it too, you know?”
“I knew it might be a warm rain, so I did not think I would be likely to get a chill, and I saw no reason to wet my few remaining clothes. Nor did I expect to find anyone else here. I hope you are not as wet as Sophia and I.”
Annis laughed. “But I am sure that I am, for it has not let up since I came out of the house. But you should not have encouraged her to come out with you.”
“I didn’t. I told you, she followed me. But it is not cold just yet. We seemed to catch the water cascading off the conservatory roof, but it was nice and warm so I did not mind. How long have you been here?”
“No more than a few minutes. I was surprised to see you two walk across from the conservatory. You seemed to be enjoying it.”
He laughed gently. “I was, though Sophia may not have been. I do not mind the rain when it is as warm as this. It reminds me of Portugal.”
“Sophia loves rain and thunder and even the lightning, and often sits in the window while a storm moves through. None of us are so very scared of a bad storm, though I must admit we sometimes can be if it is very severe like this one is.”
“And here I got the impression that she was terrified of all of that.”
“Not Sophia. Not usually.”
Sophia piped up at that. “I am sometimes scared.” The young lady in question was out of the way in the stall with Pat, the mule, and with the cat fussing about her legs. She seemed unaffected by the turn of conversation that put a lie to some of what she had said to William.
“No matter. Was it you that brought the horses in?”
“No. I expected that I would need to, but they were already brought in earlier before it began to rain, but I did not know that. They are dry. But William, it seems to be getting worse out there, rather than better.”
He heard the wind pick up even stronger and drive the rain against the side of the stable. “We should probably return to the house. The animals seem settled and contented and are safe here. We are the ones that are wet.” He opened the door and let them out and then closed it firmly behind them as he took her hand. “At least the rain is still warm and even quite pleasurable. We should wait for a while.” There was another flash, and he counted again. “Now we can go.” Their instinct was to run, to get out of it all, but William strolled almost leisurely across the intervening space with Annis beside him and Sophia tucked in between them, holding close to both of them for shelter from the wind and rain. It was even enjoyable to feel the warm rain against their faces.
“Are you not afraid of being struck by lightning?”
He glanced at Annis and felt her hand holding on to his as though she were not sure what to think. “No. It is still at least three miles away.”
“How do you know that, William?”
“But how will that tell you?”
He stopped in the middle of the open space, heedless of the rain beating against them. “I will show you. It is still far enough away that we are in little danger. We will watch for a strong flash.” They waited as they leaned against each other with Sophia tucked close into them both.
“There?” He started counting immediately out loud when they saw the flash, so they might hear. There was no crash of thunder other than the general rumble of many such strikes further way and all around them until he got to nine, and then there was a loud and strong crash that made Sophia tremble and move even closer to them. He put his arm around her too. He noticed that Annis was also close beside him and still holding his arm tightly. He could feel her breast pushing strongly up against his arm, and chose not to move. “That was only about two miles.”
“How do you know?”
“Light—the lightning—moves very fast. I do not know how fast, but it is exceedingly fast, whereas sound by comparison moves slowly.” The wind suddenly picked up about them and drove the rain hard into their faces to run down them, and to drip down from their hair and faces, and then suddenly whipped about their legs and bodies, sending their wet nightclothes in all directions. They held tight onto each other to stop from being blown over, with Sophia trapped between their legs for shelter as she laughed nervously at the power of the storm. He put his arm about Annis and pulled her close into his chest for protection. He felt her arm go around his back and hold him tightly also.
They were both amazed that he was not as scared as they were. It was one thing not to be afraid of a storm in the shelter of one’s home, but outside…? yet he was not afraid of any of it. They took their cue from him. He realized that they probably regarded him as quite strange to enjoy such weather, but he did.
He almost had to shout to be heard over the sudden blast of wind. “If you have ever stood on the cliff top and watched a cannon fired from a ship far out to sea, you can see the smoke from the barrel almost immediately—the flash, if it is nighttime. But it takes some time to actually hear the boom of the cannon. One can calculate how far the ship is from where you are on the shore by counting the seconds between the smoke or the flash, and then the noise of the canon reaching you, and can confirm it by using trigonometry and triangular measurements. It is about five seconds for each mile of distance between the flash of the lightning and the time one hears the thunder, for the two are directly related.”
“I did not know that.”
“It seems to be coming toward us, so we should retreat. I doubt that we will get any wetter than we already are, so we can be foolish if we like and stand under that runoff and enjoy it while we can. We cannot get any wetter than we already are, and it is pleasantly warm.”
They walked over to the conservatory and stood for a few moments under the drenching runoff from the roof, feeling its warmth in their hair and down their bodies as they laughed. There was something deliciously sensual about what they were doing. Annis could not help but laugh at his obvious enjoyment of it all. “How strange you are to enjoy such things.” In the poor light, occasionally brightened by stronger lightning flashes from cloud to cloud far above them, she could just see the rain pouring down his face as he smiled at her. She knew she would present the same sight to him. He leaned in and kissed her as the water played over all three of them.
A lightning strike seemed suddenly to hit a tree at the edge of the woods, and within a second or less, there was a sharp and loud crack of thunder that hurt their senses and threw them together in a moment of reflexive panic that set their hearts thumping. It had been unnerving, and they quickly entered the conservatory and closed off the outside as they laughed nervously.
“That scared me.” Sophia appeared to be glad to be out of it, but not sure how safe she might be in such an open room, despite the glass covering it all. She seemed to be losing her love of such storms.
“Yes, me too,” he admitted. “It was too close and not quite as enjoyable as at a distance. Right on top of us. But we are safe in here, I think. The trees will take the brunt of it as they usually do. I am wringing wet as I know both of you must be too. It may be a warm rain, but it will soon rob us of warmth so we had better get inside the house and get ourselves changed and back to our beds or….” he looked at them and smiled, “…or we can get ourselves dressed and come back here to see it all as it moves through, if the mood strikes you. I doubt any of us will be able to sleep now until it has passed. I think we should be safe enough here for the moment.”
Annis took his arm. “I think I would like to do that. I know that I will not sleep now for a while either.” They walked over to the door into the house and tried to open it, but it would not open.
“Strange.” He seemed puzzled. “I did not lock it when I came out, and they are never locked, but it feels as though it is locked now. Ah well, the other door at the rear of house must still be open. Hollis does not usually lock any of the doors unless he knows that the gypsies are about. Maybe that was it. We can get there along the side of the building. We will get even more wet I suppose, if that were possible, but at least we will be able to get in unless he locked those too.”
They returned outside and, holding onto each other, walked without any urgency, despite the storm and the wet along the edge of the dark building, noting with some relief that the storm was moving further away from them, but with another storm sweeping in along the same track from the coast if the distant lightning was any indication. The wind had died a fraction.
They tried that door too. It was also locked. “I think Hollis has locked them all for once in his life. It’s either gypsies, or the storm must have woken him up and he locked all of the doors to stop them blowing open. I seem to remember he considered such a storm as warring between gods and devils and was intent on keeping them out when they were in that kind of a mood. I wonder what would make him think they needed a door to enter by? Damn! I will have to climb into your bedroom window as I did when it was my room. I think I can maneuver the vines in the dark, though I am heavier now.”
“You can’t.” Annis pointed out to him. “I closed and latched it against the wind and rain.”
“And I did mine too, to stop the wind blowing it open, and allowing the rain to beat in. Back to the conservatory then.” They walked back and let themselves into the conservatory again.
Annis smiled at the sudden predicament they were faced with. “So what are we to do, William?”
“We can stay here all night if necessary. But we need to get ourselves dry first I would say. There is a day bed over there with a heavy coverlet on it. My mother used to spend some time out here. You and Sophia can snuggle yourselves up in that and pass me your nightclothes to dry. There is nothing I can do about it. Hollis is as deaf as a post, and I would be unable to arouse him, even if I knew which was his room. We can stay out here, and I can make up the stove if there are still some live coals in it, and I am sure there are. We can all sit around that if you would prefer. The stonework holds the heat for a long time, and it is still warm.” He touched the rocks. “It is not unpleasant here just yet and will not get that way if we can get warm enough to dry out. I used to spend a lot of time out here and even feasted upon figs when they were ripe.”
He opened the stove door and discovered that there were still live coals as he expected, and there was a good supply of dry wood nearby. There would be more after tonight, with all of the trees brought down. He loaded the large firebox up with smaller pieces that would easily catch from the embers and then added larger pieces until there was a blazing fire going.
He noticed Sophia was shivering. “You will need to get out of that wet nightdress first young lady, or you will soon be even less comfortable.” He retrieved the coverlet, and as Annis stripped off Sophia’s nightdress, he wrapped her in the coverlet, which would soon dry her, and lifted her onto the day bed.
She nodded. “There’s room for all three of us here. We could keep each other warm.”
“Yes. We could, but you and Annis can. I shall stay out here and see to the fire.”
He wrung the small nightdress out by the drain in the floor and then hung it on a line strung above the stove where it would soon dry out. The heat was beginning to rise strongly from the stove now. He could hear the wood crackling loudly and could see thin fingers of flickering golden light shining out through the air vents onto his legs. He opened the door partially to increase the draft. “You could join her if you wish, you know?” He spoke to Annis. “I would turn my back while you get out of your wet clothing and see that it gets dry for you.”
“No. She is warm enough there and wide awake as well, and I am warm enough for the moment, even if I am soaking wet.”
“Then you and I can sit here together if you like, and talk and keep each other warm. There is a large kind of straw-filled bed that was used for the dogs when they were kept out here at night. It’s a bit scratchy, but I’ve even slept on it myself once or twice. We can sit on it in front of this stove and get ourselves warm.”
He brought it out from behind the stove, sniffed at it suspiciously, turned it over, and dropped it to the floor in front of the fire and up against the wood pile. “It smells clean, and we can lean up against the wood pile here with this behind us and under us and even stretch our legs out and rest them against the stones that we use to hold the heat. Until they get too hot. The cats used to lie against it too until the stones got too warm and then they took off. We’ll soon get dry, and it does not matter if this gets damp.”
She sat herself down beside him, half sitting and half reclining, and leaned up against him as he pulled her closer into him and even kissed her once more. She sighed. “I could sleep here. It is so comfortable against you, and from the sounds of it, Sophia is asleep already.”
“No, I’m not. I’m warming up.” Sophia’s voice piped up sleepily from the shadows.
“I doubt that you would be able to sleep in all of that wet, any more than I might, but we will soon get dry.” His voice dropped as he spoke so that only Annis could hear him. “Be careful, my love, that Lady Seymour does not catch a whiff of this, especially if you find that you can go to sleep in my arms, though how she would find out about that, I do not know. I shall say nothing.”
“William. How could she possibly hear of any of it?” She struggled to her knees, pulling her nightdress free from under her, and turned to lie with her back onto him. She looked up at his face as she snuggled closer into his chest so that he could put his arms around her, and might be able to kiss her more easily, which he took the opportunity to do, and spoke so that Sophia would not overhear what she said. “To think that both this indelicate circumstance, and that earlier one, may both have been deliberately planned.” Her eyes seemed to be twinkling with amusement in the dim light.
“Do you think so? Both of them? With what end?” He knew the answer to that for himself.
“To throw us together shamelessly of course. As we are. We are also ill-dressed.”
“Yes we are. Again. And both of us too. But it is dark and there is no one else to see us. You may be right about it being a deliberate plot.” He stroked her damp hair and wrapped his arms about her as he pulled her closer. “I soon realized that yesterday’s adventure was created cleverly by her when she sought me out—as she did—and told me you were stuck up on that beam as she had been, and this one fits the same pattern. Now that I recall it, she was the one who mentioned having seen gypsies in the home wood. But how did she know Hollis would lock the doors after that?”
“William, if you do not yet know that Sophia knows everything that goes on, even to the habits of the servants, and provokes most of it, you are very slow indeed.”
He tried to imitate Lady Seymour but kept his voice low, speaking softly into Annis’s ear as she leaned back against him. “My dears, the child is obviously beyond saving, leading adults astray and into iniquitous channels,as she does.”He chuckled. “She will be fired up to write yet another letter to your mother about us both. That makes three so far by my reckoning.”
“I do not care if she does, William; not now, and I don’t think anyone else will either.” They both laughed as she turned and snuggled into him with her arms around him and her face looking up at him. She seemed to be inviting him to kiss her again, so he did.
She brought her knees up to her body once more so that she could lean more closely into him and take advantage of his warmth. As they held each other, he was deeply conscious of her breasts, not at all well hidden, pushing up against his chest and of her nightdress falling away from her legs as she continuously adjusted her position to lie on his chest as she did. She did not seem to care. They had progressed too far for any such considerations of appearance to mar them being able to relax intimately with each other. He knew that he presented as embarrassing an appearance as she did, and much as they had at the trough that day at Underby as they had sat very close to each other. “I find that I do not want to sleep, William. I like what we are doing, so you have no need to stop kissing me, you know?”
After some moments of such tender affection and with them both becoming breathless, she smiled at the obvious effects she was having on his composure and allowed him to rest for a while. She snuggled further down onto him and closed her eyes, feeling his hand upon her bare knee and holding her close. She knew that he watched her for some time, fighting with his own turbulent feelings as she was dealing with her own, as she occasionally opened her own to catch him smiling upon her.
He must have dozed off with the warmth from her body, her closeness, and the added warmth from the stove. He awoke some time later to discover that he was alone and partially covered by a corner of the bedding.
The woodstove had been made up earlier and was throwing out its warmth. In the first glimmer of morning light, he saw that there were two nightdresses now hanging over the top of the stove and seemed to be drying well. He was relieved to find that his own was now mostly dry. He smiled. He looked over to the day bed and saw Annis watching him from under the coverlet. She was wide awake and smiling at him too.
“Well, you were brave to have done that, my love. What would you have done if I had awoken?”
“But you did not awake when I left you and made up the wood stove, and I was far too noisy about it.”
“Yes, that was reckless of you. But why did you do that and risk me waking up?” He did not really need to ask.
“I refuse to say for the moment. You are really a sheep in wolves clothing I can see. You are all bluster and not much for a girl to fear.” Her loving smile robbed her comments of any hurtful intent.
“Girls have no need to fear me. Young ladies—one young lady, should.”
She studied him. “Yet I don’t. I think you fear me more than I might fear you.” She looked at him with a smile on her face, not realizing how true that comment was. “I must have been tired last night. I do not clearly remember getting in here with Sophia after that, but it is very warm. Tell me, William, how are we to get back into the house without alerting everyone to this second questionable adventure we have got ourselves embroiled in?”
“Each hurdle in turn, my dear. Hollis will unlock all of the house doors when he wakes, which should not be very long now. We shall hear the lock turn. I don’t think he is in the habit of checking out here at all or making the stove up, so when he has done that we can all creep back into the house.”
“You will need to pass us our nightclothes first when mine is dry, and we shall get dressed under here.”
“That will be no fun for me. I was hoping I might help you again. I need to become practiced at it. Sophia does not object to my helping her in that way, and nor should you. But yes.” he continued. “If he does happen to come out here, you two shall just lie still and say nothing. You will be hidden away under the cover, unseen, and I shall sit here and let him know in a severe tone that he locked me out, but I shall also tell him that I forgive him, for I am comfortable and contented. He’s found me out here before when I was younger, though I was not locked out then, so it will not surprise him too much. He laughs at my attempted severity anyway, for he knows I mean him no harm. As well as being deaf, he is as blind as a bat, and will not notice nightdresses drying. At least I hope he doesn’t. But even if he does, he will say nothing and he will not see either of you to know that they should not be there.”
She snuggled down lower under the coverlet to join Sophia, feeling contented and safe and confident in herself at that moment.